“Are we there yet?!” This phrase, usually reserved for children in the backseat of a car eight hours into a family road trip, ran through my head on just about every hunting or fishing trip last year. And the year before that, and even the year before that. No, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy hunting and fishing. As an adult onset hunter and angler entering my fifth full season, I frequently wonder how I ever lived without these pursuits. The phrase became an unfortunate mantra because I had neglected my physical health for years. Hiking stunk. I spent less time looking around me, and more time looking down trying to focus on taking the next breath, wondering how I’d ever settle my shaking body down in the moment of truth. I relived this for three full hunting seasons, with minimal success. I knew that I couldn’t ignore my weight anymore.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is a huge part of my life, so when I heard about Hike to Hunt, it seemed like a great opportunity to support an organization that I loved while also improving my fitness. When I decided to set my hiking goal to 100 miles, I wasn’t sure that I’d made the right decision. I’m not going to lie, the first few weeks of hiking were tough. “Are we there yet?” crept into my head more often than I could count. Still out of breath, still shaking, still tired. I grit my teeth and kept pushing, hoping that eventually the breaths would get a little easier and the steps a little quicker. Two miles here. Three miles there. Over the next two months, I started to notice changes. On the scale, on the trails, even in my head. I started to regain confidence, and with it, a thirst to explore. The miles came and went faster. I realized that I was spending more time looking around me than looking down. I really had been missing out. After months of hiking, I decided to put my fitness to the test with a weekend of backcountry camping and fly fishing in the Pennsylvania mountains.
Camping in the mountains, fly fishing, and seeing the stars at night uninterrupted by the lights of the modern world. These are the experiences that Hike to Hunt prepares us for.
We got to the stream around 6:30am Saturday morning, full of coffee, bacon, and high expectations. This was my first backcountry fly fishing experience where we would be camping and pursuing native brook trout. It was an incredible mountain stream, every bit as beautiful as I hoped it would be. Anyone who has fly fished for native brookies in low, clear water knows that it involves crawling, kneeling, and other body contortions that may vaguely resemble an uncoordinated game of “Twister.” These fish are easily spooked. It reminds me of hunting, which is probably why I like fishing for them so much.
We fished for an hour with no luck, and although I was concerned about our lack of success, it was hard for me to be too upset . We had already covered a mile of stream, including some downed trees and rocky terrain. Usually, I would have been gasping for air, desperately looking for an opportunity to sit down and catch my breath. Instead, I was driven by my desire to finally hook into one of nature’s most beautiful fish, so we pushed forward. A few minutes later, we turned the corner and saw a deep hole, with a downed tree on one side and an undercut rock bank on the other. “There HAS to be a hungry fish in here!”, I thought. I approached crawling on my hands and knees, doing my best not to spook the few hungry fish that might be willing to take my fly. After getting into position, I grabbed the curve of the hook on my prince nymph and let my bow and arrow cast send the fly directly underneath the bank. As soon as my dry fly touched the water, it disappeared with a subtle but violent speed. I flicked my wrist downstream – THUD. We were off to the races. A few seconds later, I brought to hand the most beautiful native brook trout I had ever seen. This fish had it all, a bright orange belly, vibrant white tipped fins, halo spots. It was a thing of beauty.
We fished the rest of the morning and caught several more beautiful fish. Later that night, we sat by the fire, beers in hand and country music playing, reminiscing about our success that morning. We fished the next morning, bringing a few wild brown trout to hand. Driving home, I reflected on our weekend with overwhelming satisfaction. Camping in the mountains, fly fishing, and seeing the stars at night uninterrupted by the lights of the modern world. These are the experiences that Hike to Hunt prepares us for.
“Are we there yet?” For the first time in a long time, I could tell myself “yes, we are.”