Relaxing in a river with a doodad that looks like a fish's lunch -- that's Rainy Riding's idea of paradise
You're standing in the middle of a glassy stream. The cool, brisk water rushing past your thick rubber wading boots accompanies the warm summer evening. The sun is preparing to set in the clear, baby blue western sky.
You see hatching insects hovering over the river to lay their eggs and you see halos where the fish are rising to feed on them. A chocolate-brown moose sloshes through the shallow water behind you. He notices someone on the river but doesn't pay much attention to you and gets back to his business. You relax as you listen to the sounds of nature all around you. A slight breeze causes the tall lodgepole pine trees that line the river to sway. You take a deep breath of the fresh, crisp air.
You pull your arm back and begin casting line back and forth.
The fast-growing recreational activity of fly-fishing is spreading like a hungry wildfire in a drought-stricken forest. This is fabulous for fly-fishers in Utah who have access to some of the choicest fisheries in the country.
According to Rainy Riding, a 48-year-old fly-fishing instructor and distributor of tied flies, the fly-fishing industry is huge in Utah.
"If you don't mind walking and wading, then we have two of the best streams in the world just right smack right here in our back yard -- the Logan River and the Blacksmith Fork," she said.
Riding said the Logan River isn't a good place for beginners to fish because the terrain and the river bottom are too rocky. It produces a lot of fish, but she recommends the Blacksmith Fork to beginners because the bottom is more sandy and loamy.
Utah has about 25 fly shops and Logan has four. Considering the 2.2 million population of Utah, Riding said that is an amazing number of shops. She said fly-fishing in Utah doesn't compare to that in Idaho and Montana but it is much larger than in states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
"Idaho and Montana have jillions of people because everyone goes there, but in Utah we have more seclusion unless you go to the Provo River or the Green River, so you're pretty much by yourself," she said.
Riding is not only a successful fly tier and business owner; she is also a pioneer for women in the fly-fishing industry. She said being the only woman in the industry was difficult at first, but now she loves it because she has a lot of notoriety and she is doing well professionally.
In fact, her business is booming so much that Riding and her business partner, Ellen Clark, live most of the year in Thailand where they manage their fly-tying factory. Riding said they have 150 employees but there isn't much fly-fishing in Thailand because it has a different kind of aquatic hatches on its rivers. The less-costly labor and the ability of the Thai people to tie more intricate flies because of their tiny fingers were two major factors in building the factory in Thailand.
Riding grew up on a cattle ranch in Roosevelt, Utah, and began fishing at age 5. She would fish with her grandpa and two brothers in the Uintah Basin a few times a week after they had hauled hay in early fall.
"I used a spin-cast rod and my granddad put a Royal Coachmen [fly] on the end of it and he cast it out there and we waited and jerked a little bit and a fish took it and I was hooked. As a little kid I was so stoked that you could throw something out and catch something with it," she said.
A spin-cast rod is used in bait fishing and is a lot shorter than fly-fishing rods. Riding said fly rods are so much longer because you throw the line out by yourself and you need the long rod to get it a far distance. In bait fishing, there is heavier bait on the end of the line, so when it is cast out, it will go far on its own.
After Riding graduated from high school, she worked for USU Extension as a personal secretary to a professor who taught fly tying. Too many people enrolled for the course, so the professor called her at home one night and asked her if he could teach her some patterns to demonstrate for half of the class. She did and continued to do so for the rest of the semester, and after school was over, she kept learning new patterns until she made it her full-time profession in 1974.
She taught fly-tying and fly-casting at USU periodically from 1976 to 1999. Riding said she would rate fly-fishing for beginners as being quite difficult. She said most of her students usually had trouble getting the timing of their casts right and learning different casting techniques.
Although Riding has invested nearly 30 years in the industry, only one of her two daughters and two sons has any involvement with the sport. Jesse Riding, 23, works at his mother's fly-fishing shop in Logan and has inherited her gift of magic fingers.
On a typical day he might tie a Magnum Cicada. This fly is one of more than 200 flies Rainy has invented. She said every one of the flies that she's invented has come to her in a dream.
She also said fly tying must be looked at as a hobby because it is much more expensive than just buying a pre-made fly. The Magnum Cicada costs $1.85 pre-made. But, if someone had to buy all the materials to make this fly it would cost about $30, but depending upon the size and amount of materials used for each fly, several flies could be tied out of the material. The Magnum Cicada fly is only used in Utah and is a replica of a fly that hatches on the Green River, which is below Flaming Gorge Dam on the Utah/Wyoming border.
The Magnum Cicada is a terrestrial fly, which means it is a replica of a fly that grows on land but dies and falls into the water and becomes part of the fishes' food supply. Tying this fly requires the use of materials that are recent inventions to the fly-fishing industry. According to flyfishinghistory.com, the hobby of fly tying would be unrecognizable without plastic. To tie this fly, Jesse cuts a piece of quarter-inch black popper foam, which looks and feels similar to the soles of rubber thongs, and burns the ends to replicate the insect's body.
Then, he ties a piece of Evazote foam that looks like a wet sponge to the bottom side of the fly, giving it an orange belly. He tightly ties metallic black thread around the base of the fly, forming a perfectly pear-shaped tail. He pulls a tight bundle of wheat-colored deer hair and ties it on at an angle and adds root beer Krystal-flash to form wings.
Next, he uses orange and black Sparkle Dub, which is blended up yarn and sparkly fibers that looks like ratty hair and ties it on as he forms the second segment of the insect's body. He ties the thread in a criss-cross pattern across the belly and forms the third and final segment, the head. Finally, he burns one end of a black, plastic bug-eye stick and jabs it through the foam, forming the head segment.
Once it has gone all the way through, he trims the other end and then burns the excess of the bug-eye stick with a cigarette lighter until it forms the second eye. The fly is complete but he usually tops it off by lightly dabbing clear-gel Super Glue to the insect's wings and underside. The product is a replica of the real fly but it looks like lunch to a river trout.
He will insert a size 6 hook into this fly that will be used for Cicada season in the late spring and early summer on the Green River. Jesse said this is one of the larger hook sizes, but the largest hook usually used is a size 2.
He said sizes get as small as 32, but those flies are about the size of the mark left on a paper after a pencil has been dropped on it. A fish caught with an average hook size of 18 would be a river trout about 8 inches long.
However, the size of the fish might not matter to some catch-and release fisherman. Scott Hoffman, a 21-year-old fisherman from Logan, has been fishing since he was 12, but said he rarely keeps any of the fish he catches.
Hoffman has worked as a fishing guide on the Green River and on the south fork and Henry's Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. Since May, Hoffman has fished every day except Sundays. His brown face and sunglass tan lines across his temples reveal the time he's spent outdoors.
"I love it. The challenge and the realism are so natural and it's so realistic that you learn so much about the fish. You learn what they eat and everything about bugs and you can see how the fish react as opposed to catching a farm-raised fish on power-bait," he said.
Hoffman said the hardest thing for beginning fly-fishers to learn is patience. He said it takes a lot to have the willingness to put in the time and the effort to become proficient at it. Learning things such as setting the hook can become frustrating. You want to pull fish out at different speeds depending on how large the fish is.
If you're fishing in shallow waters, brook trout are the most likely fish to catch. As soon as they bite, the fisherman needs to set the hook as soon as possible because the little fish are quick. Large fish in deeper fishing holes need more time to take the bite so setting the hook should take more time. Hoffman said the hooks in fly-fishing only have one barb on them and most fishermen crimp it so it is easier to remove from the fishes' mouth.
But, Hoffman said fly-fishing is completely natural and peaceful. "I'll tell you what, I could be so stressed out with everything going on, but then I go out on the river with a line out and I'm in mama's arms at that point. It's so peaceful," he said.
Hoffman said one drawback to fly-fishing is that it isn't a cheap sport. He said a lot of people start out with a cheap $100 rod and reel, decide they don't like it and buy a new one costing $600. Rainy said the sport doesn't have to be expensive, but there are some things you need to go fly-fishing: you have to have a rod, reel, flies, fly line and a pair of clippers. But, she said most fishermen don't stop there and buy waders, boots, vests and rain gear and it can end up costing $3,000. Despite the cost, Hoffman loves the sport and said the Logan River is his favorite place to fly-fish because he grew up fishing on that river and he knows it inside and out.
He isn't the only one with a great appreciation for the Logan River. A small group based in Logan called the Cache Anglers has the sole purpose to clean up the Logan River. Rainy said there are also national groups like the Cache Anglers who do large river clean-up projects and donate money to build dams and give out scholarships.
Rainy said the Cache Anglers do a good job but every time she fishes, she is saddened by the amount of litter left by other fisherman. "It makes me mad when people over-fish the rivers. Sometimes I'll see people come out with a whole string of fish, and there is a limit to what you can fish," she said. The limit changes depending on the year, but Rainy said it is usually between two and five fish.
Other than those two irritations, Rainy can't wait to retire and fish full-time. "I love being outdoors with nature, it is very free-spirited, it's beautiful."
She said fly-fishing is pacifying, but there are incredible fishing days when everything can be bizarre. On one trip to the Green River, she caught a fish on a back-cast. Then, her partner caught a dragonfly in the air and when he tried to get it off of the hook a trout came about five feet out of the water to take it. During that same trip the fishing-guides she was with had to catch a small boy and his mother who were stranded on the top of a 15 feet high rock in the middle of the swift river.
So, although it is usually quiet and relaxing, fly-fishing can also be eventful. You never know what you're going to catch.