By Marcie Hahn-Knoff

Growing up on the Atlantic, my family spent weekends fiddling around in boats. Other than the curious incident when my folks used a boat hook to rescue a 20-inch zucchini floating mysteriously in our sailboat’s path, I cannot recollect them harvesting much from the salty waters. Our fishing equipment was a rusting spin rod left for dead in the gunwales, and a toolbox of various lures haphazardly collected from the local hardware store’s closeout table.

My grandfather, however, loved to catch ‘snapper blues’ from his boat in the bay by their house in Cape Cod, bringing the fish home to fry for breakfast. I tagged along, collecting minnows from the trap and tossing my live offering from into the dark waters, thrilled when a blue took it. Though I enjoyed fishing, I dreaded the cleaning. Bloody gut buckets, rusty knives and scale-covered hands made me cringe.

When I was 10 I asked for a fishing vest for Christmas. Tearing open the package, I found a vest of cream-colored canvas with heavy metal zippers and pockets with fuzzy wool patches. It was too big, but I wore it around the house for a couple of days, then left it folded in my closet.

My grandparents soon moved away from the bay. The vest stayed folded up for another decade – until my mother mailed it west when I announced on a call home I was going to learn to fly fish.

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Perhaps it was the hot, dry summer air of the Rockies sucking the moisture from my skin and the curls from my hair; maybe it was the absence of a large body of water nearby. But during my first summer in the West, something deep within me screamed to be near water. I knew I’d find salvation in cool rivers.

The catch and release fly fishing ethic seemed more civilized than the fishing I’d done, and I was sure I’d master it. What could be difficult about swinging a rod, line and fly around?

A college student on a budget, I bought the cheapest setup I could find. I browsed fishing shops, flipping through books, pestering sales people, and carefully inspecting and fondling the flies. I spent hours in the front lawn with yarn tied to the end of my leader in place of a fly, practicing my cast while my roommates played Frisbee and drank beer. I was mesmerized by the methodic casting and recasting involved with fly-fishing.

I visited the local river often. Up at the crack of dawn after late-night parties, I arrived with weary eyes, finding an unoccupied bend or riffle with the promise of trout. I loved the weighted caress of the river against my legs.

I watched other fishermen work the water, questioning them on their luck. I lost flies to rock-cracking back casts, loose knots and snags, and quickly became a fan of the local fly shop’s dollar bin. Untying wind knots was akin to addicting tavern puzzles. I learned about nymphs, dry flies and the animals they imitate, and I observed the life stages of mayflies, damselflies, stoneflies and caddis, above, at and below the water surface.

That summer I brought in only a handful of fish and several times considered throwing in the towel. I’ve since learned that kind of frustration is endemic to fly fishing. But as time passed, my patience grew. Before the season’s end I landed a couple of big rainbows; their acrobatic and powerful water dance made the entire effort worth it.

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That first season taught me that the journey associated with fishing could be as enjoyable as actually hooking a fish. I’ve had adventures just getting to the water – driving to new places, visiting small towns and floating new waterways. I learned it’s not imperative to spend a fortune on gear to enjoy fishing – a simple setup and a small kit were all I needed. And I gained a larger appreciation of nature, clean water and healthy ecosystems.

Although the Christmas fishing vest, now tattered and sun-bleached, is retired, my love of fishing continues to grow. I still enjoy getting a line wet, and my heart still flutters when I hook a fish. I can’t help but I smile when I see a fat, healthy trout wriggle from my grasp and reenter its watery world.

I’m still learning about fishing, trying new techniques, and standing in the weight of the current. Absorbed in the journey, I search for a subtle indicator bump or lightly sipped fly, entranced by the possibility of landing a beauty of a fish.

Marcie Hahn-Knoff first cast a fly in the streams of north-central Utah and shortly thereafter in northwestern Montana. Through her love for the river and fly fishing, she became professional whitewater and fishing guide on the Middle and North Forks of the Flathead River. She now lives and fishes in Gallatin Valley. Check out her custom, handmade Hula Hoops at facebook.com/HooplaHulaHoops