What is the purpose of a fishing guide? To me, a guide is nothing more than someone you fish with to make sure you have a safe and fun day out on the water. Sure, there are those days when your clients are catching fish after fish, and they [the clients] think you are the greatest guide ever; but you know deep down that all you are doing is putting them in the right place with the right fly. I have often wondered if being a fishing guide significantly contributes to humanity at all; if what we do has a significant impact on others and ourselves. I can tell you that because of Carmen Robinson, one of my favorite clients, that the answer is yes.
I first met Carmen when I started working at Western Rivers Flyfisher twelve years ago. She came in looking to buy flies for the Provo River, and when I mentioned that the river had been crowded recently, she looked at me, laughed, and said, “Oh, I know how to make sure no one bothers me, or gets too close!” Carmen then went on to describe that, when confronted by a less than courteous angler, that she would purposely start to flail her rod around; thus, slapping the water behind her and in front of her with her line and fly, look at the intruder and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I am new at this!” The joke being that Carmen had been fly-fishing for years, and was more than capable of making a good cast and presentation. When I asked if her “act” worked, she laughed and said, “Oh yes! They ALWAYS make sure give me plenty of space. Sometimes they even offer to help!”
I initially thought that this lady, while being very nice, was a little crazy. The more we talked and got to know each other better, however, the more we warmed up to each other. Carmen signed up for some casting lessons, took some fishing classes, and did several guide trips with her friend and another one of my awesome clients, Susan Leichliter. We were quite the motley trio, but our trips were always filled with good food, fun, and enough fish to make everyone happy.
Flash forward to November of 2016. The fall weather was late to arrive last year, and the window of warm fishing days was fast approaching the end. Susan and Carmen walked into the store one day, and asked if I could take them fishing one last time before the weather took a turn for the worst. We set a date, which we promptly had to change due to our normal November weather returning, and I hoped that we would get another shot. The weather cleared, we set a date, and we got out on the water.
It was a beautiful fall day on the Provo; the sky was blue, the temperature mild, and no wind. Once again, my anxiety was at an all-time high. The nice weather was sure to get a lot of bodies on the water, and with Carmen feeling a little under the weather, I was literally praying that we could get a small spot for both her and Susan to fish. I told the gals that because of the nice conditions, we would most likely have to fish water that most people would walk by, and that the faster pocket water would probably be the only place we could get a spot. Carmen, once again sensing my anxiety it seemed, reassured me about her expectations for the day. “I just want to go fish, relax, and have fun”, she told me. Feeling more at ease, I set my mind to putting both Carmen and Susan in an area that would be relatively safe, and give us some space between the bodies. Driving up the access road, every likely spot already had multiple cars, and some of the other access parking lots were literally overflowing. In short, my worst worries were coming to fruition. Driving up to access lot below the dam, I held my breath, turned in, and was relieved to see we were only one of three cars around.
Rods set up, waders and boots on, we walked down the trail, and I helped both Carmen and Susan into position. Fishing was slow, as expected, but we still found some fish willing to eat our nymphs. Susan was the first to hook-up, and was rewarded for her efforts with a nice brown, and another fish that was bigger that threw the hook after an extended tug of war. Checking in on Carmen, I found her sitting on a rock, soaking up the sun with a smile on her face. When I asked her if she wanted to fish, she looked at me, smiled, and said, “Naw. I’m enjoying watching Susan fish.” A little while later, Carmen asked me to help her up, and get her in position. Fishing remained slow, but we stayed the course, and our patience was rewarded with a Provo brown that finally decided to play with us. After releasing the fish, Carmen asked me to help her get back to the bank and sit down. She was all smiles, and after taking sip of water, she looked at me and said, “Nick, I have been in Chemo for the past four months.” I didn’t know what to say. I was shocked. “Wow, you don’t look like it. You look great! I wish I’d known that sooner, I wouldn’t have chosen this spot!”, I replied. Carmen looked at me, smiled, and said, “It’s okay. I just get tired easily now. If we take it slow, I’ll be fine.”
We continued to fish, but as the day wore on, I was frustrated with the choice of water available for Carmen. Looking down river, I saw a pool that had plenty of rocks for her to sit on be vacated by an angler, and I knew that it would be perfect for her. Leaving Susan to keep prospecting likely looking water, I helped Carmen get into position. We sat down on a rock, rested the pool, and watched the water in hopes of the Baetis finally getting the fish going. Anglers continued to walk by us, gazing longingly at the water we had staked our claim in. I was growing increasingly worried by the number of anglers still arriving, and I didn’t want to have to “teach” someone the basics of proper river etiquette. I especially didn’t want to have to deal with anyone ignorant enough to try and high hole either Susan or Carmen. Looking upriver, and seeing Susan hooked-up, I turned and asked Carmen if she would be ok if I went upstream to help. “Sure, go help Susan. I’m just relaxing and taking a break”, she replied.
Upriver I went, but by the time I got to Susan, her fish had given itself a long-distance release. We went over to the bank, looked at her gear, and talked about what had happened. I had literally just made the comment to Susan about the sudden increase in anglers when I looked down river, and saw Carmen was not alone. Not only was she not alone, but Carmen was slowly making her way from rock to rock, while this “gentlemen” took up fishing in the spot that Carmen and I had been sitting and watching for something to happen. My blood was boiling; not only had this guy jumped in on top of Carmen, but he clearly had no regard to even help her. I stomped down the trail, trying to keep my cool, but ready to chew this guy out for being so inconsiderate and rude to one of my favorite people.
I got down to Carmen, who was still slowly struggling upriver, helped her walk up the bank, and got her in position to fish a pocket above our unexpected visitor. “I see we had another guest join us”, I said to her, while staring down the other angler. Carmen, chuckled, “Oh yes, he came a little after you went upstream to help Susan.” I was pissed, and I was ready to tell him off. I asked Carmen, “Would you like me to go have a ‘talk’ with him? Let him know that he is being incredibly rude?” She looked up at me, and said, “Oh no. No need for any of that. He asked if I was going to fish the pool, and I said he could go ahead and fish it.” My anger turned to guilt and shame at my behavior, and awe at Carmen. To this day, I still don’t know if that was really what happened between Carmen and the other angler, but she handled it with a class and grace that I was (and still am) incapable of.
It wouldn’t take long for the fish gods to reward Carmen for her good will. Her very next cast was rewarded by hooking up with a nice Provo Brown. We got the fish to her feet before the hook pulled, and the fish rested in the shallows, just ahead of Carmen’s feet. Although she was getting visibly tired, she laughed and said, “I like those kinds of releases.” A couple of casts later, another fish decided to eat Carmen’s fly, and after a couple of jumps, it also released itself. I was bummed for Carmen, but she looked at me with a smile on her face, and said, “That was a great way to end the day.” We reeled up, and walked upriver to join Susan on our way out. The drive home was filled with talk about politics, the day, and things to come; nothing was said about the cancer Carmen was battling, and nothing needed to be said. “It was a great day to go fish!”, said Carmen. Despite Carmen’s praises, I was still not satisfied with my performance; I thought that I should and could have done better for both Carmen and Susan. I hoped that I would get a chance to redeem myself.
I saw Carmen during Christmas. She came for our shop party, and although she looked a little tired, I still could not tell how bad the cancer inside her was tearing her apart. She showed no pain. When I asked how she was doing, she told me that she was doing well, and then she focused our attention back to getting gifts for her friends. She left a little afterwards, and I gave her one last hug and wished her Merry Christmas. That was the last time I saw Carmen. A month or two went by, as it does when you are busy-or trying to keep busy during the winter time. I was at home, going through my e-mails on a dreary February day when I got the news: Carmen had passed away. I did not wail, I did not sob, nor did I get angry. I felt a wave of sadness, I felt a giant weight in my chest, and I teared up thinking about her, and the fact that I would never get a chance to deliver for Carmen the fishing day I felt she deserved.
Then it hit me: Carmen’s last fishing trip was with me. She must have known that this was going to be her last trip, and she chose to go with me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized what an honor it was to have had that last day on the water with her, and that despite the tough conditions, she caught the last fish of her life with me. My sadness and tears faded, and I realized just how important that last day had been to all three of us: Carmen, Susan, and me. We had our one last hurrah on the river, and although it did not have the “perfect” ending I felt she deserved, it still had the perfect ending for her. And that was all that mattered.
As the weeks passed after Carmen’s death, I came to learn that she had stage 4 stomach cancer. Her doctors had given her only three months to live, and she made it to seven. She went out on her last fishing trip, caught her last fish, lived her life to the fullest with her friends, and died peacefully in her home. She went out on her own terms, and lived her life with class, grace, and strength right up to the end. And that’s how I will always remember her. She came to me to learn how to fish better, and in the end, she made me a better guide, and person. I will miss our fishing adventures, but I know that every time I go fishing, I can thank Carmen for making me realize the importance of taking the time to slow down, relax, and take it all in. So, for this Christmas and upcoming New Year and fishing season, remember to take your time, enjoy the experience-no matter the outcome, and always be thankful for any and every day out on the water. In short, fish and live like Carmen. You’ll be glad you did!