A couple years ago, we ran a series called “Trout Bum of the Week,” in which we highlighted some of the guys living the good life. . .of a sort. (See the bottom of this post for a link to the previous installments.) This is our second round of profiles. Most of the subjects are guides who have turned their passion into a vocation, spending their time in an outdoor “office” that may include a drift boat, gorgeous mountain scenery, and crystal clear water. Others do have day jobs but manage to spend every other available minute on the water with a fly rod in hand. Whether you aspire to one lifestyle or the other, it’s illuminating to explore the different paths these men and women have taken on their way to achieving “trout bum” status.
Alberto Rey is an Orvis-endorsed guide, an artist, and a faculty member in the Department of Visual Arts and New Media at the State University of New York at Fredonia. He also works with children through the Sportfishing and Aquatic Resource Educational Programming (S.A.R.E.P.) Youth Fly-Fishing Program.
1. When did you start fly fishing?
I started fly fishing about twenty years ago, when I moved to western New York and heard about migrating steelhead and salmon. But I started fishing when I was around 10 years old, which was 43 years ago.
2. What’s your favorite water?
There is a small steelhead stream that runs behind my farmhouse. The first thing I do when I roll out of bed is look out the window at the stream. Depending on the color and flow of the water, it will dictate which of a dozen local streams I will guide or fish that day. There is a special section about five minutes away that has a long pool that runs below a set of falls. The bank is elevated and allows me to see how the steelhead react to specific flies and swinging techniques. I don’t want to make this sound too dramatic, but over the years, it has allowed me to minimize and fine-tune everything down to the purest form. These modifications have created a fluid spiritual connection to the water, the cast, the fish and the environment around me. It has created a sense of peace that I carry with me every day.
3. What’s your favorite fish to chase with a fly rod and why?
I have studied steelhead for so long that I feel connected, fascinated, and excited when I encounter each one. Every time I see or fish to them, there is always an opportunity to learn more. There is also a beauty and spirit to them that has inspired me to paint and film them for the past couple of decades. The complexity of their beauty, history, behavior, and environment makes for a very rich experience. I also love to fish for other trout and tarpon, but the connection is not as deep for me.
4. What’s your most memorable fly-fishing moment?
When I first read this question, my mind went blank because there have been so many, but three soon rose to the top. They are significant for different reasons. I’ll make the stories brief. The first occurred about two decades ago during the time that I was learning how to fly fish for steelhead. I might have caught some before that day but everything seemed to come together that late afternoon. It was a snowy, cold, bleak December day, and as I cast a short red-tailed Woolly Bugger to the top of the falls, I saw a steelhead come up and take the fly while it was coming down the falls. I have never seen that happen since. I proceeded to have a banner day as the weather worsened. When I could no long see the water, I was very excited and drove to the friend and fishing mentor who had turned me on to the sport. It was dark, and I was covered in snow as he came to answer the door. I thanked him and proceeded to shake his hands vigorously in my slime-covered fingerless gloves. It took me a few seconds before I realized why he had that strange grimace on his face. He often reminds me of that evening.
The second moment occurred many years later at a nearby stream when I was battling the largest steelhead I had ever hooked in our local waters. I was in tail section of the pool, when the hooked 36+-inch fish circled me. It would not allow me to beach it or get close enough to tail, and I had no net. So for several minutes, he just swam a couple of feet around me as I worked him and waited for him to tire. I was getting anxious that I would not be able to take a picture of this behemoth, and then the hook came out. He stayed with me for a few seconds before swimming away. I have been haunted by those last few seconds ever since.
The last incident occurred when I was at the right place at the right time. I was fishing at a secluded local stream at the head of a pool when a steelhead took my large, barbless white marabou streamer. For the next two hours, I barely moved from the spot as I landed one migrating fish after another. After I had released two dozen fish, the tattered fly broke off on a fish that had run between my legs. Instead of tying on another fly, I broke down my rod and went home. It was a perfect moment. I returned the next day and did not get a hit or see a fish.
5. What’s your most forgettable fly-fishing moment?
During the first few years of fly fishing for steelhead, I would be frustrated by the sight of pods of fish that could not be enticed to take my fly. It would often ruin my day out on the water and would remind me of weaknesses in my character that reflected a lack of patience and the need for immediate reward. I also remember the day that I learned to walk away and find peace in the process. The fish came much more easily after that. Those earlier moments are worth forgetting.
6. What do you love most about fly-fishing?
No matter where I am in the world, as soon as I step into or am by fishing water, I feel as though everything in me changes. I feel like a little kid again. Everything that is superficial about my everyday life or the trip evaporates as I am connected to a new pure experience. I’m sure this is a result of my past experiences in the water. It is as though my body knows what is about to happen and begins to prepare for the new journey.
7. What’s your favorite piece of gear and why?
For many, many years, I have used Orvis mid-flex 6-weight rods for all of the steelhead fishing in our medium to small steams. The softer tip acts like a shock absorber that keeps tippets from breaking off on the initial aggressive takes when I’m swinging streamers or when I’m nymphing with lighter tippet for large fish. At first, I used the old Orvis Tridents and really loved them for guiding and my own personal use. I had been hesitant to make the switch over to the newer models because the older rods worked well for me and I had accumulated a lot of great memories, but I recently replaced all of them with the mid-flex Helios and Access rods. I really enjoy the light, crisp action of the rods, and I appreciate how much more easily my clients can make long difficult roll casts and mends.
8. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?
The last few years, I have developed the Cuban Flea, which is a tiny little streamer (size 10) made from angel hair, a single strand of black ostrich herl, and a micro dumbbell eye. Small, white marabou streamers are pretty effective on our local streams, but the reflective nature of the Flea and the natural profile of its body seem to seduce even the most selective fish. The dumbbell eye keeps the hook running upward and prevents it from getting snagged on any obstruction on the streambottom or fish when it’s fished above a pod. The fly is also very easy to see in deep or tinted water, which is important because you often see the take before you feel it on the line, especially if the fish runs up to the fly and takes it as it moves forward.
9. What was your favorite fly-fishing trip?
A few years ago, I went on assignment to Cuba with Tom Pero for his magazine. I was born in Cuba and had to leave when I was three to seek political asylum through Mexico. Returning was very emotional. There are great highs from experiencing my native homeland again and tremendous lows from seeing the oppression and the struggles of residents. The trip also allowed me to reconnect with the nature of the island. We fished two archipelago chains of islands off the east and west coasts of the island. The fishing was great, and there are still areas that have been only briefly explored by the guides and biologists. This is where my love for tarpon fishing blossomed.
10. What’s your next dream destination?
I have been thinking about fly fishing for taimen in Mongolia for a long time and am hoping, in the near future, to document my fly fishing investigations through a new body of artwork. I am fortunate, that for over a decade, I have been able to combine all aspects of my life that I love–teaching, guiding, fly fishing and art.