A workplace injury left the seller unable to paddle or cast. “Selling all my fly fishing gear. Cheap,” the online post read.  The only catch: “You have to take it all.”

A kayak, three fly rods, five reels, two life vests, a float tube, waders, and boots; 10 loaded fly boxes and maybe 1,000 flies; two fly-tying vices and five storage cabinets of hooks, fur and feathers; tippet and leaders, a few spinning spoons, books, and a cardboard box of assorted gel floatants, unlabeled lines, and tools. The entirety of a dedicated angler’s 20-year fly-fishing addiction.

Each cast is an exercise in ambition. | Photo: Barry Beck
Each cast is an exercise in ambition. | Photo: Barry Beck

Sure, I felt guilty about one angler’s tragedy becoming my boon. I mitigated my feelings by handing over a dump of cash, no questions asked.

I spent several days, a few hours at a time, picking through the pile, inventorying my haul. During the process, I couldn’t help imagine the previous owner’s personality.

The guy lived on a decent-sized lake, where I imagined he used the kayak, but his fly boxes did not contain any bass poppers and only a handful of woolly buggers. These are the go-to summer flies for smallmouth and pike. There was a selection of nymphs, mostly larger sizes, but he said he never fished for brook trout. Most of his flies were for steelhead.

His fly boxes overflowed with classic steelhead options: colorful eggs, gaudy streamers, comically-bright nymphs, flies local brook or brown trout would laugh at. He was quite an accomplished tier, too; his creations were almost commercial quality.

A quick geography lesson, I do not live near steelhead. The nearest run is on the Great Lakes, six hours away. Otherwise, I would have to head to the West Coast. The owner told me he had traveled to British Columbia to fish for steelhead. He hoped to return, but after his injury the trip was not in the cards.

As I sorted through his gear, I noticed two categories emerge: dreams and reality. The kayak was well-used but nothing fancy. Most of the fly rods were pretty basic, ones he would have used on his local lake or trout stream. It was nothing fancy. This collection represented most of the owner’s fishing, but curiously it was the smaller pile.

In the dream pile, the high-end steelhead rod and reel were barely used. Spools of expensive sinking lines were still fresh. Many of the flies he tied were for a fish he could only dream of targeting.

At first this struck me as sad, but I’ve changed my mind. I imagine him spending winters tying flies and scheming the possibilities. He wasn’t dreaming, he was aspiring. Optimism was hope. His gear represented an investment in future fishing. It represented the fishing he wanted to do, not the fishing he did.

I looked at my own gear bag in a new light. I have a box of muskie flies. A few years ago, I caught a huge muskie while fishing for bass. As soon as I returned to my fly-tying bench, I whipped up a dozen bushy flies on huge hooks. All the while, I was remembering my epic battle and dreaming of the next encounter. I haven’t used the flies, yet.

I own a lovely little 3-weight trout rod. I like the idea of exploring narrow creeks for native brook-trout. I hope to use it someday.

Fishing is about aspiration, optimism and hope. Each cast is an exercise in ambition. My head is constantly in the clouds, tying flies, preparing gear, paddling miles, making a hundred casts, dreaming of the next bite. When I look at my gear closet, I see those hopes and dreams piled in the corner, stacked on the shelves and hanging from the rafters. Even if those dreams never come true, I’m glad I have them.

Each cast is an exercise in ambition. | Photo: Barry Beck

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