I remember clearly the first time my dad taught me to fly cast. Standing in the front lawn with a rolled up newspaper under my arm … casting for rising trout from in front of the azalea bush or trying to land my line at the head of the pool behind the sprinkler or the magic rush of adrenalin when I got the line caught between the fence posts and first heard the siren song of a fly reel drag in motion. I remember my first few days on the water with my father and grandfather like they were yesterday the magic of it… the excitement of it … and finally the satisfaction of it. Those moments are truly special to me and hold a place deep in my soul. They can never be recaptured but unlike most things in life where we can never get a chance to visit a “first time” more than once, Fly fishing through the magic of teaching others allows you to revisit those magical firsts… your first casts and your first fish can be relived over and over through the eyes of those you teach the sport to, a rare opportunity that is as much pleasure for the teacher as for the student.
Most of us that have been fly fishing for very long run into this at nearly every social gathering … … “So you like to fly fish I would love to learn to fly fish like they do in that movie. How hard could it be for you to teach me to do it like they do??” Depending on the sincerity of the person, my answer often is “I don’t really know, I have only been doing it for 38 years, so I will have to let you know how hard it is to do correctly after I finally begin to do it right”. Other times the person strikes the right cord with their questions and you get a gut instinct that they really would like to learn and you open up a discussions about the joys that can be found busting your butt over a mountain top, crawling through the overgrown brush, trying to thread a cast through a myriad of green leafy obstacles, just so you can see a slashing strike on a dry fly which you are a half beat to slow in reacting too so you flip the fly into the top of the tallest tree within sight… all the while wearing a silly content smile of a totally smitten man. Most times these conversations end up like the beer cans that were consumed while the conversation took place… tossed and discarded … as something that seemed like a good idea through the beer goggles but couldn't stand up to the light of day. But, every now and then you get a true taker that rises to the allure of fly fishing and you find a student that truly wants to be introduced to its secrets and if they still have that gleam in their eye, you do the meanest thing you could ever willingly do to a person … … you offer to take them with you fly fishing and introduce them to this addiction.
I have taught kids and I have taught adults, taught men and women and have had successes and failures … … but the common bond with all of the successes is that they truly wanted to learn to fly fish and were more interested in learning that than in catching fish……… I had the pleasure of teaching one such man recently. He had been after me for years to teach him. His original requests had been lost in the din of crowd noises at the various kid’s sporting events which is where we usually saw each other plus I just hadn’t pictured him as the type who truly wanted to learn to “fish” versus just playing “catch”. However, he kept after it and finally wore me down so I agreed to take him. We spent an autumn afternoon learning to cast standing on the artificial turf at the high school football stadium taking the usual crappy jokes from the out of shape joggers circling the track asking if we had “caught much” and wondering what “ya using for bait” …….. I resisted the urge to respond with ““emerger Twinkies” to lure your fat *** jogging/walking self”……… We worked on technique and tempo of casting, as usual with a man we spent most of the time teaching him his own strength had no value in this sport and it was tempo and rhythm of the cast not power. We worked on feeling the rod “load” and how to let that bend do the work and in general had a pleasant couple of hours. I knew this guy was going to make it when he asked to take my rod home with him so he could practice some more before we went fishing the next day.
Any stray doubts about his desire to learn were banished completely when he showed up 15 minutes before we were to meet at my house to head out on our days fishing. As said in “the book” (note I said “the book” not “the movie” as I really love the book more than the movie although I admit I really love both) “three things we are never late for church, work and fishing”. Watching a 50 year old man practically skipping because he gets to go fishing is something that just naturally makes you smile and makes you glad you are taking the time. The ride up to the stream was filled with fishing talk and long winded narratives about techniques and tips … as if the long winded clue wasn’t enough … obviously delivered by me. But soon enough we were moving through the cold clear water on a fresh crystal clear autumn morning. The sunlight so focused you felt you could touch it and the reflection off the water so bright it made your spirit seem to glow in response. I laughed as I helped support a stumbling 6’6” guy who could easily throw me around on dry land but who hadn’t yet adjusted to wading a slick stoned stream. I smiled as he said this was so much harder than casting on the football field as he fumbled with retrieving line and staying tight to the indicator. I would have loved to let him get his start on a beautiful dry fly day but the fish gods had denied us and a recent cold front had put an end to dry fly activity on this free stone stream for the year. So he dragged lead and threw clumsy ugly lobs but he was fishing … truly fishing. I heard despair in his voice when after sixty struggling minutes or so he hadn’t even gotten a bump….. “Here you do it and let me watch how you are doing it” I accepted the rod smiling now that I was on stage. I skillfully stripped line and smoothly rolled a couple false casts impressing even myself with my skills as I launched a near perfect cast to the fast run way on the other side just in front of that fly eating rhododendron tree……….. Oh ****….. Please don’t get hung up in……. “See it happen to all of us sometimes …. I just wanted to show you how to untangle from a tree”. But two casts later I felt the tug that was the sign of what he was looking for and few moments later held a pretty rainbow as a signal that I hadn’t lied and that my friend would be catching fish himself soon enough if he just hung in there. Sure enough within ten casts of when I handed the rod back to him his strike indicator stopped dead in a riffle and I hollered for a hook set which ended up with line wrapped around hand, head and rod and a laughing fish safe and un-hooked. But over time the inevitable happened and he happened to be picking up to cast at the exact time a fish struck… so the miracle had happened and my friend was fast to a fish. The smile and laughter that erupted was truly magic and I felt myself warm to my core as he landed that fish. I had unfortunately forgotten my camera but I doubt he will ever forget it as most of us still fairly clearly remember our first. I spent the next few hours fine tuning his cast, which was easy cause it needed a lot of tuning and teaching fishing techniques as the ghosts of my father and grandfather echoed in my head and their words sprung from my mouth as my own… … “Keep your rod tip up“, “take your time don’t horse him”, “slow that cast down”, “hook sets are free use all you want”, “**** it Dick quit throwing those dang wind knots” ……… well maybe I didn’t say that one …. … but I swear I heard it in my head.
My friend caught fish, some by luck but by the end the day he caught some with new found technique. His casts were not pretty but simply effective and in the end that is what counts. He learned where the fish might be and how to think of his approach and how to read the indicator and how to land and release fish…. all in all a great day of learning and knowledge … but the best part of this for my friend may have been that I truly believe that this knowledge was the beginning of creating a fly fisherman and that the lessons may have stuck.
And the absolute best part of the trip is it allowed me to relive my fly fishing past and to remember the excitement of learning to cast, of the sleepless nights waiting on dawn and the upcoming fishing trip, of those first few fish seemingly conjured out of the water’s darkness with no pretense of knowledge or skill just blind faithful luck to account for the wiggling shining fish on the end of my line. Those wonderful moments as I began my life long obsession with the sport we call fly fishing… … and even though I didn’t make 30 casts on the whole of the day I had more fun than I if had caught 40 fish myself, because I was giving back to the sport and giving back to someone else, what others had so graciously given me so many years earlier. Remember all of us were novice rookies at one point in our fly fishing lifetimes and all of us had help from someone as we struggled to learn and progress……. So repay those that helped you and lend a hand to someone else as they try to learn the sport we love so.
Make yourself a promise that you will teach someone to fly fish this year ……… and I will guarantee you will end up learning and growing as much as they do……… and you will have some fun while you are doing it.