Classic Story: “The Life List,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Bill Tapply casting to trout on a Western river.
Photo via

[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I’ll post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]

Every new fish you catch occupies an important place in your personal angling history.

Toward the end of June, Marshall Dickman and I found ourselves wandering around the Finger Lakes region of upper New York State, where the rolling pastoral landscape is wrinkled like the back of an old farmer’s neck and cold water tumbles through every crease on its way to one of the ten skinny lakes. We were chasing down rumors that big trout and salmon lived in those little tribs.

Alas, it had been a hot, dry spring, and then the week before our arrival, some thunderstorms had blasted through, so we found the streams running low and warm and muddy.

Our friend Ron Avery, who guides trout fishermen and turkey hunters all over the area, had volunteered to show us some of his favorite places. But after a couple days of so-so fishing, we were forced to conclude that the terrible water conditions had driven the big fish down into the lakes.

We were reconnoitering over plates of corned beef hash, home fries, over-easy eggs, and mugs of diner coffee. Ron was apologizing for his streams, and Marshall and I were apologizing for our lack of angling skill. It was a dreary conversation.

Then Ron said, “You guys want to try for some Kamloops? I know a secret spot.”
“Absolutely,” I said instantly.

Marshall arched one eyebrow at me and gave a little shrug. I guessed he was thinking what I was thinking: What the hell is a Kamloops?

“It’s a kind of rainbow,” said Ron, who’s pretty good at reading body language. “Native to some remote mountain lake in Idaho. They grow big and strong. A subspecies, I guess.”

“I knew that,” said Marshall.

“I should hope so,” I said.

Actually, it didn’t matter what exactly a Kamloops was. I’d never in my life caught one on a fly, and that made it a most desirable fish.

My fly-fishing partner Jon Kolb is also a dedicated bird watcher. Last summer we were in the middle of a delicious pale morning dun hatch on a Montana spring creek when I saw him suddenly stop casting. He cocked his head, then reeled in, slogged to the bank, and took out his binoculars. When I accused him of dereliction of duty, he said he thought he’d heard the call of some rare warbler he’d never seen before and wanted to confirm its identity.

Unlike a lot of devout birders, Jon doesn’t keep a written-down “life list” of the species he’s seen. But he has a mental list. Mention a bird to him and he can instantly tell you whether he’s ever seen one, and for the rare ones he recalls the time, location, and weather conditions. He’s traveled to distant places for the chance to spot new species, and he never goes anywhere without his bird book and his field glasses.

My friend Mike Fosburg does not fish or watch birds. He climbs mountains. His goal is to scale the tallest mountain in each of the fifty states. So far, he’s conquered twenty of them, from Maine to Nevada to Nebraska. He records them in a notebook. Just glancing at his list, he says, reminds him of the adventures he’s had, and adding a new mountain to it gives him a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

I have my own life list. It enumerates all the species of fish, freshwater and salt, that I’ve caught on a fly in nearly six decades of fly fishing. (Here I pause to write them down, which I’ve never bothered to do before. The number is thirty-eight.) My list includes chubs, shiners, and suckers, as well as tarpon, Atlantic salmon, and steelhead.

I don’t count the fish I’ve nearly caught. I don’t even want to talk about the permit that I fought to exhaustion (his and mine both) and brought alongside the boat before my knot pulled loose, never mind the barracuda that chomped through my leader and the muskellunge that swirled behind my Deceiver. They were memorable, for sure. But almost doesn’t count on the honorable man’s life list.
I observe three simple rules when considering a candidate for my personal life list:

  1. I must catch the fish on a fly and a fly rod. The Moosehead Lake trout that took my trolled Gray Ghost therefore counts. I had put an asterisk beside the Salmon River steelhead I caught on an eleven-foot noodle rod, about an ounce of split shot, and an egg pattern, and I was uncomfortable about it until I caught one on my old 7-weight and an unweighted stonefly nymph.
  2. I must actually be fishing for that species when I catch it. The flounder that somehow managed to eat the Clouser I was casting for stripers on the Monomy flats did not count. With my life list in mind, I immediately announced that I was thenceforth fishing for flounder, but I all I could catch for the rest of the day was a bunch of stripers.
  3. It’s my list, so I’m the one who decides whether a fish is “new” or not. I say a steelhead is different from a rainbow trout, and an Atlantic salmon is not a landlocked salmon, regardless of their scientific taxonomies. Likewise, I count subspecies as separate fish if I can identify them as such. Snake River and Yellowstone cutthroats, easily distinguished, are two separate fish on my list. On the other hand, I’ve probably caught more than one strain of brown trout, but since I can’t tell them apart, they count as just one fish on my list.

Until a few minutes ago, I had never written down my life list or counted the number of fish on it. But if you mentioned a species to me, like Jon with his birds, I could instantly tell you if I’d ever caught one, and, for the rare or difficult ones, where and when I caught my first, and biggest, and most recent one.

Mike theorizes that list-keeping is a growing-old thing. It’s less about remembering what you’ve done and more about continuing to have goals. He says he climbs different mountains because it gives him an excuse to visit new places and to seek new challenges. Life, he says, is all about accumulating experiences, and every new mountain is a new experience for him. Keeping a list of the mountains he’s climbed-the short gentle ones equally with the tall dangerous ones-and adding to it regularly is his way of assuring himself that he hasn’t stopped living.

That’s pretty much how I feel about fish.

Those close calls with permit and barracuda still haunt me. I traveled far for the chance to catch them, and I failed. Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of fun casting to them and seeing them take my fly and feeling them rip line off my reel. I suppose if I were a better man, that would’ve been enough.
I can’t help it. I really wanted to add them to my list.

Ron Avery’s secret Kamloops spot turned out to be a one-acre farm pond. The fields were mowed right down to the water’s edge, and a wooden casting platform extended out over the water. There was a picnic table and a charcoal grill, an outhouse, and a tool shed. Not what you’d call a remote mountain lake.

But a Kamloops was a Kamloops, and I’d never caught one. Ron swore this little pond was full of them.

So I walked out to the end of the platform, tied on a black Woolly Bugger, and cast it halfway across the pond. I let it sink to the top of the sunken weedbed, and then twitched it back.


Ron and Marshall were casting, too. I saw a few flashes down among the weeds, and once or twice I thought those flashes might’ve been behind my fly. We all kept changing flies, but after fifteen or twenty minutes, no rods had bent.

Ron went to the shed, picked up a tin can, and came out on the casting platform with me. “Watch this,” he said, and he reached into the can and tossed a handful of pellets into the water.

Abruptly the surface began to boil with feeding trout. Now I could see that these Kamloops were nice fish. Seventeen or eighteen inches, it looked like.

I cast my bugger out among those frenzied rainbows, gave it a twitch, and held on.


After a few minutes, the feeding frenzy subsided.

Okay, I thought. They are trout. They feed selectively. Here on this pond, yellowish pellets the size of double-ought buckshot are hatching. Match the hatch.

I tied on a plump size 18 Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear.

“Give ’em more pellets,” I told Ron.

He did, and again the surface churned with hungry trout.

I flicked out the little nymph and let it sink. I watched my leader, and when it twitched, I tightened, and my rod bent in half. The fish slashed back and forth across the little pond, and when I finally cradled him in my hand, I thought he might’ve looked a little different from other rainbows I’d caught.

I slipped him back into the water, reeled up, and put down my rod. Mission accomplished. I’d added a Kamloops to my life list.

Now it was time to think about carp.

* * *

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone.

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