NORTH SHORE — It was just after dawn, and America’s most famous fly fisherman (if we’re not counting Brad Pitt) was standing behind my car, getting his rod ready, and half-listening to me prattle on about all the reasons I hated fly-fishing.
“Don’t overthink it,” Tom Rosenbauer tossed out to me, like that was an option. “What we do is really stupid, and if you think too much about it you’ll quit fishing.”
But I was not interested in quitting fishing. I quite like catching fish, which is something that actually happens from time to time when I’m using a conventional rod. No, I was thinking of quitting fly-fishing, the most insufferable kind of fishing, and certainly the least effective.
Last year, I tried, and tried, and tried to catch a striped bass with a fly rod. And I failed, and failed, and failed again. But here’s the worst part: I felt handsome doing it.
Which is somehow Brad Pitt’s fault. If he hadn’t looked so darn handsome playing a fly fisherman in “A River Runs Through It,” then I never would have gone to fly-fishing school, never would have bought all the absurdly expensive gear, never would have tried to learn the balletic — and maddening — mechanics of casting a fly rod.
But feeling handsome can only go so far, especially if you are not Brad Pitt. So as the season ended with exactly zero fish hooked, I was on the verge of quitting fly-fishing forever and going back permanently to my conventional rod and reel, the one that actually catches fish.
If anyone was going to change my mind, it was the 68-year-old Rosenbauer. I mean, the guy’s job title is “chief enthusiast” for the fly-fishing wing of Orvis, the Vermont outfitter where he has worked for more than four decades. In addition to hosting the Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast, by far the most popular on the topic, he has written several books — including a new one called “Trout” — and stars in the company’s massive library of video tutorials on fly-fishing. This includes a 40-minute masterpiece called “How to Catch Striped Bass on a Fly” that I’d studied like a treasure hunter, looking for clues to explain how I could be so bad at that very task.
So as another spring arrived, I reached out to Rosenbauer with a desperate plea, like he was a fly-casting Obi-Wan Kenobi: Help me catch a fish, Tom Rosenbauer; you’re my only hope.
And so it was that we met at dawn on a recent morning, on the coast not too far from my house, with the promise that he would indeed lead me to a fish.
Seven hours later, after thousands of casts, three different locations, and zero fish for either of us, he would look over at me and say: “Maybe you really are bad luck.”
But he delivered it with that soothing, encouraging Tom Rosenbauer voice, which has become so iconic in the fly-fishing world — even more recognizable than his face — that he says he can no longer go into fly shops because someone’s gonna recognize his cadence and then wanna talk forever.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when he’d agreed to take my case and take me fishing for the day, but it involved a lot of fishing. And then more fishing. At one point, after five hours of constant casting, I made the modest suggestion that perhaps we might want to eat lunch. “I don’t eat while I’m fishing,” he declared. And if Tom Rosenbauer does not eat while fishing, then neither do I. Lunch is for losers!
He wasn’t heavy-handed with me and my poor skills. Instead, he went with very occasional, light encouragement, at one point making me positively beam inside when he said my cast was perfectly fine. Did you hear that? The Tom Rosenbauer said my cast was perfect! Or maybe it was just fine. Either way, I was back to feeling handsome.
A lot of anglers try to sell you on the romance of fly-fishing. Rosenbauer never did that; he simply lived it. His casting was elegant, dare I say beautiful, with a command that can only be achieved through decades of repetition. On the end of his line, as always, was a fly he had crafted himself, an alchemy of feathers and fabric tied just so as to turn a picky eater into a glutton.
When he “read the water,” as they say, looking for clues as to what might be going on down below, it was with that same sort of hard-earned knowledge. At one point he told me he hated the phrase “you have to think like a fish.” That’s impossible, he said. Rosenbauer thought like a fisherman, and he gauged whether a spot had potential or not by weighing it against the thousands of similar spots he’s thrown his line into over the years.
With all that, it was only at our third location, somewhere in our eight hours of casting, that Rosenbauer actually hooked a fish. I take his word for this, because I did not witness it; instead, I was further down the marsh, seeking out a quiet spot where I could throw my rod into the water and just buy my fish at Market Basket like everyone else.
It was a tiny striped bass, a young schoolie, he told me, but it was still more than my life total. As he told me about it, he insisted I try something new, which was to take his Helios 3D rod and Mirage V reel, the latest high-end models from Orvis that will run you nearly two grand. He had made the same offer at the beginning of the day, but I had resisted because I would just end up with a rod and reel, which already cost more than I’d told my wife.
But desperate times call for desperately expensive gear, as all outdoorsmen know. So I took his rod, cast it a few times (oh man, was it niiice), and on my fourth or fifth attempt, I felt, for the first time in my fly-fishing life, the unmistakable presence of a fish on the line.
At this moment, I shouted several incomprehensible things — mostly primal, guttural moans — and soon I was holding a striped bass so small it looked like the bait for the bait. But it was a fish, and I think Rosenbauer was as excited as I was. He quickly asked for my phone, took the obligatory Holy-cow-I-actually-caught-a-fish photos, and we sent it back on its way.
And then it got worse. This whole problem. This whole fly-fishing drama of mine.
You ever hit a nice golf shot? Or send a three-pointer so crisply through the net that it smacks like it’s wet? That feeling right there? It’s a curse. It immediately wears off, and in its place is a taunting lie, the one that says, “Maybe if I keep doing this, if I get better, that feeling will happen all the time.”
I awoke the next morning, and the first thing I thought of was getting back on the water and casting. But first, obviously, I needed a new rod and reel.
And since there was zero chance my wife was gonna let me drop two grand on a new Orvis setup, I did the next best thing and Googled “What kind of rod did Brad Pitt use in ‘A River Runs Through It’?”