The fly landed softly. A quick ripple shot across the water, and the fly was gone. I pulled the floating line in with my left hand. I let the fish run a bit. It was a small one, so there wasn’t much fight. I did, however, feel a nearly endless sense of excitement.
I pulled the fish over to me — a beautiful rainbow trout, about 4-5 inches long. For the first time in my adult life, I had gone out on a river with my fly fishing rod, cast into the water, and caught one of the most beautiful creatures on earth (and then let it go, of course).
But that’s not the whole story.
Camping, boating, hiking, skiing … and fishing are all a part of my sense of identity because they played such a big role in my life growing up. Yet as an adult, I have only hiked and skied. For years, this has led me to say, “Someday, I’ll become a fly-fisherman.” With no clear next steps, this has been a perpetual state of someday-ness.
Three years ago I bought my first fly rod. This seemed like it should be step one. Then I completely stalled out. I had nothing but excuses in my mind.
“Do I need to hire a guide in order to learn? Where do I find a guide? Can I afford a guide?”
“What other gear do I need? How do I know what flies to buy? Everything I read says to fish with flies that resemble what’s hatching. How do I know what’s hatching on the river I’ll be on?”
“How do I find a spot to fish? Do I know anyone who will go with me? What if I go by myself, fall in the river, and get swept away down stream?”
On and on it went in my head. This is the the curse of expecting to always have the answers. When you’re in a leadership role, everyone looks to you on where to go next. What is our strategy? How do we accomplish our goals? Will our tactics work?
Sometimes Many times you won’t know the answers because you haven’t been there before. And in those moments the best thing to do is to admit you don’t know what you’re doing, use just in time learning to find just enough information to get started, and then start.
Until we’ve done it once, it can be paralyzing to know where to start. Just start anyways. Figure it out together. Don’t claim to know more than you do. That’s the art of courageous leadership.
The reason I caught the tiny little rainbow trout on my first day fly fishing was simple. We had scheduled a trip to go camping by a river known for its beautiful trout. I threw my rod and my copy of Simple Fly Fishing in the car “just in case.”
On the first night out, I opened the book and followed the instructions to tie my fly on the line. I put my reel on the rod upside down. I stood by the bank and tried to cast. Immediately I got my line hooked in a tree. Five more times I did this before giving up for the evening. I felt like an idiot.
This taught me that I was missing one important piece of gear: waders.
The next day, my wife was going into town to take a few work calls. She came back with a surprise: my first pair of waders. I immediately put them on, opened the book to remember how to tie my fly on, and put my reel on the right way this time. I grabbed a walking stick from the forest and gingerly waded out to a shallow about 20 feet from shore.
Two or three casts in, I saw the first ripple that showed there were fish in the little pool behind a boulder and they liked the fly I had chosen. A couple casts later, and I had one on the line. In that moment, I felt the joy of being a beginner again. It’ll never feel that good to catch a tiny fish again, but it’s also the start of something beautiful.
With the fish came a reminder of this lesson: the first time is the hardest time. Our job as leaders is to take the leap anyways.