Voices from the River: First fly

By Toner Mitchell

During our short friendship, Andrew Romero and I summitted neighborhood trees and hunted lizards, raced our Hotwheels and wrestled in his mom’s living room. I also remember his fly tying kit and a dedicated few days of exploring the very limited extent of what could be tied with only peacock herl and brown and white hackle feathers. As much as I already loved fishing, it had yet to occur to me that a person, least of all a third-grader, could make trout flies. 

I must have thought flies were made by machines. My first creation was a fore and aft dry fly featuring a brown hackle at the hook bend, a peacock body, and a white hackle in front. The pattern is known as the Renegade, and over the next few years, I would recognize it in my fishing books and in the bins at Tiano’s Sporting Goods, where it was stocked among other fore and aft bugs like the Double Brown Hackle and the Warden’s Worry (brown hackle aft, grizzly at the fore).

Through Tiano’s and other tackle stores throughout New Mexico and southern Colorado, I learned that the Renegade had a devout regional fanbase. Nevertheless, I rarely fished them. I preferred bouyant flies like Irresistibles and Humpies, and the Joe’s Hopper with its palmered hackle body. Also flies like the Reverend Lang, the House and Lot (H and L Variant), and the Wulffs, which not only floated well but were visible, and worked better after being shagged up by fish. The Renegade floated, but only with constant greasing. And, as happens with peacockbodied flies, there was always the fatal fish tooth that rendered my Renegades useless.

My change of heart came when I was learning to fish nymphs. This was before strike indicators became a thing, when the books told me to watch the tip of my fly line and set the hook when the line paused or acted funny. I just couldn’t get the hang of it. Though I occasionally hooked a fish, I hooked far more sticks and rocks. Continued practice seemed ridiculous when I knew I could be catching fish on dries.

Then a friend gave me a weighted Renegade with a butt of red floss, and told me to nymph it on a short line. The first time I took it to the Pecos River, my fly line didn’t just stop but shot forward in every pool and riffle, a fighting fish attached. Frequent success caused me to duplicate winning drifts and, more important, to refine my presentations to pick up subtle takes. The Renegade made me a nymph fisherman.

In the many years since that day, this one fly has evolved from being my training wheels into a turbo-charged engine, my Michael Jordan and my Sunday Dagwood sandwich with a glass of lemonade. The Renegade has gone around the world with me and has caught most of my fish. It’s met all my fishing buddies, healed my heartbreaks, and was by my side when my son came into the world.

Of course my friends think I make too big a fuss. They’ve said I love the Renegade because I fish it all the time. Yes, people have said that. They say it’s just a lazy man’s Prince. Which may be true. As a tier, I am lazy indeed. I’ve neither the patience nor skill to work with goose biots, and I’d rather spend my time thread-twisting peacock to increase my Renegades’ durability. I also slather my lead wraps with head cement to make each Renegade a tiny indestructible Superfund site.

My laziness aside, the contest between the Renegade and anything else is no contest at all. On freestone streams from New Mexico to Montana to Argentina, the fly’s a certified killer. I’ve fished it wet and dry during Brachycentrus hatches on the Arkansas and Rio Grande, and during March Brown hatches on the Yuba. On the Kenai and other Alaska streams, rainbows and dollies eat it no matter what’s in the flow, be it smolts, eggs, or flesh.

Joe, my high school chemistry teacher and fishing partner since, also fished Renegades as a kid. He’s swung up Trinity and Deschutes steelhead and caught a semah fish in Borneo’s Baram River, which makes me certain that a Renegade could fool a permit in the Yucatan.

On the way home from October fishing trips to the McCloud, Joe and I used to stop in Redding to break up the drive. We’d arrive around sundown, when for some reason, with the entire Sacramento River literally exploding with spawning kings, the rainbows would shift their feeding from salmon eggs to caddis pupae. We quartered our casts across the riffles and got yanked on each one. We used 6-weight rods and tied #14 Renegades to 0X tippets, knowing that every rainbow we hooked would be an egg-stuffed blimp we’d have to muscle to the net before the hatch died. My arm still remembers those pulls, my eyes the blinding sun before it dipped behind the mountains.

Our Renegades in the lips of wild fish. Nostalgia is a beautiful thing, which bears mentioning for at least two reasons. First, it’s so blended with love as to be indistinguishable from it, which to me is objectively beautiful. Second, the longer one lives, the more nostalgia’s power lies in its usefulness. Even now I’m amazed at how imprecisely I can remember or even comprehend being anything but a fisherman. So it’s useful to know there’s a fly to tell my story, to recall my moments of greatest pleasure and comfort.

The Renegade, God bless it, is the root of my tree sunk deep in the earth, reminding me of where this all began.

Toner Mitchell is the water and habitat coordinator for Trout Unlimited in New Mexico. He lives and works in Santa Fe.


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