I almost learned how to two-step once. A wind-reddened man in a Stetson and pearl snap shirt said he could show me. The bar was loud, so I laughed and gave it a go. I’d be lying, though, if I said I got the hang of it. Dancing just doesn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t even feel too bad about it. My partner was a bit puzzled, though. Maybe I just needed some bucking up. Pushing his hat back, he advised, “Well . . . I’d keep at it, if I was you.” From behind his beer, an oldtimer added his two-cents: “Hell, honey, if I knew how to two-step, I’d be on my third marriage by now.”
Fly fishing is a bit like two-stepping, but I don’t need coaxing from any cowboy to want to do it. Casting has its own rhythm, and I don’t have to follow the lead of a felt hat and silver buckle. Dancing through loops in mid-air, my fly follows me. On the river, I hear a finer music – in quiet cadence – of line running through the guides. Instead of a partner’s cues, “OK, two back quick, two back slow. One. . . two. . . three. . . four,” my rod whispers, “Pause on the back cast. Stay there a beat. Okay . . . okay . . . now forward. Do it again. Throw in a double haul.”
So it is easy enough to trade out a dusty dance floor for the bench seat of a tin motorboat and Gore-Tex-clad Canadians. My right hand is loaded up with a 10-weight rod, and camo Vet-Wrap adorns my stripping fingers. I’m scanning dark waters for that perfect spot. A delicate trout cast won’t cut it here. This will be a different dance. Carving my rod through the air, I can feel my control, my strength, my grace. I would no more hook the ear of my guide than tromp all over my partner’s dancing boots. Once the cast is ready, I shoot the line out, settling the heap of flashabou, fibers and feathers onto the weedy water.
Next I strip in the fly — a twitch here, a speed change there — until I see the green shadow of a pike behind it. I try to slow my breathing, to keep stripping. Come on. Come on. I watch the pike watch my fly, then swim after it. With a quick lunge and splash, he takes my fly. And so begins our dance. I strip set, but resist my usual instinct –– to want to lead, even if I don’t know how. I will follow him. I play to his movements — giving a little here, taking a little there — keeping the line tight but not too tight, steering him away from the motor. He fights hard at the side of the boat, thrashing out and drenching us. The fluorocarbon leader inches closer to my rod tip, transmitting power with every shake of his savage head. My guide reaches for the net and gives it a scoop. I have him. I have him. Then . . . everything goes limp.
I stand in a mess of line, gaze into the empty net, then into the dark water where my fly is suspended on the end of my leader. Before the song has even ended, I am left alone on the dance floor. But this is a river, not a bar, and this time I care. The fish was ugly and full of sharp teeth, but I had played him, and I wanted him. The guide assured me that I’d done everything right and that sometimes pike don’t actually get hooked. They are too predatory to pass up a good-looking meal, so they just clench their teeth on the fly and join in for a little spin –– until they tire of the game.
I step down off the bench that had been my casting platform and sit for a moment . . . composing myself. I had traveled a thousand miles and made a thousand casts to lose one of the biggest fish of my life. But maybe some fish aren’t meant to be caught. This one had spit out my fly and laughed in my face. Some songs aren’t meant for the two-step, and some cowboys aren’t meant to be partners at all.
I’ve returned to the trout streams of my western home. Sometimes, though, I still feel tangled up with that "big one that got away." Back at the bar, I exhaust friends with my detailed play-by-play. Probably they worry that I’ve followed that fish right off the deep end. One night, while dwelling on philosophical musings like this one, I was interrupted by a guy in a Stetson.
“Do you want to dance?”
I looked him over, for a beat, thinking of my last dance, and how I should maybe let it go. But I said, “No, thanks. Never been much of a two-stepper."