A fly fishing journey that began with a single cast
This week we decided to change things up and talk a bit about fly fishing. Problem is, I don’t know a thing about it. I’ve never been. So I asked for a little help from accountant-cum-fly-fishing-guide Kevin Hoar, and he agreed to tell me all about the sport.
I began by asking how he got started, expecting to hear how it was a deep-seated family tradition passed on for three generations. It wasn’t. Kevin’s first time fly fishing was well past adolescence, and it was actually a gift to his father. It was the summer of ’04, and Kevin was freshly returned home from college in Arkansas. He’d spent the last half-decade away from Bend, Oregon, completing a degree in education, and he wanted to say thanks to his dad for helping out. So Kevin hired a guide and set up a fly fishing tour for three, inviting a close college friend along for the ride.
Then the Fates got involved. Instead of being the perfect thank-you for Dad, the trip set Kevin on a path that would forever define the landscape of his life. That day, he unearthed a passion for fly fishing he never knew was in him. It would dominate the entirety of that first summer, then move on to nurture a lifelong hobby and part-time career in the tourism industry. Oh, and in case you’re wondering: his dad loved the trip as well.
As with most of us orange-and-green-blooded Oregonians, Kevin had been exposed to angling as a kid, but it was of the spinning reel variety, the kind which usually involved losing Rooster Tails on rocks or dunking worms to death. He just wasn’t that into it. But the first time he had a trout rise up from the depths of the Deschutes to slurp his fly off the surface of the water, Kevin was sold. “They say the tug’s the drug. I know that sounds kind of lame, but it’s true,” he told me. I asked for clarification, reminding him I hadn’t even seen that Brad Pitt fly fishing movie from the 1990s. He flyplained it for me. “I learned right away that I really like the feeling when fish eat dry flies.”
It seemed a simple and honest enough reason for taking on a lifelong hobby, but as Kevin shared more and more details of that first fishing trip, I noticed something more to it all. Something huge. Beneath the flies and the tugs and the trout ran a deeper refrain to Kevin’s retelling of the tale, one much stronger than the adrenaline rush of the hunt. Take, for example, how he describes the defining moment of the trip.
For most of the story, Kevin sets the stage. It’s on a perfect gravel bar in the river, with perfect light, in perfect shade, and in perfect silence. The three of them had spent all day on the river. They’re sore. They’re weatherbeaten. But they all have smiles on their faces…
…when suddenly it happens. All three of them have fish on at the same time. It’s a moment so sacred in the angling world, it has its own name: the Triple Hookup. At this point in the tale Kevin is rushing with excitement, to the point I can almost hear the whoops and laughter behind his voice. He tells how his own fish is stripping out more line from his reel than any other he’d hooked that day. (The description involved something called Dacron backing.)
Then he sighs wistfully. “It was awesome.” There’s a short, silent reverie.
Wait, hold on—that’s it? I may not know fly fishing, but I do know how a fish story goes, and this wasn’t it. How big were these fish? How many pounds? Whose was biggest? Whose got away just within reach of the net? I asked Kevin whether all three anglers landed their catches.
“Let’s just say we did,” he chuckled, perfectly content with his conclusion.
That’s when I got it. This conversation had little to do with fish, tackle, or technique. I was getting a contemporary, oral version of “Big Two-Hearted River,” only Kevin’s tale wouldn’t carry the dark undertones of World War I and post-traumatic stress of Hemingway’s short story. At least I hoped it wouldn’t. I can’t imagine college in Arkansas being all that bad, even as a native Oregonian.
For the next half hour, Kevin unpacked his fifteen-year journey with fly fishing for me to see. After that fateful day on the Deschutes, he spent the whole summer pouring himself into learning the art of fly rod and reel. This was 2004, so YouTube wasn’t there with a bajillion instructional videos to get you started. Kevin had to go it the old-fashioned way. He tagged along with a few friends who angled, and he asked lots of questions. When he wasn’t out on the river, practicing his overhand and roll casts, he was hanging out at the fly shop (which was coincidentally owned by his good friend, Scott Cook), where he studied entomology; a huge part of Fly Fishing 101 is knowing which bugs the trout eat, when those bugs hatch, and which flies can be used as stunt doubles on the end of a fishing line.
Kevin admits he might have gone a bit overboard that first year. “I’m obsessive-compulsive that way,” he told me. “If I care about something, I immediately get into it. I want to know everything about it.” He’s not kidding. The next year, he started working as a guide for Fly & Field Outfitters, the shop owned by his friend, Scott.
The gig practically fell into his lap, one of those right-place-at-the-right-time scenarios. While Kevin was in the fly shop, practicing for his yellow belt in bug-fu, his friend hastily offered him a guiding spot in an upcoming trip. “Scott needed a guide in a pinch. He just asked me, ‘Do you know how to row a boat? Can you keep it upright?’” It was a chance for more time on the water, so Kevin naturally said yes. He enjoyed the experience so much that he insisted on a more permanent role in the outfit. “I told Scott: ‘I have a degree in education. Put me to work.’” He must have been one hell of an oarsman, because he got the job.
Guiding proved to be as much a lesson for Kevin as it was for the people he taught. He compares the experience to his time spent coaching youth soccer: trial by other people’s errors. When you’re out there swinging a rod around, you can’t watch yourself do it. If you mess up, you’re sometimes clueless as to what went wrong. But spend a few hours a week watching newcomers have a go, and you’ll see that same mistake over and over, from a third-person, analytical point of view. Once you recognize the source of the problem, you’re not only able to offer constructive critique to your client, you can also pocket the knowledge to apply to your own technique, on your own time.
Being part of Fly & Field kept Kevin on the up-and-up of fly fishing. He familiarized himself with the week-to-week conditions of the Deschutes, and learned the seasonal rhythm of the river as a whole. The job also offered a taste of the newest technologies and techniques long before they entered the local angling circles. One such bit of insider knowledge was when an angling sales rep provided a casting lesson for the Spey cast at the fly shop.
Even Kevin’s flysplanation didn’t help me with this one. I had to Google it. In the fly angling world, the Spey is a technique somewhat steeped in mystique. It’s not a single cast, per se, but a family of casting techniques suited to very specific conditions, many of which involve wind and water flow direction. Some online anglers claim the Spey is one of the most difficult casting techniques to master. When I watched a video of the cast’s execution, I was convinced it was invented by Indiana Jones or Simon Belmont. It’s actually Scottish in origin, developed way back in the mid-19th century along the Spey River, which has a profile much like that of the Lower Deschutes: wide, swift, with lots of tall, line-snatching vegetation on the shore which prevents a standard back cast.
The Spey was gaining popularity in Central Oregon, one that bordered on trendiness in 2008, which was coincidentally the same year Kevin became interested in steelhead fishing. These enormous, anadromous rainbow trout that spawned up the Deschutes were the perfect quarry for a cast invented to catch salmon from the River Spey. Kevin claims he had to learn the cast because it’s essential to steelheading, which I don’t doubt, but judging from the enthusiasm and pride with which he presents the Spey, I suspect some of that self-admitted obsession-compulsion was at play. Sure, the cast would help land steelhead. But learning the Spey was also Kevin’s way of snatching the pebble from the universe’s hand, which would mean he could leave behind the title of student to wander the fly-fishing world at large.
Sure enough, as soon as we left the subject of the Spey, Kevin slowed down and panned back the same way he did with the Triple Hookup on that first trip in 2004. By this time in our conversation, it was a natural progression of pace. And it seems to me Kevin couldn’t be happier with where he’s at with fly fishing today. He's raising his two children on the river, teaching them to reel and land fish that he cast for and caught. His day job is that of an accountant—he managed to land a second degree in the past fifteen years—and he downplays his professional role as a guide, calling it his “side hustle,” a reference to the fact he’s kept his guiding limited to part-time. He likens it more to a paid vacation than any sort of tedious occupational obligation. “I spend three days on the water and watch people fish. It’s the most beautiful office you’ve ever had in your life.”
As our chat drew to a close, it was plain to see that fish just weren’t relevant, here. Not once were they mentioned aside from the steelhead—but that was a conspecific reference, having more to do with the species as a whole than any individual ten-pound trophy wrangled out of the Deschutes. We tried hard to force the conversation to technical talking points, but Kevin’s stories had a way of returning to homeostasis as they flowed from reel to real. Fly fishing is a test and a trial, a self-discipline with application well beyond the play of a nylon line or the bend of a graphite pole. More importantly, it’s a way for Kevin to spend time with the ones he loves, and in the case of guiding, learning to love some of the people he’s spent time with. “At the end of the day,” he says, “All of us have something in common. Lots of times it’s family, lots of times it’s experience, and lots of times it’s just the desire to laugh.”
No further explanation was needed, even for someone as foreign to fly angling as myself. For Kevin Hoar, fly fishing is enlightenment, a self-improvement of the sort one might expect to occur in a candlelit cave atop some ancient granite mountain in southeast Asia. It’s the social and spiritual glue that holds his world together. And hearing him describe it kind of made me want to go out and hire a guided fly fishing trip of my own.