Fortunately, working at Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR), it was not hard to find out where to start my fly-fishing mission. "Call Ken Pavol," everyone said. "He's the person you need to talk to."
So I gave him a call. Ken's the Western Regional Manager for the Fisheries Division of DNR. He's been working for the department since 1974. He started at DNR when I started nursery school.
So when I called Ken, he humored me.
"Where's the best place to fly-fish in Maryland?" I asked.
"The Savage River," he replied.
"Can you take me there and show me the ropes?"
"Well," he said, and then paused, "have you been fly-fishing before?"
"No," I answered.
I can only imagine what Ken was actually thinking at this point. His response went a long way toward helping me understand what I was getting into.
"OK," he said. "We can give it a try but it's kind of like learning to ski on a black diamond or play golf at Pebble Beach."
Well I've never done either but I figured, how hard can it be? I mean, really...
Go West Young Man
We sat in a local breakfast shop and talked for a bit, discussing the history of the Savage River. I learned that the Savage was host to the 1989 Whitewater Paddling World Championships. And then it was off.
After a 10-minute casting lesson, we hit the water. And it was pretty special water. The Savage River is beautiful. Surrounded by luscious green, the river makes its way from the Savage Reservoir, down and around rocks of all shapes and sizes. The sound alone will make you feel as if you've gone to heaven. And, according to Ken, this place is loaded with trout, both native brook and wild brown trout.
A recent population survey of the river found more than 1,300 wild adult trout per mile. The survey also showed there are about 350 brown trout 12 inches or greater, and 65 brook trout greater than nine inches per mile. To top it off, rainbow trout can also be caught routinely in the Savage River tail water; they either swim over the Savage River Reservoir Dam spillway or up from the North Branch of the Potomac River.
All those fish, just waiting to be caught. This was a can't-miss situation, even for a first-timer like me. Ken assured me even I could catch something in these fertile waters.
Fast My Friend...
It started in 1982, when DNR first documented the presence of a naturally reproducing brook trout population. Soon thereafter, new water release guidelines were implemented from the dam to improve year-round habitat conditions for trout survival. In 1987, fishery management diverged from put and take stocking of hatchery rainbow trout to wild trout management in a small portion of the river.
An effort was made to see if the trout could sustain their population without help from stocking. Management was so successful that stocking ceased and the entire four miles of the tail water was managed as a wild trophy trout fishery by 1991.
To me this meant the fish I was trying to catch had some experience in fending for themselves. Hatchery fish tend to be a bit less street smart, or in this case, stream smart. Fish living in the Savage have never known the luxury of daily hatchery feedings. Their well-known wiliness is just another reason why the Savage has been featured on ESPN and been written about in numerous national fishing publications.
It was time to get down to business. Ken and I got our feet wet and he started casting. We had only taken one pole out to start, and he was using it. He kept casting, explaining everything to me in detail. While I was listening, I desperately wanted to try for myself. Finally Ken said those magic words I had been waiting for.
"Now you give it a try."
I was ready - or as ready as I was going to be with 10 minutes of training....
Then I started to false cast. False casting is waving the fly back and forth in the air a few times without allowing it to hit the water. I assumed there was a technical reason we did this. Possibly the trout could see the fly in the air I thought. Turns out, it's to dry off the fly so it floats better.
But the most important thing about false casting is it looks cool. You feel like a pro when you false cast, or at least I did, and I was false casting like a pro in no time. Until, of course, one of my dummy casts slammed into the water, causing every trout within 100 feet to scatter instantly. Soon thereafter my line got snagged on a tree branch behind me.
But that didn't slow me down. I was hitting my spots with impeccable accuracy. Ken legitimately seemed impressed with me. I was so proud of myself. Not 15 minutes had gone by and I was feeling like a seasoned veteran.
Unfortunately, that was pretty much all I was doing. It seems the trout were well aware of my novice status and thus not interested in helping me out. My attempts to catch them were futile. But I persevered.
And then it happened. Not much later that morning, I placed a picture perfect cast exactly where I wanted it. As the fly started to float downstream, time stood still. If you've never stood in the middle of the Savage River, just below the footbridge, you're missing out.
The river itself averages about 55 feet in width and has a moderate-to-steep gradient. The river's substrate is composed mainly of boulders and cobble, providing an abundance of pocket water habitat. That's a very technical way to say it's a bit steep and there are lots of rocks. Great big rocks.
There are many deep pools, and the stream bottom can become quite slippery due to algal growth, which I learned firsthand. A step here and a misstep there and before I knew it, splash -- right on my back.
My first thought was to snap my rod back and start to reel. I hadn't even finished snapping the rod back, but my mind was somewhere else, counting the incredible number of trout I was to catch during the rest of the afternoon.
No sooner had my daydream started than it was over. In the same lightning quick moment she hit, she turned, spit out the fly, smiled at me and returned to the depths of the Savage. I missed her. She was gone and I was mad. Not disappointed, not dejected... mad. What the heck did I do wrong? No problem, I thought. I'll get her. So I recast my rod to the exact spot and waited. Nothing. I recast. Nothing, and again, nothing.
At this point, Ken revealed two things to me. One, the brown trout I almost hooked is the toughest of the trout to catch; in the Savage, it's the jewel. Ninety percent of the battle in catching a brown trout is convincing it to strike so I was doing a great job. He also said you get only one shot.
So there it was, my chance for glory, down the stream, literally. I could go on and on about other missed opportunities as there were many. But there was still plenty of day left. Shortly after the brown trout escaped, Ken got his second pole and I was on my own. I felt like I had graduated and could fly solo. Or fly-fish solo.
We split up and I continued to fish. Could it be? Was I now a fly-fisherman? A quick look upstream and I saw Ken. He appeared to be one with his surroundings. I, on the other hand, spent a good part of the morning and afternoon untangling my line and explaining to Ken that I had lost another fly in the trees.
We met up a few times, once spending a good 20 minutes in an effort to catch one tricky trout. Ken could somehow see the trout rise in the water. I couldn't. So he pointed out a particular fish and I cast. BAM! The trout hit the fly but got away. Again a second time and again, strike three. Ken had told me I get one shot with these fish, but this trout seemed to feel bad for me. The pesky little fish hit my line three times, but I still couldn't hook him before he retreated to his river home.
I got four or five more hits during the afternoon, none resembling the morning's first brown trout experience. It really didn't matter; I was fly-fishing on the Savage. I didn't catch anything that day. I can't really feel too bad since Ken didn't catch anything either (I promised him I wouldn't say that so lets keep it between ourselves).
I realized I am not a fly-fisherman -- not yet. I learned how to fly-fish that morning. I skied the black diamond, played golf at Pebble Beach. I also learned that it is going to take years and years of mornings on the Savage to become a fly-fisherman.
Thanks, Ken. Give me a few years -- I'll make you proud!
For more information on fly-fishing visit http://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries