I am sitting perfectly happy and consciously grateful in the black darkness of early dawn. My trusted, and well worn, Patagonia puff ball jacket is zipped up over red flannel pajamas as I rest my wool-socked feet on the hearth of a wood burning river rock fireplace. I feel myself slowly awakened by the taste of that essential first sip of steaming coffee as the sun starts making its way up in the sky, reliably lighting up the majesty of the natural beauty surrounding a hundred year-old farmhouse in the middle of the Fall River Valley.
Quiet moments like this one, waking up early, deeply excited about the promise of a fine day ahead, bring to mind so many treasured memories that all began in much the same way. I can feel the truth of it all, and I am reminded that spending time bringing my senses to life is, quite simply, life’s greatest gift. It is, as my old comrade and philosopher, Jessica Mitford, would say,
My heart beats quickly. I take a long breath and really look out the window into the silence and the mystery. Tears well up as I reach for my coffee. I decide now is the time to glue it all together into a tiny, gigantic story for you.
28 years have rushed by like the rapids of rivers of the world:
12 species of fish, and a world of new experiences, adventures, and relationships.
It all began when I was a 35 year-old high heel and lipstick wearing account executive for a pharmaceutical advertising agency in San Francisco, with absolutely zero awareness of fly fishing. One day, in a mad dash to pick up artwork for my client, I asked my friend and colleague, Annette Thompson, agency studio manager, to give it to me.
She said, “Forget it, I’m busy.” I stared at her in disbelief as she typed away at her IBM Selectric typewriter. She said no! What in the world could be more important than my client’s artwork? She replied tersely, “I’m writing my monthly Golden West Women’s Fly Fishing Newsletter, Susan. You should learn about fly fishing and become a member of the club. In fact, why don’t you come join us for a slide show about the sport given by my friend and fly fisherman, noted photographer Valentine Atkinson? I’ve always wanted you to meet him.”
Later that week I actually drove by the Clement Street Bar and Grill where the event was being held, and sure enough, as fate would have it, there was a parking space right out front. I was meant to stop, park, and go in.
The rest is history.
Women, 16 of them between the ages of 20 and 93, were transfixed as Valentine showed his slide show and narrated a story about his adventures of fly fishing around the world.
As corny as it sounds, I got hooked too - not only by the exceptional photos, but by the handsome, blonde photographer behind the slide projector. Little did I know how this would change my life, and cast a through line that has kept me grounded to this very day.
Timing is nearly everything. As it turned out, Val had just started working for Frontiers International Travel as their staff photographer, traveling to new countries every month to shoot the amazing destinations they represented. This gave him, and often me, a golden opportunity to explore the world of travel through fly fishing and professional photography.
It didn’t hurt that I received a phone call around that time from Mel Krieger, who was respected worldwide as a fly casting instructor. He stated emphatically, "I'm not going to let you embarrass my good friend, Val Atkinson, on the waters of the world. You're going to meet me at my house at 7 am on Saturday and I'll teach you the basics of fly fishing, philosophy, fly tying, gear, fly casting, and more philosophy."
How could I refuse him?
I remember that we spent a full weekend as instructor and student, starting at 7 am until 10 pm each day. Mel’s generosity and wisdom have served me well, and as he hoped, I didn’t embarrass either Val or myself as we worked as a fly fishing photography team.
In our downtime, we fished locally in Northern California, on Val's personal favorite home waters - Fall River and Hat Creek. Only 300 miles north of San Francisco in the least populated, northeast corner of California, I was first introduced to my now treasured Fall River. It is one of the largest spring creeks in America - 54 degrees of constant cool water, just right for large, healthy, colorful, and very selective Rainbow Trout.
As time progressed, I learned a lot more about fly fishing, and by extension, about R. Valentine Atkinson. I asked him one basic question: “What are the three things you’d most like to achieve before you die?” He was 45, knew what he wanted, and replied very easily. “One, I want to own a home on the water, preferably on Fall River; two, I want to travel the world and earn the respect of my fly fishing friends; and, three, I’d like to publish a coffee table book of my images.” It didn’t occur to me at the time that he did not mention marriage, or family, nor did he ask me what I might like to achieve. That said, I heard him, and I thought to myself, “piece of cake!”
Today, we are partners in stewarding and caring for a 100 year-old farmhouse and guest house, with pristine old apple trees and access to Fall River. Val has earned the love and respect of the fly fishing community worldwide, and we have published five books with another on the way.
And, I have had a gifted life that most fly anglers can only dream of.
Early on, Val was smart enough to realize that I loved art and fashion, so he outfitted me with my very first green rubber hip waders, an old vest, a floppy hat, and sturdy boots. Surprisingly, I felt comfortable and snappy in my new gear. My boots, waders, and vest gave me the confidence to wade rivers and experience a new kind of freedom being part of nature.
Wading in clear cool water, warmed by the sun and breathing deeply, about to connect with my first fish, I cast a long (Mel Krieger inspired) line on the Gallatin River in Montana on a beautiful autumn day.
Alone, 200 yards downriver from anyone, I truly felt connected to nature, and casting made me feel like I was dancing, and it was a beautiful feeling.
It was at that moment that I realized that fly fishing was very similar to marketing. I needed to understand my audience, be sensitive to its needs, and be an exquisite communicator. By casting accurately, choosing the right fly, and having near perfect timing, I might just be successful in hooking a fish. As with all things in life, practice makes perfect, and a little good luck doesn’t hurt either.
From that point forward, I honed my skills by listening and learning.
I slowed down, packed a lot of gear, and actually hooked, netted, and released a lot of exquisite fish.
As the years have passed and I have worked as a professional communicator and creative director with great companies like Esprit, NeXT Computer, Intel Corporation, Lagunitas Beer, and others, fly fishing has been my grounding and tie to slowing down and staying connected with mother nature - which has made all the difference in my life.
Enjoying a fly fishing lifestyle is magical. It can balance our fast-paced, virtually driven lives with a viscerality that is essential to vitality and connecting with life’s meaning.
Strolling through a little meadow, sitting by the river bank on a fall morning, golden leaves fluttering to the ground, birds making music, being enveloped by the spirit of peace, these things enliven me in every respect.
I have been deeply moved by the great gift these jewel-like fish have given me as I purportedly pursue them, but actually find myself again, and again, and again.
May you all live healthy and strong lives for as long as possible, so you too may visit the waters of the world and find yourselves.