A Good Non-Catch
—an essay by Caroline Beaton

A young southern fishing guide teaches you how to fly-fish this summer on the ranch in  Wyoming where you work. You would hardly classify yourself as an angler, but you do fly-fish. You just don’t catch. 

You arrive on the ranch and meet your guide. He is not that young; he is twenty-two and you are eighteen and he will point this out frequently. But you don’t know he’s your guide yet. You think he has a very sexy southern drawl but is a little short. You listen to him talk about how his family owns the bottom half of South Carolina. You like his smile. When he finds out you like to fish he’s thrilled. “I’m a fishing guide here,” he tells you. You know. You’re a housekeeper. He knows. You tell him you really do love to fly-fish but you’re not particularly good at it. He says he’ll teach you how. Your last boyfriend taught you last summer and you never caught anything. But this is a new summer, new river, new fish. You’ll have better luck this time.

Once on the riverbank you remember some things, but your young southern fishing guide teaches you like you’re a beginner. You are glad. Still, he makes you nervous. Very nervous. You stand, rod in hand, with your body facing upstream. Your young southern fishing guide stands behind you, helping you grip the rod with his right hand while grazing his left against your waist. It’s all about the elbow, not the wrist. With your right hand holding the rod, thumb on top, fingers underneath, you move your
forearm back and forth. “You’re not whipping anything around,” your guide tells you, stooping to grab his beer teetering on marsh grass. “It’s a simple motion,” he says as his beer-less hand meets your elbow, directing your arm back toward his body, lingering until all the line is behind you, then pushing it forward toward the river. The swift motion lands the line in the water. “Like that.” Your guide takes a drink, sits down, and pats the ground next to him. You are happy to set down the rod. 

 You have many such lessons after the first one. Previous lessons with your ex entailed him fishing and you watching. In the second wave you learn much more—primarily that line, especially with a fly tied on, especially with trees behind you, especially when tossed carelessly and distractedly on the ground, and especially when you don’t really care about actually catching fish, gets easily tangled. You also learn that your guide is an excellent line untangle-er. He is useful. And sexy. So was your last boyfriend, but he was more sexy than useful, and you kept him more out of habit than passion, and you miss him greatly when you sit down next to your young southern fishing guide.

 A real fisherman knows how to tie his own flies. Your guide is a real fisherman. He teaches you how with his calloused man hands wrapping the tag line six or seven times around the standing line. “We should go camping,” he pauses mid-twist and looks up at you, “I know a good place near here.” Then he inserts the tag line into the loop created between the eye of the fly and the first twist in the line. He pulls the tag line through another loop above the twisted line he just created. Then he spits on it. This is the most important part, he tells you. “You gotta get it reallllly wet,” he says with a wink in your direction, “like nice and lubricated, you know?” He puts the line in his mouth and draws it back out. A trail of saliva follows. He holds onto the standing end with one hand and the fly in the other and pulls tight. You say, “Yeah sure let’s camp” with no intention then of spending your free nights pining over your ex-boyfriend, although that’s what you do, wishing later you’d let your young southern fishing guide pitch a tent. He clips the leftover tag line close to his new knot and glances over at you, with satisfaction. If only your ex-boyfriend had taught you the spitting trick, you think. Would that have solved everything? 

 You get several bites throughout the summer, but none stay on the line. When people ask how fishing went you say, “I got a bite!” But everyone knows that doesn’t mean anything. Your guide tries to teach you that when you get a strike you have to yank up on the line as soon as you feel it. If you wait too long, the hook won’t set and the fish will get away. You try to set the hook on time, but you are often distracted and often apathetic and you never set it quite right. 

 Your young southern guide takes you fishing frequently. You get pretty good. You are a decent caster and know the hot spots (in the shade), what flies to use (San Juan worm, Copper John, and Batman Nymph) and when to go (after three or whenever he gets off work). He has taught you well but wishes the two of you did more than fly-fish.

After dinner on his last night he takes you to the river, sets up your rod and sits with you.“This is called the sit and wait,” your guide informs you. You get impatient with the sit and wait and he tells you that’s what fishing is all about. You don’t catch anything then either. You decide that night that you like him, that your ex-boyfriend was a real jerk, and your young southern fishing guide subsequently decides he’s too old for you and wishes you had liked him earlier. Before you have time to figure out what you are actually doing, with regard to fly-fishing and your non-existent relationship, he leaves the next day and the brutal truth of the matter remains: you can’t catch a fucking fish.

Caroline Beaton graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with a degree in Creative Writing and attended the University of Cambridge’s Summer Writing Program in 2013. Her work has been published in Necessary Fiction Magazine, Elephant Journal and HOLSTEE Magazine, among other places. In addition to being a writer, Caroline does marketing for a chai company and teaches yoga.