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I've spent plenty of time with a spinning rod in my hand, fishing for bass and pickerel off the back of our 1974 rowboat, but the moment I get a fly-fishing rod in my hand, I freeze.

Not like it matters — I don't even have a hook on the end of my line and I'm standing on the edge of a man-made pond behind The Fly Rod Shop in Stowe as Matt, our guide for the day, coaches me through the roll cast — but my entire body is tense. Luckily, Matt is patient, affable, and really good at making me feel like I'm not botching every cast while slowly talking me through the art of fly fishing. He gets in one dig about the "ugly stick" I usually fish with, but I can't really blame him; casting a spin rod is radically different than the flicking motion he teaches me as I learn the roll cast, the pick-up and lay-down cast, and finally, the beautiful, buttery false cast.

Of course I look nothing like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It and I have to keep asking for advice as the line on my 9-foot, 5-weight rod spools into a mess of spaghetti on the pond's surface, but I earn a few kudos as I learn to keep my elbow at a right angle, pause at exactly the right second, and slowly move the fly across the water in both directions. And finally, I start to put it all together in a false cast that I get right about 20 percent of the time, which, Matt decides, is a passing grade and good enough to take to the river.

We park just outside of nearby Waitsfield (I'll never tell where) and crunch through the remains of a harvested cornfield. There are ominous late-October clouds in the sky, but as we get further from the road, I'm reminded that "trout don't live in ugly places," and even though the air is chilly and the skies are gray, the Mad River burbles along happily in front of us, hopefully harboring a few monster trout for us to angle for. 

Matt talks me through the subtleties of fly choice, explaining that there are three main insects we're trying to emulate: the mayfly, caddisfly, and stonefly. He ties a blue-winged olive dry fly on my rod, which is so tiny on its miniature-looking size-18 hook that I can barely see it. 

The one thing I don't miss, however, is a fish rising to the surface where the running water meets the calm water in front of where we're standing. With visual confirmation that we're in the right spot for a catch, Matt adds a little silica gel to my fly to help keep it dry and floating across the surface longer.  


Feeling the same surge of adrenaline as when I get a bite on my spin rod, I try my best false cast, happy to land the fly more or less upstream of where I want it. I let it drift, recast, and let it drift once more.

Nothing happens and I don't see the fish rise again, so Matt swaps out my dry fly for a blue-winged olive nymph. He adds a tiny tin sinker for weight, and a strike indicator, which, to my eyes, looks exactly like a bobber.

I fish quietly for a few minutes, and then the strike indicator shoots under the surface of the river. I give what feels like a feeble hook set, reminding myself that trout have far more delicate mouths than the beefy, toothy bass and pickerel I usually fish for, then holler, "fish on!"

My husband Chris, a longtime fisherman who taught me all I know, whoops in delight from his own fishing hole. Matt coaches me from a spot in the river just downstream, telling me when to let him run, and when to start reeling him in. I try to bring him closer to where Matt's waiting with a net, but the fish fights me, diving deep into the current, and cutting upstream and down. I'm only on a five-weight line and it's clear that this is a good-sized catch — confirmed when the fish surfaces near Matt and he shouts out, "That's a big one, Lindsay! You're a beast!" then advises me to bring him into calmer water if I can.

Finally, the fish is in the net and the catch is official. A big rainbow trout — probably 17 or 18 inches — glistens, caught by the tiniest of hooks in what Matt says is a textbook “hook set.” I wet my hand to avoid damaging the fish's shiny, delicate skin, and hold it up just long enough for Matt to identify it as a wild catch, rather than a stocked fish. He points out a certain coloration that indicates the fish was eating from wild food sources, and notes that the fins are all intact — not marked with the tiny snip that the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department uses to indicate what strain of fish they're stocking in the rivers. "You could fish for a very long time to catch a wild rainbow trout like that," Matt says.

It's a beautiful fish and I'm beyond delighted to have caught him on a fly rod, but there's also enormous satisfaction in gently lowering him into the river and watching him swim off with a vigorous swish of his tail.

There's only one final bit of ceremony to complete the experience, as Matt solemnly snips the fly off the bottom of the leader and hands it to me. "Stick that sucker in the brim of your hat, and you can retire now," he advises. "I'd rather fish for a long time to catch a wild fish like that than catch a dozen nine-inchers in a stocked river."

I have to agree. Spurred on by my catch, we all cast vigorously across the river for a few more minutes; Chris gets a bite, but the only thing I manage to hook is the back of my boot.

When we head out a few minutes later, I'm still grinning to myself. I send a few fish pics around to family members, then carefully straighten my hat, with its new blue-winged olive accessory. I'm not giving up our old rowboat or my ugly stick anytime soon, but I've got this section of river earmarked for another day. And if anyone ever asks me where I caught that monster rainbow, I'm gonna lean forward, look 'em straight in the eye, and say, "in the lip." Because I bet my fish has friends, and I'm aiming to meet them.  

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