There comes a time when one no longer has access to a person that shared the same passions as you. Sometimes these friends move away and you lose track of each other due to distance.
Other times, it is the passing of time and frail health that removes that special person from your life. Gary W. Smith was one of those persons that I will miss dearly now that he has passed from this earth to another dimension.
Gary spent his formative years in Cody, then joined the U.S. Navy for a career before retiring and moving back to Cody. To many of his Cody friends, he carried the nickname “Digger.” I am sure this nickname and funny story about how he received it came up at his memorial service this past Saturday. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t attend due to business commitments in Pinedale, Thursday-Saturday. It would have been a good time to get closure after losing a long-time friend and mentor.
Gary first entered my life in 1982, not too long after he had moved back to Cody to spend the rest of his retirement fly fishing this area, Yellowstone National Park and also saltwater destinations later in life. The two of us met at East Newton Lake after ice out on the lake in March that year. The lake was much different then than now. Large rainbow trout that averaged 30 inches in length and weighed well over 10 pounds swam the lake back in the 80s.
I was standing west from where the boat ramp is located and working a size 4 black woolly bugger that had been cast as far as a fiberglass rod could toward the middle of the lake. To work the fly effectively for those big rainbows, a strip, then pause, then strip again technique was required. As luck would have it, a nice rainbow had struck my streamer fly, then peeled the fly line off my old single action Pflueger 1496 fly reel down into the braided backing.
As I worked the trout back toward my waiting net, a vehicle pulled up and parked not far from where I was standing in the lake and fighting the trout. The slamming of the door is what alerted me to an audience and I looked in that direction.
An older man smoking a pipe and wearing a wool fedora hat climbed out of the driver’s side and sauntered my way. Upon approaching, all he said was, “Looks like you have a good fish there.” Then, he watched silently as I finally managed to land the trout and remove the fly.
Before I released the fish back into the lake to get bigger, this man who I thought looked a lot like a tall Ernest Schwiebert (a famous fly fisher and author in those days) complimented the fight, landing and release before introducing himself as Gary Smith. I gave him my name. We found out quickly the two of us loved to fly fish and tie flies. We began to fish East Newton Lake a lot from that day forward.
Gary was one of those men that could say a lot with a few words and I listened intently as he regaled me with tales about how the rivers and streams around Cody fished when he was a youngster and before he went off to join the Navy.
At the first meeting, the trout at East Newton was our focus. It wasn’t until I knew Gary better that I discovered we also shared a passion for catching fish in saltwater too. His fish were caught by hook and line off the fantail of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and Atlantic, while my saltwater fish were usually caught in the Caribbean at the time on a fly.
I was in my early 30s back then, while Gary was in his early 50s. From that day forward, Gary became a constant friend and even a part-time employee for a short time in the 90s, before he and his lovely wife Elsie, also an aficionado of East Newton Lake, retired from their retirement job at Y-Tex to move to Florida and fish the flats down there. By that time, East Newton Lake was not what it once was as a fishery and, I am sure that also by that time, Gary and Elsie wanted to enjoy winters without shoveling snow.
The time in Florida lasted but a year or so, before Gary and Elsie moved back to Cody. All Gary said was that he missed fishing local lakes and the mountains. By the mid-2000s, an aging father had me running back and forth to Missouri and our time together diminished significantly. Sadly, Elsie became sick, then passed away, leaving Gary without his constant companion at home and also on the lakes.
Then, Gary became ill with cancer and other physical ailments a few years later. He and I saw each other, but not as much as we should have. Now, Gary and Elsie are together again. Based on Gary’s personal belief and profession of faith in God, I am sure he and Elsie have been pestering the good Lord for where to go for the best fly fishing found in the 4th dimension.
I am sorry I missed Gary’s memorial service this past Saturday. There is much comfort though in knowing he and I shared many a good day bending fly rods together, or tying the latest and greatest fly found in Fly Tyer magazine. Rest in peace my friend. You are gone but certainly not forgotten.