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Guide on the Side

I’ve known Steve Gossage, guide and the shop’s Merchandise Manager, for over 40 years. Our friendship stretches back to little league baseball at Bonny Park, through the trials and tribulations of high school, to our new experiences as grown men, fathers, and fly fishers. So it wasn’t by accident that I went to him first when I wanted to venture into fly fishing. A month, though, after buying my first Sage rod, reel and line, and enough flies to lose on my own, I went back into the shop.


I told Steve if he didn’t take me out and show me a thing or two, I was going to take up golf as my pastime instead.


“Oh no, man, anything but that.” He knew I was desperate. “Let’s go up to the Canyon.”


A few days later, wet wading in Elevenmile Canyon (I’m a school teacher — I couldn’t afford waders, too), Steve instructed me to cast my line out, just a little downstream of us, and try to land the fly just beneath the prominent rock on the bank across the river.


After a few casts, Steve stood to my right side and said “you’re going a little too far back on your back cast.” He put his arm up to serve as a brake. Once I got into the rhythm, he stepped downstream again and let me cast.


A few minutes later, he was back at my side. “Now, I want you to cast and just about when the fly hits the water, flick the tip of your rod upstream. You want the fly to be ahead of the line as it drifts. It’s called a ‘fly first drift.’”


“Why didn’t you teach me that at first — if that’s the ultimate goal?”


“First, you needed to learn to put the fly on the water where you wanted to put it.”


After a few casts to put the fly where I intended, and to get a fly first drift, Steve came back over and said to “tie on one of these.” He handed me a small black and white fly.


Five minutes later, a cloud of Tricos hovered over the opposite bank. I cast the fly, mended it to get a fly-first drift, and about fell over with the first strike and set of a fish on a dry fly. “Fish on!” Steve hollered at me. Six fish later, in a span of about 30 minutes, I was sporting an ear-to-ear grin.


From the time we got out of the truck until we were climbing back in it to go fish Messenger Gulch, a span of about 45 minutes, Steve taught me how to place the fly on the river, how to mend for a drag-free drift, how to play a fish, and how to get it to the net. (He also taught me a little bit about slowing down, when I caught my shoe on a submerged rock and fell hard enough to get completely drenched and loudly enough where it sounded like I did a cannon ball — ker-splash! When he finally stopped laughing a few minutes later, he did ask to make sure I was ok. Life-long friends have your back like that.)


At the time when I needed direct instruction to improve my casting, Steve came upstream, stood at my side, modeled what needed to be done, and guided my actions until I mastered the skill.


In the world of education, we talk about effective teachers being “the guide on the side.” Steve literally served that role that summer day in Elevenmile Canyon a little over five years ago.

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