fly fishing and genealogy: time does “fly”

It’s been nearly 40 years since I pulled on a pair of waders and entered a cold stream intent on catching a trout.  Back then, the waders were just tall rubber boots that were hard to pull on and always leaked.  I remember filling them more than once with that cold rushing water, feet downstream, butt bumping off rocks as I tried to extricate myself from now very heavy galoshes.  Nothing like the Gortex sock-footed chest waders of today.  Dry.  Comfortable.  Sure footed.

Smoke Hole is an almost mystical place on the South Branch of the Potomac River.  A single-lane narrow road leads into the upper canyon.  Sunlight reaches the water in late morning and leaves by mid-afternoon, due to the high mountains on either side.  Campsites are by the water or perched on the ledges above the road, sometimes even making use of an old cave.   Grandparents with grandsons make memories for a lifetime.

Grandpap, me, and Wes

South Helton Creek is not Smoke Hole.  It is, however, a two hour drive from my home and a favorite of my fishing buddy and our guide.  And while the geography is decidedly different, the sound of moving clear cold water is constant.

A lot has changed with fishing over the past four decades.  The 5-weight nine foot fly rod I use today is not top-of-the-line by any means, but the graphite blanks and alloy guides are a far cry from the bamboo and fiberglass rods of the past.  Self-winding reels are no longer seen.  Weight-forward floating lines and fluorocarbon leaders are a small part of the new technology that gives added advantage to the fisherman over the fish.  My grandfather never dreamt of such weapons being in his armamentarium for trout.

While I have not yet taken up fly-tying as a pastime, my guide on this trip has achieved expert marksman status.  With a fine surgeon’s skill, his custom flies are specifically designed for the waters of the day’s trip.  Consisting of some natural materials and some synthetic, again the advantage has moved to the angler as the bait more than ever simulates nature.  My grandfather’s tackle box contained some artificial lures, but cheese eggs and a seine net were the essential ways to bait for trout.  Setting the seine and overturning upsteam rocks in the cold fast water, allowing the creatures from the bottom to float in the current into the net, was an early morning ritual to prepare for the day.  I haven’t seen a seine net in years.

Gear.  And more gear.  And more technology.  Polarized wrap-around sunglasses with floating croakie straps, SPF-50 synthetic blend shirts with vents, neoprene sock-foot Gortex waders with fleece-lined pockets for warming your hands, chest packs with magnetic closures, lanyards with retractable attachments, beautiful clear synthetic nets invisible to the trout — my uncle’s eyes would widen and lips would purse at such a plethora of devices “needed” to fish.

And yet with all of the profound changes and differences in equipment and gear, the first step from the creek bank into that clear rushing cold water erases the time chasm of four decades.  You realize the sameness of the experience.  Casting to a likely spot on the water, prospecting for a trout.  The twitch in the line and the hook-up with the trout as you lay back on the rod and feel the weight of the fish for the first time.  My grandfather felt this same thrill.  And my uncles.  And my dad.  And now me, again.

Grandpap & Uncle Jackie on Cheat River

The absolute beauty of a rainbow trout has not altered with the years.  Variations in color and size keep me anxiously waiting to peer in the net at each fish caught.  My ancestors surely did the same, and saw nature’s beauty and variety as I do today.  Not so much has changed.

Genealogy and fly-fishing?  A closer “tie” than you might imagine at first glance.  The fly fishing experience can be a bridge to our sportsman ancestors.  A rare chance to share that spine-tingling sensation, standing in a cold early spring or winter stream, as the line goes tight and the fish begins its run, much as it has for decades.  Time is erased and we are there beside them once more.

Trout and fly photos by Jeff Wilkins

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