Learning to fly cast was more of a rite of passage than anything in my family. “Ten…. Two… Ten” would be the monotone chant as I worked the hand-me-down rod in my backyard after school. My older brothers would critique my technique from the back door as my dad gave me instructions. I learned to keep the fly flowing back and forth in time, allowing the line to curl out toward my target. I thought I had it figured out. I don’t quite remember the first time I was on a river but I bet I was in for a surprise; fly fishing is NOT fly casting.
When someone asks me how to fly fish, I find it the most difficult question in the world to answer. To me, fly fishing is more than a sport you can learn – it’s a state of mind. It’s a retreat from the noise and rush of people in addition to the activity itself. I guess you could call it a religion if that’s not too inappropriate. Fly fishing beautifully combines patience, observation, trial and error, technique and experience into something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Take, for example, a local program called Healing Waters that is sponsored by one of the more prominent local conservationists in the area. This program takes war veterans fly fishing as part of the Wounded Warriors program. Typically, these men and women suffer from PTSD and/or combat injuries. The goal is to introduce fly fishing to these veterans as a form of therapy - something to emphasize focus and observation - all in a gorgeous environment. The improvement and benefits these veterans see is often astonishing.
One of the reasons fly fishing is so therapeutic is that when you feel the flow of the river, the force of the current, you start to forget everything else. The sounds and smells of the river provide a hypnotic backdrop as the rhythmic to and fro of the motions entrance the focused angler. You start to notice the small eddies and fluttering caddis, and perhaps trout sipping them off the surface. You have to really engage with the river and find out the best method to achieve your goal, and each fishing technique has its own set of pro’s and con’s. It's the lifelong goal of the fisherman to hone in on the various techniques that help catch fish and add to their enjoyment of the sport. The excitement of the fish on the line is thrilling—but the true value of fly fishing is so much more than a fish in the net.
Still, it’s fun to actually catch fish. If fly fishing interests you but you’re still just starting out, this little secret should be a consolation: an accurate and powerful cast comes only after many hours on the river, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fly fish before you’ve put in those hours. My wife, for example, can’t cast past fifteen feet, but is effective on the river using stealth and accuracy. You can catch fish if you know WHAT and more importantly WHERE to cast. If you stay out of wind knots and snapping off your fly, you can look like an old woman fighting off a bee with a broomstick and kill it on the river.
This is easier said than done – it requires hours on the river and doing some reading as well. There is a wealth of information that can help the aspiring fisherman begin to “think fishy” and stack the deck in their favor. I’ll link to some great resources to start learning about the habits of trout, but the best method is to get out there on the river and start casting. My personal motto for the habits and locations of fish is this: fish are lazy, greedy, and terrified.
Imagine the river as a conveyor belt carrying Sunday brunch down to a waiting fish. They want to be where food is being presented for them to eat at their leisure. Remember that fish are also lazy, so if they can be in a slower current and still have access to food, that is the best scenario. The last bit is self-explanatory: fish love to hide from predators in undercut banks, under low cut trees, beneath bushes, and in deep holes. Stealth and being careful to not cast a shadow over the water is key, as a shadow mimics a bird of prey on the water.
So, where can you find nice, soft pillows of still water right next to faster moving water carrying lots of food? Two of the best places where these conditions exist are in front of and behind large stones and in the seam between fast and slow water. Learn to identify these two areas and you will consistently be casting near trout. Learn to present the fly in a manner that convinces the fish to think that it's food and you’ll start reeling them in.
There is so much more to this sport and there is no way we are even going to scratch the surface in this article. Honestly, the best learning has come from experienced guides – they really know what they are doing and can address any questions you have. Another source of great information is YouTube— they have hours and hours of technical information and tips. Take a look, then go out and try the new techniques - learn them, improve them, and make them your own.
As is true for all great activities and interests, the more you learn, the less you know—as you delve in, you realize that there is so much more to learn. In the endless quest for trout, it’s the fishermen who are inescapably caught - not the other way around. Fishing creates a bond with nature and a devotion to wild places. It requires keen attention to the point where you stop thinking about everything else altogether. It’s a meditation, a way to remove yourself from everything else by simply being present, in the moment. If that isn’t a recipe for relief from daily stress and mental anxiety – I don’t know what is. If this feels like something you would be interested in, don’t wait; it’s all frozen and snow-bound now – but spring is right around the corner!
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