Four hours northeast of the Valley, the Little Colorado River flows through a meadow surrounded by pine trees. In this little corner of the White Mountains known as the X Diamond Ranch, horses roam freely and fly fishermen cast their lines.
“A great fly fisherman has to have a good feel for what’s going on in the world around him,” said Chuck Green, manager of Arizona Flyfishing in Tempe and a fisherman for more than 40 years.
X Diamond Ranch is the place where many of Arizona’s fly fishermen cast their lines for the very first time. Perhaps their interest started out as a whim inspired by Norman Maclean’s novel “A River Runs Through It,” but they soon discover that fly-fishing is more than a romantic sweep of a rod while standing hip deep in frigid, rushing water. It’s a connection between man and nature and a lesson in patience.
On a Friday morning in July, Scottsdale real estate agent Glady Green (no relation to Chuck Green) took a break from the sales game and headed north to X Diamond Ranch for a bit of fly-fishing.
After hovering in the distance for a few hours, an enormous rain cloud moved across the sky and slowly burst. Droplets of rain began to fall, interrupting the ebb and flow of the Little Colorado.
On the bank, she raised the hood of her purple rain jacket with her left hand, never taking her eyes off the water. With her right hand, Green gently whipped a fishing rod, first behind her ear and then forward, as if waving a magic wand.
But the fish weren’t biting. Her neon green line lay undisturbed on the surface, ignored by schools of rainbow trout swimming inches below.
“I think the gig is up,” she said, turning to Chris Carlson, her guide and teacher.
Fooling fish is Green’s latest hobby.
In the 14 years since Brad Pitt demonstrated the artistry of a “four-count rhythm performed between 10 and 2 o’clock” in the film version of “A River Runs Through It,” more people like Green have discovered fly-fishing.
Green discovered fly-fishing after her mother rented the movie. She took her first lessons during a stay at X Diamond Ranch about two months ago. Since then she’s become determined to learn the secrets of what she calls “that ballet in the air.”
Her casting didn’t look anything like Pitt’s, but she “immediately fell in love with it.”
“I have more passion for it than any other sport,” she said.
Fly-fishing differs from bait or spin fishing in two respects. The fly is cast by the weight of the line, not the weight of the fly, which is usually very small. And the movement involved in casting requires finesse, not muscle.
“You’d be surprised by how many good things can happen with a little effort,” said Green.
The rain didn’t deter Green and Carlson from moving to the next hole. Droplets fell from the brim of her pink baseball cap and onto her casting hand. She looked for a bit of peaceful back-foam where the trout lay in wait for food.
“It’s in the deception more than anything else,” said Carlson, who owns Silver Creek Fly Fishing Guide Service and is one of the few fishermen permitted to bring students to X Diamond Ranch. “Sometimes we’ve got to stalk them.”
The fish in question are rainbow trout — the preferred fish of most fly fishermen. Trout tend to live in pretty places where the water is pristine and cold, places that are often hard to get to.
The first part of the deception was figuring out the lure. A fly fisherman worth the cost of his rod will stand on the bank of the river or stream looking for bugs.
“A good fly fisherman must be an entomologist,” said Chuck Green. “Some guys will stand there for 15 minutes matching the hatch. You look at what the fish are eating and try to find a fly that best imitates that bug. It’s a lifelong passion.”
At X Diamond, Carlson and Green had a smorgasbord of bugs to choose from. Cats flies, mayflies, damsels and grasshoppers are fish fare. Carlson had boxes of flies to choose from, and all of them seemed too tiny to grasp, but the guide has the tying skills of a surgeon. With a prince nip on the end of her line, she was ready to cast.
Once gain she took the rod and whipped it back. She paused and moved the rod forward, the line whizzing to the spot where she could see dark shadows moving below the water.
“When you play golf there’s a particular sound the ball and club make when struck well,” said Green, who sometimes practices her casting on the golf course. “It’s the same with this.”
After five or six casts, Green got a bite, an 11-inch rainbow trout speckled with purple that Carlson carefully released back into the water.
“To me (fly-fishing) is somewhere between a sport and an art form,” said Carlson, who began fly-fishing eight years ago.
Most fly fishermen go through three phases. Quantity: They want to catch fish and lots of them. Quality: The bigger the fish the better. Challenge: A fly fisherman in this phase wants to catch the hardest, oldest and toughest fish in the water.
Chuck Green once spent an entire day trying to nab a certain fish in Oak Creek. It took him three hours to get in the water and find the right fly. He caught the 18-inch fish twice that day, each time putting it back into the water to do battle with another fly fisherman.
“It’s not the biggest fish I ever caught, but it was the toughest,” he said. He has a picture of himself holding that fish on a wall behind his desk. “It’s memorable because of that.”
POWER AND TOUCH
It takes finesse to fish the Little Colorado. You’re trying to put your line in hard to get places, little corners of water surrounded by bushes or trees.
“The hardest thing to teach people is patience,” said Chuck Green.
Mastering patience and the finesse required to fly-fish is often a challenge for bait fishermen who are used to putting power behind a cast.
“Bait fishing is more about power,” said Deb Benhart, 41, of Scottsdale. “The harder you swing it, the farther the line goes out. That doesn’t work in fly-fishing.”
Benhart and her husband, Brad, and their two sons Nick, 17, and Jake, 14, learned that you can’t force a line across the water during a recent trip with Carlson to Christmas Lake on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.
Fishing has always been a tradition in the Benhart family. Benhart and her husband grew up in the same Iowa town and were high school sweethearts who used to fish together.
The Benhart boys first held a rod in their hands when they were around 3 years old. Their regular haunts are places such as Bartlett Lake, Lake Pleasant and Goldwater Lake, where the boys fish for crawdad.
This family of bait fishermen plan vacations around their favorite pastime. They’ve fished in San Diego, Alaska and Hawaii. Their next trip to Minnesota will certainly entail visiting that state’s majestic lakes.
“For us it’s that idea of relaxing outdoors together,” she said. “Just set me on a bank and I’m happy.”
Unlike bait fishing, where the fisherman casts a line and then sits back, waiting for a bite, fly-fishing requires constant interaction with the natural world. Lots of patience and a lot of quiet.
“It was more active, and you always had to be paying attention,” said Jake. “It was cool and seemed harder.”
The Benharts had wanted to try fly-fishing for a while.
“I thought (fly-fishing) always looked so difficult but peaceful.” She believes women are better fly fishermen than men. “Guys are thinking more about power when it’s really pure timing. Women tend to be more patient. If your timing isn’t perfect, you’ll hear a snap. The line is 4-pound test. It’s amazing you can catch anything with that.”
Her husband agreed. “It’s something to have that perfect cast,” he said. “When you get that perfect cast the line will just lay on the water.”
TRAVEL AND FISH
For Glady Green, all things led to fly-fishing. In her 20s she became physically active. By 35 she was riding mountain bikes and doing 10Ks and short-course triathlons. Eventually she became an avid golfer.
The traveler within emerged in her late 40s. At 47 she conquered Machu Picchu in Peru. At 52 she sold all her jewelry so she could visit Africa.
That trip “opened up the idea that I could do anything I wanted to,” she said.
Fly-fishing for Green is about constantly challenging herself. The traveler within sees herself fishing on waterways around the world.
“I’m a traveler, and I can fly-fish anywhere,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to get to Argentina. I can look at the dancers and fly-fish. I don’t have the skills yet. I’m still in the learning stage. One day. “
Silver Creek Guide Service (602) 722-5143
X Diamond Ranch (928) 333-2286 or www.xdiamondranch.com
Arizona Flyfishing 31 W. Baseline Road, Tempe (480) 730-6808 or www.azflyfishing.com