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The Braided Wing

Williams & McPhail in the Gila Wilderness

Posted October 20, 2012 Conway X. Bowman.

Williams & McPhail in the Gila Wilderness

Mark D. Williams and W. Chad McPhail, authors of the soon-to-publish An Introduction to Fly Fishing for Trout (Stonefly Press, 2013), share a hilarious story from a hike-in trip to the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico. This behind-the-scenes story is a hallmark of their work - personal, reflective, and funny. Their books will add the strategies and really practical tips we all love - what to fish, where to fish, how to fish, what to wear, even where to get a cold drink - but here they take a second to share a funny moment about the crazy shit we all go through at times to reach the fish. Great stuff, and we're looking for more in their future books, 50 Best Places to Fly Fish the Southwest (Stonefly Press, 2013) and New Mexico Fly Fishing (Stonefly Press, 2014).

We didn’t set out to write a how-to-flyfish-for-trout book initially.

Between the two of us, we’ve been flyfishing for seventy years. I’ve fished in over 70 countries, and all the states. We’ve taught a thousand others how to fly fish, given seminars, done the slightly-entertaining destination Power Point show (heck, I used to give true“slide” shows not all that long ago.) Between the two of us, we’ve written 25 books and hundreds of articles and our own shelves are overflowing with hundreds of flyfishing books.

But here’s the thing.

We didn’t own the kind of how-to-flyfish book that represented the way we teach. Mac and I are both teachers, high school English to be exact. We’ve always been struck by how other flyfishing books try to teach how to flyfish by eating the entire elephant. We’ve seen way too many people buy the gear, try flyfishing, then never bring it out again because 1) it’s just too hard or 2) they didn’t catch many or any trout the first time or two. So we always taught our friends and clients how to fish by 1) simplifying the process and 2) making sure they find success early and often.

Mac and I are fishing buddies. We have traveled thousands of miles over the last eleven years hitting almost every fishing hole in the great Southwest, “researching” for three books. We love trout but we’ll fish for bass and carp and bluegill and have just as good of time. We especially love wild trout and wild country. We’ve run into our share of calamities and disasters and bear encounters over the last decade. Together, we’ve had one-hundred fish days and fishless days. We’ve given the other guy our last fly-that-is-the-only-fly-that’s-catching-anything because that’s what fishing buddies do. I believe that Mac is the best small-stream angler I’ve ever fished with. I overheard him telling someone that same thing about me. Fishing buddies have each other’s back.



We backpacked into the Gila Wilderness of southern New Mexico a few years back. We carried fifty-pound packs, ready for ten days in some wild country, in search of Gila trout. We tend to not trust other guidebooks for directions and in this case, our fears were confirmed. We were lost at the parking area. We had to cross the river, up and roily, which we managed with some impressive but dangerous gymnastics, but couldn’t find the right trailhead. We found the one everyone else uses but we wanted the one that took us around all the daycampers and got us into the backcountry.



We saw it. Upstream a good two-hundred yards. No way to go back out in the river and upstream because of some wild water and deep holes. Mac had a great idea. We could shimmy up this cliff that fronted the river, find handholds and toeholds, and make our way about twenty yards upstream, sliding along the steep wall, while hanging over the wild river and not falling. Easy.

Not so much. We underestimated the counterbalance effect of fifty-pound packs. We struggled to the middle of the cliff, each of us hanging on for dear life, trying not to be the first to let go and splash into the river, providing the other with a lifetime of campfire hoorahing. It was like two turtles climbing a wall. I was in the lead and couldn’t find either a toehold or a handhold. We were stuck.

As we hung on the side, ever closer to falling, we discussed our options. Toss the backpacks, jump into the river, and start all over. That was our best option. We started laughing. You know how in church when something is only moderately funny (your brother shifts and it sounds like passing gas, that sort of thing) but because you’re not supposed to laugh, the chuckling cascades into a weird huffing guffaw? That was us. Complete with tears from laughing so hard. Until we heard the voice.

“What are you guys doing?”We turned to see an old geezer with a walking stick. He was upstream crossing about forty yards up. “You looking for the XYZ trail?” We nodded as we hung from our fingertips. He shook his head in embarrassment for us. “Hop down and cross back and come on up here.” He mumbled something and hiked off. No doubt he whispered “Idiots.” I don’t blame him.

No way we could fingertip it back from whence we came so we reversed course. I got to the starting point and lost my grip and tumbled while swinging downstream, holding on for dear life with my right hand. I was headed for the river.

Mac caught me and swung me over to the bank where I landed with a dry thud. We took off our backpacks, had a swig from a flask, and knew we were in for a damned good trip. The crazier the adventures, the better the trip.




You see why we’re the right ones to write an ideal how-to-flyfish book? We’ve been on both sides. We understand failure. We’re excellent fly-anglers who still screw up from time to time to time. And we’re fishing buddies and if you’ve fished, you know just what that means.

(Photos by Mark D. Williams)