Last month, my wife and I loaded up our three boys and headed west. Our family’s summer vacation took us all the way into the mountains, to the city of Steamboat Springs, Colorado (and a few other places along the way to and from to break up the drive).

It was probably the most adventurous trip we have taken as a family, with whitewater rafting, hiking, dipping in hot springs and riding a one-person coaster down the side of a mountain. Like most family trips, this one was packed with lots of family fun time along with brief moments of frustration and irritation mixed in.

There were several memorable moments on this trip, but there was one moment that stood out for a different reason than the rest.

My son, Noah, fly fishing for the first time at a stream located about 25 miles from Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Jim Palmer

Toward the end of our time in Steamboat, our oldest son, Noah, 14, asked if he could try his luck at fly fishing. Over the last few years, he has gotten hooked on bass fishing. I think he would fish just about every day if we had a boat. When it comes to knowledge of fishing, he passed me up a couple of years ago. Noah had watched some videos on fly fishing and thought it looked interesting. Since we were in prime territory for fly fishing, we checked it out.

There were a few fly fishing outfitters in town. Each offered full-day trips that involved a guide. They also cost several hundred dollars. But they also had the option to just rent the gear for a day. So we did that.

The outfitter gave Noah some basic instructions on how to rig up a fly fishing line, and he gave us a location 25 miles out of town where he thought we might have some luck. It had recently snowed in the Steamboat area (and we were there at the end of June) so many of the rivers in the area were too high for good fly fishing.

We packed up the rod and fly reel, a small case with some flies in it, boots and waders. And off we went.

Noah jumped in the backseat and started working on the line. He wanted it all set up by the time we got there. About two minutes before we got there, he said, “I can’t get it.”

“Uh, oh,” I thought.

He tried to look at more YouTube videos, but we were too far out, and there was no sign of Internet access. We were on our own.

After a couple of wrong turns, we found the stream. We also noticed about five or six people fly fishing. This was a good sign, we thought.  

When I looked in the backseat, I could see Noah had been struggling to get the line like it was supposed to be. His look of hope and excitement was gone. He didn’t even want to put on his waders. It was no use, he thought.

We grabbed the gear and started walking down to the stream. Just a few seconds into our walk, we saw a man walking up from the stream. He said “Hi” and wished us luck.

We talked briefly about the weather, before I asked, “This is my son’s first time fly fishing, and we aren’t sure what to do. What do you think our chances are of catching a fish today?”

The man, who was walking to his car, stopped and turned back.

“Can I see your line?” he said.
“Sure,” said Noah.

After looking at it for about three seconds, he said. “Do you mind if I re-rig this for you?”
“Not at all,” Noah said, with some of that hope creeping back into his face.

The man opened the back of his car and put away his gear. Then took about 15 minutes to rig up Noah’s line so it was ready to catch a fish. He gave him tips on where to fish on the stream. And he also gave Noah four or five flies he said were working well that day (He said he caught about 20-30 trout that morning).

The man had drove a couple of hours from his home in Denver to do some fly fishing near Steamboat that day. He had been fishing for more than three hours. And now he was taking time to help my son. We both thanked him several times. He simply looked at us and said, “Someone had to teach me once… I’m happy to help and pay it forward.”

This 4-inch trout caught fly fishing was one of the highlights of our fly fishing day. It was released after this photo and may be as big as 4.5 inches long today. Photo by Jim Palmer

As he drove away, I looked at Noah. He was all smiles. He realized what had just happened.  This man (a stranger) was exactly what we needed… and exactly when we needed it. And he showed my son a valuable lesson in kindness.

Over the next 2+ hours, Noah tried his best to catch a trout. I walked up and down the stream looking for possible new spots. He walked in and out of the stream with waders pulled up nearly to his neck. We were looking for calm water, which was few and far between. Noah also was getting the hang of casting, which is tricky. With a half hour to go, we found a great spot up the river, and he was really getting the casting technique down.

Then it happened.

I looked up, and he looked at me. His eyes were wide. He had a fish on.

Then he started to laugh.

It was a 4-inch rainbow trout.

We took some pictures, and he got back in the water.

The 4-incher was the only fish he caught that day, but it was a fish. He wasn’t shut out.

On the way back to Steamboat, we talked about the guy who helped us. Without him, the experience would have been very difficult and mostly likely a disappointment. Our conversation then expanded to include a list of people who have helped Noah with his bass fishing over the years. He named quite a few people.  Besides the 4-inch fish, I think Noah caught some great life lessons that day.

I didn’t get the man’s name, but he did say he worked for Xcel Energy and often comes to Minnesota for work. If you happen to know a guy who works for Xcel Energy, lives in Denver and likes to fly fish, please tell him that my son caught a fish that day… and we couldn’t have done it without him. Thanks for the help. We promise to pay it forward the next chance we get.