A flick of orange light slips past cupped hands, soon followed by thick curls of smoke that lift and hang slowly in heavy July air. Rachel pulls at the cigar hung from her lips. Between veils of haze, she looks intently at the water swirling and breaking around her. She casts her fly with certain ease and efficiency, the kind one can only acquire after thirty-plus years of devout practice.
It slips beneath the overhanging limbs of alder and lands exactly where she wants it to, almost as soon as it does, a brook trout slashes greedily at it. The fish, too small for the fly, ends up only pushing it skyward. On the bank Rachel is smiling, because she knows this is exactly where she is meant to be.
A sequence of bad luck, tough breaks, and the bright lights of a Coke machine ultimately landed Rachel where she is today. An injury while windsurfing quickly compounded when all of her equipment was stolen from her truck. Maybe it was the universe telling her, in not so subtle terms, where she belonged. With this, the weight of circumstance, a certain curiosity– and a hand me down H.L. Leonard bamboo rod that her husband’s Grandfather won in a poker game at the Tall Timber Lodge, Rachel found her calling.
She would return daily to the same spot on the West Branch of the Ausable River, spending countless hours “not knowing” what she was doing in those early days. Eventually, time and determination merged into momentum, she met other anglers and began exploring the river. It was on one such day that thirst propelled her to a coke machine auspiciously placed at the main office of a fishing lodge called The Hungry Trout.
To say the rest is history wouldn’t be fair, because it wouldn’t include the countless clients that return yearly to the Adirondacks to fish with Rachel. Or the ever-growing list of aspiring anglers hoping to find some slim break in her heavily occupied schedule. It wouldn’t include the years spent guiding float trips in Alaska or the hosted travel to far-flung fishing destinations. It wouldn’t include how she beat the shit out of cancer or the Casting For Recovery Clinics that she has helped with as a result of her own experience. It also wouldn’t include the untold days, hours, and minutes spent in the pursuit of excellence. It wouldn’t include how she knows the words to seemingly every song from every musical ever made or the incredible art that lines her studio walls.
Mainly though it wouldn’t include all of the people that know and love Rachel Finn, all of the friends she has made, and all of the people that she has, through her love and dedication to Fly Fishing, helped and guided over the years.
“That was a brown trout,” she says to me through smoke and clenched teeth. “You can tell by the way they take it, there is no mistaking it.” We are on a small stream, a thin blue line that etches its way beneath lush canopy and can, as Rachel has learned from years spent within its banks, hold the occasional trophy trout. To watch her dissect water is something unto its own, there is an effortlessness and precision that is hard to describe.
Cast after cast, her fly lands deftly and fish are released as quickly as they are caught. All the while she points to and recalls fish and the small pockets that they might hold in, “that one can have a nice fish” she says repeatedly as we move upstream.
Authenticity is a rare find given the current state of things and yet Rachel is one of the most authentic people I have ever met. Maybe it is the artist in her that is in constant pursuit of the truest self or maybe it’s just plain stubbornness to bend in any direction she dislikes. She believes in doing the work, no shortcuts. “You can’t rush experience” she once said to a packed room at the New Jersey Fly Fishing Show, it is a quote I defer to often when trying to navigate the modern state of Fly Fishing. Just do the work, an ethos that is quickly evidenced by her knowledge of even the most minute features as we progress upstream. It’s the kind of wisdom that can’t be bought or fabricated, rather is earned by the simplest of terms– time.
The fishing is phenomenal. A “one fly” kind of day and even after all of her years spent on the water, Rachel keeps commenting on how great it’s been. In one of the tight slicks that she knows so well a beautiful brown sips her fly and the game is afoot. The fish puts a good bend in the rod and Rachel responds with slight directional changes in pressure. Even within the confines of such a small stream, she makes it look easy. In the net we both revel in the trout’s beauty, large amber spots line its flank and a heavy blue halo stains its gill plate. We look at each other and know that this is a special day and like any special day deserves, we keep fishing.
At a large pool, Rach looks at me “you fish this one”. “No way” I respond with my own stubborn streak. The offer alone means the world to me, but that is also Rachel, incredibly generous. She always offers the best pools to those who accompany her or tries to row the entirety of the trip.
One time while Rachel and I were having a productive night on a small pond another angler, frustrated by his lack of success, asked his friend what he was using to no avail, Rach belted out “sz 10 stimulators are working for us” to which he smiled and quickly changed his fly. There are a million of these small moments, I know this because everyone I have met that knows Rachel is quick to tell stories that begin with “One time Rachel and I…” She has woven a tapestry of sorts, of first fish on the fly, of great laughs, of priceless advice, and of support for so many.
She takes her fly from its keep and casts it into the pool, this is one of those spots where you only get one good shot. Sure enough something heavy eats it and her rod bows, it is clear that this is one of the fish that make this place so special. Rachel fights it well, but as quickly as it began the rod and line go slack, leaving us both to wonder what sort of behemoth it could have been. She and I laugh because we both know that these are the moments that keep us coming back, the what-ifs, and the ones that getaway. On our walk back to the truck we recount the days fishing, beaming and grateful to have shared such an amazing day on the water.
At best I think we all hope to leave the world a little better, maybe a little happier even, whether Rachel knows it or not she has already succeeded in doing this. And what is more, I know she’ll read this and say something like “whatever” and immediately get back to where she belongs– in a river, cigar lit, rod in hand, hopefully, bent by a fish.
Article and photos from Sean Platt, a fly fishing guide and freelance photographer based in NY’s Adirondack Mountains. To learn more check out