Finding the right line
Paul Killino was a drifter. As a licensed Orvis flyfishing guide, he was a number of other things, too – a pinpoint caster, an agile fly-tier, an entomologist, an early morning coffee dispenser and a dime shrink. But, most importantly as a master angler and a world record holder, Paul was a drifter unparalleled.”It’s about getting the right line,” he said. “You can catch fish on a lousy cast. As long as the flies look natural in the water, that’s the most important thing.”Of course, there were other important things involved in wet-nymph fishing that I would have to learn on my first day of instruction if I was going to hook into some fish.Too many things, it seemed, at 6 a.m. when Paul put the rod into my hand for the first time as I stood knee-deep in the transparent tail waters of the Yampa, just a scootch south of Stagecoach Reservoir.”First off, fish are lazy,” he said. “They don’t want to waste a lot of energy looking for food. They just want to sit somewhere where they can eat all day without much effort.”He also said we would find fish in deep holes where the water was flowing because the deeper water had more oxygen in it, whereas the sun sapped the shallower sections of the river. He then flipped over a couple of stones in the river to show me what we were trying to replicate, peeling off a few caddis nymph pupa – tiny pods which hold the nymph larva in them – to show me the different flies that were in the river.I was surprised at the entomology underneath the water – the tiny world of life that existed on the river floor and in the water that went unnoticed by the casual observer. Still, I wasn’t paying too much attention because after looking at Paul’s photo album on the hour-long car ride over to the Yampa from Fly Fishing Outfitters in Avon, and listening to him rattle off all the people he had taught to catch fish – moms, CEOs, tourists, kids, old farts, macho types – it seemed as if the fish were just going to turn over on their white bellies and let us pluck them out of the river with a net once we started casting.”They’ll definitely be some big, fat ‘bows (Rainbow trout) waiting for us at this spot if we get there first,” Paul assured me. “We’ll hook into some pigs today for sure.”I’d caught a bass in Minnesota once and pulled Rainbows out of stocked lakes in Colorado, fishing with bigger tackle and easy-to-use casting rods. So, how hard could it be to catch a fish with a smaller hook and a teensy fly?Couldn’t be that hard, I thought. Yeah, right.Fly fishing is knitting-a-sweater-while-driving hard.It’s transcribing-a-Dick-Vital-college-basketball-game-while blindfolded hard.The little thingsPaul had explained to me that success came from doing an assortment of little things right, but I couldn’t even seem to do one thing right on my first batch of casts.My wrist kept wanting to snap. I kept starting with my arm too far back like I was trying to throw a baseball, instead of following the noon-nine clock motion that I’d been shown. Noon-9. Arm straight up to straight down. Keep the elbow a little bit cocked. No wrist bend. Your arm should be one with the rod. Don’t let out more line than you can handle. Paul kept repeating these instructions to me as I fumbled around in the early morning light with the shadows of the canyon coating us in shade.
It was too early to concentrate, however, much less concentrate on doing something so technically demanding.The cup of black coffee I had slugged on our walk down to the river had perked me up a little bit, but not enough to get me dialed in.Paul kept casting beautiful lines into the running water with a fluidity and a rhythm that was lulling to watch. I got the line tangled up so much that we had to switch out rods. Twice. I kept forgetting to pull the flies out of the water quickly enough before my next cast before they got hooked onto something in the shallower waters. I lost two expensive flies when I snapped my wrist too hard and the line cracked like a whip, severing off the tackle.Shane, the photographer whom I’d suckered into getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to come with me on my trip, tried not to laugh as he watched me screw up over and over, but it was helpless.Things only got worse.When we had started walking down the trail to the Yampa from the trailhead, we had bumped into a Forest Service official who mentioned to us that he was going to be letting water run out of the dam into the river for two hours.We had only been fishing for less than half-an-hour when the river’s flow started to crank up and the water’s transparency melted away into a wash of brown. Large sticks and leaves were careening down the river like it was a flash flood, and the fish we were eying quickly vanished out of sight.We had come to the Yampa because it was a tail water – a river whose water came from a larger reservoir – and it wouldn’t be affected by the rainfall from the night before, but we were being blown out anyway. Paul said we could hang out and wait out the run-off, but that we would have better luck if we packed up again and headed back to Eagle County.”You can’t really catch fish when you can’t seen anything,” he said, with a tinge of disappointment in his voice.I wasn’t arguing.The ride back Paul was a drifter in life, too.He had drifted out to Vail from Philadelphia as a chef with Marriott Hotels. He was originally from New Jersey, the middle child in a family of three boys and two girls, and had first started fishing as a boy in the Appalachians up north and then on the Jersey shore. After leaving Philadelphia, he worked at the Vail Marriott for two See Fishing, page A36years, then was the head chef at the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa for a stint, but got burned out with working 16-18-hour days, seven days a week.”I was like, ‘Here I am living in one of the most beautiful places in the country, and I don’t even get to enjoy it,'” he said. “I needed to do something else.”There were more other stories, too.
He played drums in a Grateful Dead cover band with some guys from Leadville for a bit. He had gotten seasonal work as an assistant food director for Vail Resorts, buying food for VR’s four Colorado mountain resorts.Fishing was his true passion, though. He was an addict, and he had fed his addiction daily after he took an Orvis fly-fishing school the summer after he had quit the Cascade in 2000. He had been guiding ever since, only taking off time to go fishing somewhere else in the world.He had chased fish everywhere from Central America to Alaska to Montana to the Caribbean and had caught enough pigs to stock a seafood warehouse (if he hadn’t have released all of them). Tarpon. Salmon. Snooks. Browns. Rainbows. Bass.You name it, and Paul had hooked it. Not to say that he was a braggart. He was just honest and true, like his flawless casts. He would shoot you straight like a barber and answer any question without hesitation”You got a girlfriend,” I asked.”Nope,” he said. “Don’t have to time to be dating anyone this summer. I’ve taken only four days off, and of those, three days I was guiding still. I was just doing it for free. I had a girlfriend last summer and she’s still a guide at the shop, but we’re just friends now. She’s great, though.”When we rolled back into Eagle County, Paul gave me two options: we could drive another 45 minutes to fish the Roaring Fork or we could stay local and fish the Eagle. After two hours in the car and only 25 minutes on the river, I was ready to get back in the water, so I nixed the Fork idea.I could see that Paul wanted to show me some pigs, some epic Fork ‘bows like the ones he had in his book, like the ones we would have hooked on the Yampa, but he accepted my answer and turned right on Highway 6 at the Wolcott Yacht Club before stopping at a dirt parking lot a few miles down.Buying what we’re sellingThings started to pick up. I was still a spaz with the rod, but was actually beginning to pick up some rhythm as I casted my line into the water, then pulled the extra slack tight once my flies sank, while following my indicator downstream with my rod tip.Every once in a while, I’d do something stupid, like letting out too much slack and disrupting the drift of my flies – a good way to ward off the fish – but I was encouraged with the idea that I was getting somewhere.The fish started getting the idea, too. After Paul readjusted the depth and the flies on my line a number of times, I finally hooked into something. I never got to see what it was, because I let out too much slack on the line and the fish spit out the bait.But, it was a start. The indicator had gone down so fast that I didn’t even notice it until Paul had yelled, “Boom.”He tried to coach me on the fly, barking instructions about keeping my tip up and letting the fish run, so that it could get tired, but I, of course, screwed up and felt the tension fall out of the line as the fish swam away.
“Well, at least we know they’re buying what we’re selling,” Paul said with a smile. “That’s a good thing.”I hooked onto another fish just a short while later, but that one got away, too. Paul never lost his focus. He’d seen enough fish get away that to lose two little fish wasn’t a big deal.I just wanted to land something, anything, so that I could have a good picture for the story and the family and friends. Please, Lord. Don’t let me be the one guy that doesn’t catch a fish with Paul. He said he’s never been skunked as a guide. Don’t let me be it. Please. Please.Then, bam. I could tell the fish wasn’t as big as the first two, just a little guy, but I was ready this time. Paul continued to guide me along, telling me not to rush the process. “Let it swim a little,” he said. “Let it get tired.”When we got the fish in the net, I could tell that Paul wasn’t very excited. The rainbow was less than a pan fish – maybe a can fish – but I was just giddy to have reeled one in. We got the photo, although I know Paul hoped that it wouldn’t be the only photo to run in the paper. He wanted a shot of me holding up a 20-inch chunker, a trophy size fish. As one of the premiere guides in the valley, he had a solid reputation of putting his clients on big fish and he wasn’t about to disappoint. “I’ll admit that my expectations are usually higher than my clients,” he told me later. “I usually expect to catch bigger fish than they expect coming in.”We weren’t done yet. The Burger King hole”I’ll take you to a hole that I usually don’t take clients to,” said Paul, as we sat down to some lunch at a picnic table by the river. “It’s right in town. When clients want to go out, they want to be taken back into some beautiful scenery. They don’t want to see concrete. But, it’s a good hole. We’ll definitely catch some fish there.”We were narrowing down our chances, being that the sun was beating down and it was the middle of the day – the worst time to catch fish.I could see that Paul was still a little peeved about getting blown out in the morning. We had made the extra effort to get to the right spot at the best time of the day, and it was all for a bunch of brown, mucky water.”But what else can you do,” he said shrugging his shoulders.The next hole was right below Bob’s Bridge in Avon, just a walk down the hill from the Burger King. If not for the bridge overhead and the noise, the spot looked like a secluded mountain river tucked away in a lonesome canyon somewhere. As soon as we arrived, we could see the fish stacked up in the water – a few rainbows, one definite brown – but they weren’t buying what we were selling. Like Paul said, they were lazy, and as the hot sun poured down they weren’t interested in making the slightest budge to latch on to the bait we kept drifting in front of them.
When the clouds rolled in, though, the fish started biting like we were offering up a few medium-rare steaks. Bap. Bap-bap.The second fish I landed was a decent-sized rainbow. It wasn’t what Paul was used to hauling in, but I thought it was a nice second catch for a first-timer. The fish walked me down the river about thirty yards as I let him run, before he finally succumbed and found his way into our net. Paul caught another little rainbow before giving me the rod again and I set right back to work. “It’s time to get serious,” he said as he switched out the bait on the line. He tied on one of his custom flies, a hand-tied model of one of the five he has created and hopes to mass produce one day, and set me back to work. He had told me earlier that he named all of his flies after his little brother, Tommy, who was killed in a car accident almost two years ago.Each had a different name, but they all started with the initials T.K.”Fishing was our shared love,” he said. “It’s what we did all the time together. We went on a trip to Alaska just before he died, and all we did was fish.”And, maybe, it was the fly. Or, luck. Or, the sun going away. Or, maybe, as I liked to think, it was the perfect line with the right bait, capped off by a smooth natural drift. Like Paul said, success in fly fishing was about doing all the little things right.Whatever it was, the big brown trout that had been hunkering down in the hole finally took a swipe at my fly.As I saw the indicator drop into the water, I pulled up on the rod to set the hook and then set myself up for the ensuing fight. The fish didn’t run that far. As I lined myself up it on shore, it swam right close to the bank and Paul was ready with the net when it got close enough. Being the true fisherman that he is, Paul made sure the fishes head was facing upstream before he closed the net around it. He then pulled the tiny hook out so I could hold up my catch for the camera.The fish was only slightly smaller than my smile.After the boots and the waders were off and we were back on the road, Paul apologized for not showing me the epic day for which he had hoped.”I hunt trophy fish,” he said. “Anything else doesn’t much interest me.”Still, it was an apology I couldn’t accept. After taking me out for free on his day off and transforming me from a moving tangle into a fisherman, I was dumfounded that he was offering up apologies. The day on the rivers was the most fun I’d had all summer, and here Paul was thinking he hadn’t done me right. “I’m sorry we didn’t catch any pigs,” he said as I got back into my car to drive away. “It sucks that we got blown out. We’ll go fishing again sometime just for fun. I promise we’ll have an epic day.””Don’t worry about it,” I said as I started to pull away. “I’m definitely hooked.”Contact Nate Peterson at (970) 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at email@example.comVail,Colorado