In October of 2014, I found myself sitting in a boat on a deep and lazy stretch of the Colorado River, a few miles from the entrance of the Grand Canyon. On either side, deep red cliffs towered a thousand feet up, ending in a small sliver of sky that ferried a soft light down onto my shoulders. It was my 35th birthday, and I had spent the last week chasing trout up and down this river alongside my two best friends. The engine was gently idling and we were all sipping whiskey, laughing at our good fortune, when our guide suddenly cut the motor. Instantly, we all fell silent, and a profound stillness invaded. In that moment, my life changed forever. I heard a voice as crystal clear as the waters below me. Go become a fly fishing guide.
For some, to simply pack up and shelve a seemingly normal life in exchange for an uncertain one would be insane. For me, however, it was inevitable. I was living in my hometown, Nashville, Tenn., working a normal job, living in a house I owned, surrounded by family and lifelong friends. It was a good life, safe and predictable. I would go about my day as my familiar self, thinking repetitive thoughts, performing predictable tasks, laying out plans and expecting the sun to inevitably rise. But below the monotony, there was something brewing.
Fly fishing has been an integral part of my life since childhood. I was introduced to the sport by my father, a man equal parts Southern preacher, poet, musician and trout bum. He held the belief that life was wide, deep and full of wonder, and it was on our weekly trips to the river that I learned to look for magic in everything. Selecting which fly to fish became a devotion on the freedom of choice. Getting skunked was a lesson on temperance. The sound of the river was the most ancient song. What was catching trout? Well, that was the greatest gift from the gods. As I stumbled through my teens and limped through my 20s, the river became the place where I would go, wade through the turmoil of youth and eventually, find peace. Flash forward to a woman halfway through her 30s, adrift in life, as on a boat, in the middle of the Colorado, with a metaphorical lightning strike still smoldering at her feet.
What happened after the lightning strike? That magical moment turned instantly into practical planning, a laundry list of tying loose ends. Becoming a fly fishing guide would take tenacity, a lot of luck and a complete overhaul of my life. So, immediately upon returning home to Nashville, I began sprinting toward this goal. I did research, made phone calls, heard myself again and again trying to explain my epiphany to deaf ears. Finally, in a mix of determination and fate, I found a job with the Taos Fly Shop, and six months later had boxed all that was important, sold all that was not, told my family I loved them and headed West.
From the outside, the fly-fishing-guide life is romantic, it is barely a job at all. Ultimately, we get paid to go fishing, right? Not exactly. As newly minted adults must learn how to fend for themselves their first year of college, so must first-year guides adjust to the reality of what the job entails. My first season was eye-opening. Yes, there is romance to be found, but mostly, there are impossible tangles, errant casts, hooks in trees, hooks in your clothes, hooks in your skin, sunburn, swift currents, loose rocks, mosquitoes and rattle snakes. However, if you can handle these challenges and happen to be on the river when the fish are feeding, it’s the greatest job in the world. I am four years in, and I can say, without exaggeration, that guiding a beginner into their first fish on a fly rod produces a feeling that has, so far, been unmatched in my professional life.
This is due, in part, to the holistic essence of the experience. Fly fishing is not only about catching fish. It is about the ritual, the ceremony. Laying all your gear out the night before, making sure you have everything. Waking before the sun, warming the car, pressing the coffee and checking the map. It’s about solitude. Being alone on the river, carrying everything you need and leaving all else behind, spending hours with the sound of the current as your only companion. It’s about friendship and family, taking time out from the day-to-day to make new memories and perhaps establish new traditions. It’s about nature. Knowing a river so intimately you can walk it with your eyes closed. Spending every season on the same stretch, observing what changes and what stays the same, identifying the flora and fauna. And yes, it’s about catching trout, whether your first or your 10,000th. As a guide, I get to foster this experience, and as I said before, it gives me a reward that is unparalleled.
My most memorable trip to date was in my first year guiding. The clients were a mother and young, teenage daughter. The first thing I observed upon meeting them was their contagious enthusiasm. They were fulfilling a dream, checking a box on the bucket list. The second thing I noted was the transparent, playful and entirely unique nature of their relationship. They would alternate between stinging jabs and sincere compliments. It was only an hour into the trip when the mother grabbed my arm as we were walking up the river and said, “I can’t tell you how special this is for us.” I remember that we caught fish, although I can’t tell you how many. What I can tell you is that a deeper bond was created between mother and daughter that day, a bond that will bless them both for the rest of their lives. In the intervening four years, I have guided these women eight times and had the privilege of watching that teenage girl turn into a young woman.
This mother-and-daughter story is not uncommon. Time and time again, I watch as the river becomes a conduit, reconnecting you and me to one another by tethering us for a few short hours to nature. It truly is something to watch. If you are reading this and find yourself curious, I urge you to give it a try. Maybe you have passed by the river for your entire life and always wondered what it would be like to learn how to fly fish, but never knew where to start. Perhaps, like me, this is your adopted home and you find yourself in a limitless landscape and are craving adventure. We have no time but the present. After all, the days are long but the years are short. The river, however, is ancient.
As I’ve told my story over the years, I’ve often been asked, “Why Taos?” The simplest answer? Taos picked me. It is vast and full of magic. In April of 2015, I pulled my travel trailer up from the south on NM-68. There was construction, and I was halted just below the crest of the mesa. As I sat mashing on my brakes, I could see the very tip of Wheeler Peak, and felt my heart start to thrum in my chest. The traffic started to inch forward, slowly, and I was treated to a tempered reveal of the landscape like the unfolding of a scroll, inch by inch. The Sangre de Cristo range came down from the sky and met the sage-covered mesa into which the Rio Grande had cut a giant, jagged slash. I was instantly in love. Years later, I can still feel the gravity of that moment. I had followed the river, and it had finally brought me home.
In addition to writing for Local Flavor, Emily can be found at her day job at the Taos Fly Shop at 338 Paseo del Pueblo Sur. 575.751.1312. taosflyshop.com.