Teaching Fly-Fishing

There is no doubt that helping someone catch their first fish on the fly is one of the most rewarding experiences one could have. Fly-fishing isn’t just a skill, it’s an art form. By teaching someone the art, you are demonstrating that you have practiced and learned enough to pass that knowledge on to a less experienced angler. You won’t win any gold medals for it, but there is a certain feeling of accomplishment you get afterwards.

I’ve done this a few times throughout my fly-fishing “career”, but each time gets harder and harder. As you gain more experience, it becomes more difficult to look back to the days when you were just starting out, and your empathy for novices slowly begins to fade. You expect that the beginner will come prepared to cast 10, maybe even 20 feet of line, but in reality, they probably don’t even understand the basic casting motion. It requires some serious patience to stick with it, but eventually you can have your student casting just far enough to reach the fish.

It often begins with a bluegill, creek chub, or even yellow perch, but that’s all it takes to get hooked on the sport. However, it may take something slightly more respectable to truly develop a love.

I still remember my first trout on a fly. It was a mere few years ago, and I was fishing at my favorite stream in the remote forest of western Maine. Fall was upon us, as mid-September’s cooler temperatures lit up the surrounding foliage into a grand display of colors. Fortunately, this meant easy fishing for brook trout and landlocked salmon making their way upstream to spawn. Or so I thought.

Over the past couple days, all I had been able to catch were tiny smallmouth bass just below the dam. It was seriously ticking me off because I could catch smallies back home, but big native brookies and wild salmon don’t just live anywhere. What’s more is that they weren’t even supposed to be there!

Finally, my grandfather and I drove about a mile downstream to a large pool formed by a bend in the river. Immediately my grandfather hooked up, and as he played it I could see the trout’s gorgeous red and yellow spots dotting its thick sides. Just as he was about to land the fish, it gave one big kick and swam back towards the depths. I was filled with excitement, and couldn’t wait to get a line in the water.

I hurriedly hauled my line through the air and let it splash down noisily where the smaller portion of the stream entered the pool. Suddenly, I felt my line go taught. I stripped fast and hard, making quick work of the fight. As I thrust my net towards the fish, my face contorted in frustration. “A fallfish!” I exclaimed. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” And so I gently slid it back into the cool water and went back to casting.

Soon I had caught enough fallfish and bass to feed an army. I switched my casting angle, instead shooting the line towards the main pool. Just as I began to lose hope, I watched the bright orange of my streamer disappear. I don’t know if I’ve ever stripped faster in my life. The fish’s weight throbbed against my heavily bent rod, but I didn’t seem to notice. In no time, I was scooping the fish into my net and admiring its beauty. “Finally,” I sighed, glancing down to the deep orange belly, the brilliantly dotted side, and the white-rimmed fins.

My first ever trout on a fly. Photo credit: Jim Kelley

After that, my admiration for fly-fishing was cemented. That one fish was like a little taste of the drug that keeps me coming back for more. Catching a trout on a fly is your membership card into the fly-fishing club. Sure, it doesn’t mean you’ve learned everything there is to know about the sport, but it certainly means you’re qualified enough to cast a line, set the hook, and play the fish. It is one of the first goals new fly anglers have when getting started.

With this goal in mind, I decided to take my friend to a local stocked trout pond. Stocked trout can be very hit or miss, but when it’s a hit, the fishing is often great. Often they aren’t as aggressive or forgiving as small native brook trout in a mountain stream, but they’re also not as picky as a large wild brown in a grassy river. The simplest flies are usually the way to go, and they really don’t care how they look. If the person you’re trying to teach is also just getting into fly-tying, sometimes you can score a double-whammy by also getting them their first fish on a fly they tied. The trick with getting someone hooked on the sport is to make it easy for them. Don’t start them off in a deep tailwater where they have to chuck size 24’s all day to catch one fish. Often simpler is better at first.

In this case, I had my friend tie a black wooly bugger onto his rod, and I set up a double-nymph rig under an indicator that consisted of a red chironamid point fly, and a brown San Juan worm above it.

The great thing about this pond is how close to shore the trout stay after they are stocked. When the wind is right, you can watch a pod of dozens of trout lazily swim between two patches of lily pads 25 feet from shore. This makes it much easier to cast to them, and if you cast directly into the pod, your chance of hooking up is nearly 100%.

At first my friend’s casts were a little sloppy. He hadn’t fly-fished in a while, so it was like flexing an underutilized muscle. One thing you’ll notice with a lot of beginners is that they bring their rod too far back on their backcast. This causes them to lose a lot of power, and it also makes their form whippy and rushed. This often leads to them not waiting until the line has fully straightened behind them, which causes tangles and lost flies as the tippet snaps like a whip (you can tell when this happens; there is a very audible cracking sound, and if you check you’re fly, you’ll notice it’s no longer present). Avoid this by gently reminding them to always watch their backcast. This ensures they know the angle of their rod, and whether or not they’re waiting long enough.

You’ll notice I used to words gently remind. It is no fun if you have an instructor that is constantly correcting every detail of your form. Give them some time to experiment before coaching. This way they can tell that they are doing something wrong, and you can give them guidance for the future.

Throughout the morning, my friend’s casts continued to get better and better. He switched over to the rod I had rigged with the double-nymph rig, and his casts improved tremendously. His rod had been sitting in his attic for quite some time, and as such, it wasn’t in what I would call “peak condition”.

Ben’s casts improved throughout the day. Photo credit: Heather Belson

As he was casting, I was having some fun catching some fish of my own. I ran to the car quickly to change flies, and as I was walking back, my friend shouted, “Got one!” I quickly ran over, dropped my rod in the grass, and slid into the water. Just as I pulled my net from its magnetic clip, the line went slack and came flying back towards him.

“Darn,” we both muttered. It was close, but he still hadn’t caught his first trout on a fly. But often the ones that get away are the ones that fuel the most curiosity and excitement to keep going. It gives you hope that you’re getting closer. That hope is what makes a “last cast” twelve casts, and stretches a two-hour fishing session into a 2-and-a-half hour fishing session. It’s that feeling of knowing they’re in there, but not yet getting your hands on one.

Realizing that he might have better luck on a different fly, I tied on an olive wooly bugger and told him to cast towards the same spot. It didn’t take long before he was on again. This time, the trout fought hard, launching itself high into the air on several occasions. Then, it dove deep into the water, taking drag with it. Finally, the fish wore itself out and slid lazily into the net.

My friend was beaming as he carefully lifted the trout out of the net and in front of the camera for a picture. It was a pretty fish, but the accomplishment that came with it made it seem even prettier. He had stuck with it, even when the urge to throw powerbait tugged at him. The best part was, since he didn’t use powerbait, we got to watch as the fish swam back to join the rest of its trout friends. It’s not easy to keep fly-fishing when there are so many options that would make it much easier, but in the long run, it is much more rewarding. There are so many more components to fly-fishing that need to work perfectly in order for it to all come together. It takes time and energy to work on your form, but eventually it will all seem worth it.

This beautiful rainbow was Ben’s first ever trout on a fly. Photo credit: Heather Belson

The thing most people don’t talk about is the joy of helping someone catch their first trout. It is an unreal experience that drains you mentally and physically. It wears away at your patience until there is none left, but much like sticking with fly-fishing, it will seem worth it at the end. You don’t realize it, but teaching someone how to fly-fish actually makes you a better angler. You’ll pick up on things that you’re doing wrong as you instruct them not to make those same exact mistakes.

There is something to be said about getting someone on their first fish on a fly. Not everyone can say they’ve done it, but those that can will tell you that it was one of the most rewarding experiences ever. Hopefully you’ll think to pass the joys of the sport onto someone else if you ever get the chance. Believe me, it’s worth it.

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