I confess. I have spent literally thousands upon thousands of dollars in pursuit of fine fishing equipment: rods, reels, lures, flies, you name it. I have taken casting lessons from professionals and have hired expensive guides. I have bought boats, and I have flown on airplanes: all to catch a FISH! Note: many of these identical fish swim in the Ottauquechee River, which is near my own doorstep. I am not bragging. This is a cry for help. Pity me. As I would scurry around high-end fly-fishing shops looking for the perfect fly pattern, Mister Trout was literally swimming underneath my waders and feeding on common WORMS!
Now, I must admit that the lowly worm has many redeeming values, which are often overlooked in the pursuit of more expensive gear. For instance, worms come from good, black soil which is still mostly free. Free is good, especially for a young boy. Compare this to a nice “Wooly Bugger.” This fly comes from an LL Bean shop, was tied in China and is generally expensive, especially when you lose a bunch of them. If you lose a worm, you simply go get another. When you lose a fly, you will spend fifteen minutes searching for it in the tall grass (to no avail mind you) because there are no LL Bean shops near you and China is even further. Worms are eco-friendly. They come in coffee cans, a thing you have used at the camp. Flies come in plastic boxes, a thing which you will burn in the fire and pollute the air. Worms will not jump out of the can. Flies seemingly just lie in their boxes, but they are waiting to fall into the weeds. They are very sneaky that way. Oddly then, the inanimate object gets to go free, while the living creature gets to be food. Go figure. Worms are ugly and wiggle when you stick them. This adds to the juvenile fun. Flies are adult and boring, yet pretty. You use the flies to try and outsmart the fish, but the fish doesn’t want to be “outsmarted.” It just wants to eat a worm.
As a boy, I started with worms but quickly moved up to “the harder stuff.” Soon, it wasn’t simply worms. There were grasshoppers, tadpoles, mudpuppies, frogs and salmon eggs, too. I grew callous. It was all just fish food to me. My parents worried as I would head into the woods with a BB gun or a spade to hunt my bait. “Grow up,” they said, “go fly fishing.” But I couldn’t. I was catching fish, and a kid who is catching fish will catch a passion before the kid who is catching nothing. I stubbornly clung to my worms.
So, when did I give up on the magnificent earthworm? I think it had to do with becoming an adult. Puberty set in with all of its confusing cruelty. I had a small job helping my father who was a plumber. I made some money and immediately I had a testosterone-fueled need to blow it all on “stuff.” Cars were too expensive. I didn’t make that much. Girls were too confusing and more expensive than cars. According to my mother, drugs and alcohol were out of the question. Fly fishing seemed to make a good compromise amongst them all, and I soon traded in my stash of bobbers, sinkers, swivels and monofilament line for more a more exotic offering of Blue Wing Olives, Pheasant Tail Nymphs, colorful Strike Indicators and custom-tied leaders. The money slipped through my fingers in an unstoppable torrent. With flashlight in hand, I thumbed through the Orvis catalog under the covers at night, engrossed with the pictures of fly rods.
Through all this maturing I caught less fish and had fewer girlfriends because I became obsessed with gear. As a young man, I joined the club of those who would peer down their long noses at people who fished with spinning gear and even those gear people would avoid the bait fisherman as though they had stepped in dog poop. There was a social pecking order observed on any river and the bait fisherman with his stringer full of trout was at the bottom. “I’m a catch and release guy,” I would say importantly as I gently placed my thousand-dollar Sage rod and empty creel into the trunk of my car. “Well, I’m a filet and eat kind of guy myself,” the worm-dunker often answered as he tossed a mess of fish and his gear rudely into the back of a pickup.
And so, by observation, I learned. There is real value in digging up a shovel-full of dirt and picking the worms from the soil. How does one bait a hook, catch a fish, kill it properly, clean it and cook it up for that night’s dinner or the next morning’s breakfast? What was the value of that life now frying in bacon grease on a small fire? From the worm to the fish to me: all life goes on. It doesn’t get any better or more poignant than that.
I’m older now, and some might say “wiser.” Others might counter with “nuts.” But what I have learned is not to be a snob. I’m no longer particular. If I thought that the rainbow trout wanted to eat meat, then I would be the first person out on the river with a perfectly executed roll cast from my exquisite five-weight Orvis rod and a stick of pepperoni on the end of my line. My fish would all taste like pizza. Yum!
See you on the river!