I’m sure we all have fairly similar stories as to how we started fly fishing… “My father would take me out to dunk worms at a young age. Yada, yada, yada… I picked up a fly rod and never looked back.” My story is along those same lines with the exception of one experience that reshaped fly fishing forever for me.
Being from a family with four boys, we were very busy and constantly driving from one athletic event to the next.
This made our time spent together valuable, and I think that’s one of the reasons that fishing became so important to me at such a young age. I loved the time that we shared fishing, and the countless stories that came out of those times together. Stories that we continue to tell to this day.
By the time I was in high school, my older brothers were off in college and starting their careers. They had lost their time and interest in fishing. It was during these years that my younger brother, Caleb, and I were really starting to get into the sport. We had graduated from live bait and moved on to artificial lures. This inevitably led to my ever peaking interest in fly fishing. The two of us spent a lot of time together fishing, and always seemed to bump into fly fishermen as we explored our local streams. They were always getting into fish, but more than that, it was beautiful to me. I’m not sure if it was the rhythm of the cast, the connection to nature, or what but I knew I needed to figure it out.
Later that year, my grandmother asked me if I wanted a fly rod. I was unaware at the time, but her cousin built rods. My grandmother had no clue how good her timing was with this gift idea. I jumped at the opportunity and my first fly rod was in my hands that Christmas.
A stop at the local fly shop for a reel, line and a few other essentials and I was off. I had zero understanding of the sport with the exception of where trout feed. I proceeded to struggle with fly fishing for a few years, but began to pick it up over time. I was like a sponge. Any little tip or comment made by a more experienced angler was graciously accepted and put into practice. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was starting to feel more comfortable with the basics of fly fishing.
My high school girlfriend’s father was also a fly fisherman. We never managed to get out on the stream together, but we often discussed fishing. He saw how passionate (and I’m sure how naïve and clueless) I was, and hooked me up with an Orvis Clearwater Classic 9’ 5wt setup as a graduation present. Man was I pumped! My new setup allowed me to hand down my other fly rod to get Caleb started and we were off to struggle together.
While Caleb and I were spending all our spare time fishing together over the next few years, the stars were beginning to align. Our mother had been hiding money away that she made from her side job for quite some time. It was the summer of 2007, prior to my senior year in college, that my mom sprung her surprise on all of us with a trip to Maine. You should’ve seen my dad’s face as she pulled out a wad of cash from a shoebox beneath their bed to pay for the trip that we, otherwise, wouldn’t have been able to afford!
During that summer leading up to the trip, my mom was starting to experience pains in her abdomen and the doctors couldn’t seem to figure out why. Despite her pain, we were off to Maine that August. We were staying in a little cabin on Rangeley Lake and spent our evenings around the fireplace licking our wounds from the days’ struggle of trying to figure out Maine brook trout. We were clueless and fly fishing was still a new challenge for all of us. Those of you that are unfamiliar, these are not just your average native brook trout streams. Maine is the mecca of brook trout fishing, and I’m sure we managed to annoy just as many brook trout as we did locals that week.
Countless stories came out of this trip, my favorite of which was teaching my mom how to fly fish. She picked it up so fast and could mend line like no other. She was a total natural, and this was one of those moments that fly fishing provides that will remain with me until the day I die. No fish were caught that afternoon, but it was a beautiful couple of hours together. It was so amazing just to watch her forget about her pain (and my lost father who wondered off to take a poop hours ago), and connect with nature the way fly fishing allows us to do. The week came to an end and I am so thankful for my mom who worked so hard to get us to Maine.
We were back to our daily routines and I was off to finish my schooling during some very difficult circumstances that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It turns out my mom’s abdominal pains were caused by pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is a dick! My mom was always in great shape. Ate healthy. Never smoked. Never had a drop of alcohol. Pancreatic cancer didn’t care.
Her battle continued on through the winter, and we all were doing our best to stay positive. Caleb and I were trying to focus on our schooling while coming home more often than usual to spend time with our mom as she was going through chemotherapy. That March all of our worlds were flipped upside down. It was around 10:30pm March 1st that I received the worst phone call of my life. My little brother was killed in a car accident. I puked in the parking lot and sped all the way to the hospital. The whole way my head was spinning. I was convinced it was a nightmare and couldn’t be real.
I was already crushed having lost my best friend and fishing buddy, but somehow things managed to get worse. The loss of Caleb was too much for my mom to bear. Two weeks after losing Caleb my mom passed away from her cancer. I’m so thankful for the time we had, and treasure all of the stories that we made as a family over the years.
It was terribly difficult, but my brothers encouraged me to get back to college and finish my last semester on time. It was a blur but somehow I made it through. We were all struggling by, and knew we needed to do something to help start the healing process.
I’m not sure how it all happened but we decided to make the trip back to Maine. My dad, brothers, two cousins and I hit the road shortly after I graduated. The clean air, the wilderness, the black fly bites, the occasional brook trout (we still sucked) and the healing waters of Maine were exactly what we needed.
This is when fly fishing became so much more than catching fish for me. It made me whole again. Fly fishing saved me from some very dark places and continues to renew my soul to this day. My passion transformed into an obsession, and I could see it happening to my oldest brother Josh as well. Together we studied the sport and spent a lot of time on the water. No one could ever replace Caleb as my fishing buddy, but Josh definitely helped fill the void.
After our first trip following that nightmare of a spring, we decided to make it happen every year. Not only did we vow to make this annual pilgrimage, but CRO Flies was born. No we didn’t spell it wrong… CRO comes from Caleb’s initials (Caleb Randolph Ott). CRO Flies was created as a place for us to share silly stories, sell some t-shirts and most importantly to honor Caleb. Just another part of our healing process I guess. Over the years Josh and I have honed (I use that term loosely as we are always learning) our craft, and began selling flies. It wasn’t long until we started guiding and sharing our passion with those around us in many ways.
Flash forward to today, and we are still consumed by fishing. We may have been a little quiet as of late, but don’t let that fool you. We have taken some time away from the blog to focus on our own fishing, tying and other shenanigans. Feeling inspired as well as a responsibility to get the blog up and running, we are back.
Fly fishing kept me from derailing back in 2008, and it provides me with what I need to this day. When I step into a river I feel close to Caleb, and I’m reminded of my mother’s sacrifices that opened this world up to me. Fly fishing healed me, and for that I am forever indebted.