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At some point in his adult life, a devoted fly fisherman has to confront the fact that he’s probably a better angler than husband. This realization usually comes when he walks in the door after a long, wildly successful day on the water that, in retrospect, would have been better spent at home on less leisurely endeavors.
When Sebastian O’Kelly arrived home after fishing one afternoon a few years ago, it wasn’t the glare of his wife, Liz O’Kelly, that unnerved him—it was her absence. A quick call to his neighbors’ house confirmed his suspicion: While he was out on a boat chasing bluefish in the Chesapeake Bay, Liz had begun having contractions, ahead of schedule, with their first child.
But O’Kelly’s list of sins had not yet reached the bottom of the page.
“To this day,” says the 41-year-old O’Kelly, “the thing she gets irritated about is that I prepared this bacon sandwich”—which he wolfed down at the house before speeding off to the hospital.
“A man needs fuel as much as a woman does for this sort of marathon,” the Bethesda resident explains in The Offbeat Angler, a collection of fishing stories and essays he co-wrote with college buddy Christopher Arelt.
That particular fish tale, like the other entries in Angler, is self-deprecating, folksy, and story-driven, all of which make the book a rarity in fly-fishing lit, a body that too often leans toward the etymologically arcane or the “how-to” and “where-to” of the sport. O’Kelly and Arelt believe deeply in fishing odd spots for odd creatures—“stop by the side of a busy road to venture a cast into some forgotten, goop-filled pond,” O’Kelly urges in one piece—and their contrarian credo demonstrates that not all fly fishers are buttoned-down elitists who look and act as if they’ve just stepped out of an Orvis catalog.
“A lot of fly fishermen get locked into a certain view of what fly-fishing is: We fish for wild trout in Western streams and famous waters,” says O’Kelly, a lobbyist and former Hill staffer who grew up in the trout-rich Catskills of New York. “It’s cool to do that, but they don’t take the sport beyond that or in a parallel direction to other places.”
For O’Kelly, those parallel directions lead to plenty of Washington’s own goop-filled holes, such as the C&O Canal in the District, where carp feed on mulberries for a brief window during the summer, or—beyond the imagination of most anglers—ponds outside condo developments and shopping centers where largemouth bass take up residence. “A lot of it’s hit-and-run fishing,” says O’Kelly, who, not having seen a “No Fishing” sign, was booted from a honey hole by shopping-mall security in Montgomery County one day last year.
Such run-ins only add to the adventure of urban fishing. In fact, some of Angler’s finest moments are encounters not with colorful fish but with colorful people, such as Paula, the dock worker at Fletcher’s Boathouse in D.C. familiar to anyone who’s fished for hickory and American shad on the Potomac River. “Rumor has it that she was once homeless,” writes O’Kelly, “then taken in by a Fletcher’s regular to live in a wing of his house and care for an ailing parent. She walks with the stride of a bandy-legged sailor, with ropy, knotted arms from hauling around boats all day and hands yellowed by Potomac mud.”
Idaho’s fabled Snake River, of course, the Potomac is not. But O’Kelly and Arelt’s tales suggest that there’s another, perhaps richer romanticism in the idea of hopping out of a cab with a fly rod in your hand, dodging spent condoms on your way down to the river. Offbeat angling, they maintain, is about “nothing if not attitude.”
“You’ve gotta look closer to home and revise your expectations,” says O’Kelly. “If you’re willing to be creative and entrepreneurial in what you pursue, you can find some real surprises.”
His only caveat regards timing: “I advise you to pick a day when your wife is not giving birth.” —Dave Jamieson