Picture of Boyd Matson fly-fishing

Reel life: the author and his wife in Utah.

Photograph by Boyd Matson

By Boyd Matson

From the December 2012/January 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler

It’s 8 a.m.—a bit late for “real” fly fishermen to be starting the day, but we’re on vacation. More to the point, we’re not real fly fishermen. My wife, Betty, claims some experience fishing for crabs with a string and chicken necks as a kid in Georgia, and I spent many hours in my youth with a rod and reel casting for bass on small lakes in Texas. But both of our “skills” share only the word “fishing” with what we will be doing this morning on the Middle Provo River near Park City, Utah. It’s the equivalent of having prepared for a debut concert at Carnegie Hall with one night of intoxicated karaoke singing.

Although Betty has never been fly-fishing, she has seen the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It. When she so readily agrees to try the sport, I can’t help but speculate she must have assumed we will encounter a young Brad Pitt on the river. We don’t, but we do find Hunter Shotwell, our fishing guide. Like Brad’s character in the movie, he is young, charming, and knows everything there is to know about fly-fishing. He says he’s been fishing seriously since he was eight. He also informs us that it’s “just a short walk—maybe 15 or 20 minutes” from our parking space to a “really good spot for catching trout.” And with those words, on an otherwise perfect morning of windless, cloudless, sunny blue skies, I sense the potential for a storm.

My wife’s idea of a hike is the walk from the parking garage to her office. She sees no need to cover terrain that can’t be negotiated in dress-for-success shoes. Most of all, she gets no palpable endorphin rush from any activity associated with the phrase “working up a good sweat.” As she is quick to tell me, “It’s not that I can’t do it, it’s that I don’t want to do it.” She’s also quick to point out that her joints remain spry—unlike those of exercise-loving me, whose orthopedist is on speed dial.

In the name of adventure, I’ve been willing to take some risks that reasonable people might consider ill-advised. But when I see the first beads of perspiration forming on my wife’s brow, I worry I might have stepped over the line into a realm of consequences even I’m not willing to accept. Remembering the plaque she bought for our house that says, “If mamma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” I reach back and take her hand and lead her over rocks and through small streams pocked with unseen holes. I’m determined to get to our fishing spot without anyone falling, and as quickly as possible. I’m betting that if she can just get a trout on the end of a line, all the effort of getting here will be forgotten, and the day—and the beginning of our vacation—will be considered a success.

This whole trip is a bit of an experiment: Let’s try something we haven’t done before and see what happens. The adventure began at a charity auction. To help start the bidding, we put our names down for a weeklong trip to Park City, Utah. No one else bid. We arrive out West having given no thought to how we will spend the next seven days. We only know that any seriously strenuous activities will fall late in the week, after Betty has returned to work. The Park City area, in the Wasatch mountains, is populated by outfitters for every type of activity a traveler’s heart might desire—hiking, climbing, rafting, biking, caving, historical tours, spa treatments, and, of course, fly-fishing. Rather than shopping around, we decide we’ll let one small company do all the planning for us. All we have to do is tell the company a number of days—and that one of us has a no-sweating rule while the other needs some adventure. It’s someone else’s problem to solve that jigsaw puzzle.

The outfitter’s plans for us range from a concert by the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir to a visit to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. Yet the success of this whole “and now for something completely different” vacation seems to ride on day one’s excursion—a fact I’m painfully aware of by the time we finally reach Hunter’s special fishing hole on the Middle Provo. He immediately relieves some of my anxiety by explaining that we won’t be trying to duplicate the highly skilled style of fly-casting made famous in the movie. Instead we will be trying a technique called “chuck and duck.” Lucky for us, there are no points for form; all we have to do is heave the line upriver, let it float past, and heave it again. Much to my surprise, it works, and within 15 minutes I’ve caught a couple of trout. And much to my relief, Betty has soon caught a nice-size fish, too. We catch and release several more as the morning goes on, but most important we are smiling and enjoying the outdoors in a gorgeous setting while doing something we have never done before, together.

Later, two guys making artful casts about 50 yards downriver—clearly they’re real fly fishermen—yell that they haven’t caught anything, wondering if we’re having any luck. That’s when I know the real secret to our success: finding Hunter. He’s the one picking the right flies, tying them, untangling our lines, and telling us where to chuck and duck. Sometimes not having a plan works—if you can find the right person to make the plans for you. As we hike back, I know it’s going to be a great vacation when Betty doesn’t mention how far we are walking, or the rough terrain, or the drops of sweat. Instead she’s talking about the ones that didn’t get away.

Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on the radio.

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