`Presenting' bug to fish: the fine art of fly-fishing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Where's a yuppie to go on those in-between days when spring skiing has turned to slush in Aspen, the theater is dead in New York, and the sailboat is stuck in dry dock on Nantucket? Some make it to Manchester, Vt., a town so picture-perfect it looks as if nothing real has ever happened there. Old New England wooden houses sparkle with fresh white paint and tasteful forest-green shutters. Creamy Vermont marble sidewalks stretch like great slabs of penuche fudge between inviting stores with cutesy names like The Bumblebee and Butterfly, Johnny Appleseed Bookshop, and The Gooseberry.

But it's more than New England charm that lures the upwardly mobile from across county to rent four-wheel-drives and head for these hills.

Since 1850, Manchester has been the home of Orvis -- mecca of that most cerebral of sports, fly-fishing.

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Just a short cast from Route 7 is the gray weathered Orvis showroom where salesmen will help you choose anything from a hand-tied mayfly clone to a French brass duck press -- on sale this week for $285.

You may tour the factory and see how six pieces of Chinese bamboo become a 6-foot, 258-ounce, $875 fly rod. Or watch the famous Orvis graphite rods being honed to the precision of a fencing foil.

The real action, though, is in back of the showroom around a small pond stocked with brown trout -- which share the water with a school of bulbous goldfish dumped in by local pranksters. There, 32 of us gathered that bright spring day -- as 10,000 have over the past 18 years -- to learn the delicate sport of fly-casting. For three days, under the critical eyes of half a dozen instructors, we were patiently guided in the fine art of ``presenting'' a fly to the shy and elusive trout.

After we were divided into two groups, ``Brookies'' and ``Rainbows,'' half went off to watch a video on the sex life of the mayfly. The rest got a chance to fish. Well -- sort of. No hooks and no flies.

``Choose a rod that's comfortable,'' advised Craig, one of our instructors, as he dumped an armload of aluminum canisters on the grass by the pond. ``Then take a reel, and I'll show you how to thread the line,'' he added as we all slipped a spaghetti-thin graphite rod from each canister. The instructors, all bright-eyed and eager, have short, Tom Swifty action names like Craig, Rick, Gordie, and Buck. If they all look a little too square-jawed and handsome, it's not surprising; most double as models for clothes and equipment in the Orvis catalog.

``Now we're not going to give you any flies yet. You don't need them to cast. It's the weight of the line that carries the fly,'' he said, demonstrating by pulling a Hendrickson thorax fly from his 35-pocket fishing vest and throwing it with all his might, only to have it drop like a sinker a few feet from his Lightweight Orvis Wading Shoes With Reinforced Toes.

You never actually fish the Orvis pond with a real hook until the last day. Even then, any fish caught are carefully released.

So there we stood, spaced safely apart, snapping our lines like cowboys on a buckboard.

``OK. OK. Wait a minute. You hear that snap?'' said Craig as he watched our lines wither in midair, tangle, and drop with a plop. ``We love that sound. That's what we call a dollar-fifty cast. That's what a fly costs. When you snap your line, the feathers go flying and you're left with a bare hook.''

As each of us needed help, one of the instructors would rush to our side with words of comfort and advice as we waded in to untangle our lines from the cat-o'-nine-tails.

Although the actual casting practice was the most fun, many hours were spent inside, tying knots, watching videos, and being lectured on various types of flies, equipment, entomology, and trout behavior. Most interesting were trips to the Battenkill River, where we learned to ``read'' a stream, and the important business of ``identifying a hatch'' -- that brief time when tens of thousands of flying insects emerge from the water, test their wings, and hang in a cloud over the stream.

``A trout eats on the average of once a minute throughout its life,'' Rick told us. ``They're very energy-efficient and don't waste a lot of energy swimming. They hang out near the surface and wait for the food to come to them.''

``Now where do you think the fish are?'' Craig asked as we stood on the bank gazing over the river. ``Probably over there,'' he said, pointing to protected pockets near the bank. ``Or there, under a limb, where they can't be seen by predatory birds. And facing upstream to maintain position and to watch where their food is coming from. So you want to present your fly upstream and let the water just glide in down in from of them.''

We learned that a trout can spend its entire life in one small area. ``You can catch one in the same place year after year,'' Buck told us.

``Don't you eat them?'' someone asked. ``Naw, it's more fun to catch 'em twice than to eat 'em once,'' he added with a Bucky Beaver grin. Buck, whose complete name -- Felix Robert Ernst Buchenroth III -- is about as long as a fly rod, could pull trout from a stream faster than most of us could pull dandelions from a spring lawn. We watched transfixed as Buck waded upstream maneuvering his line under branches, making one perfect cast after another while Craig gave us pointers on technique.

Later we sat at a picnic bench by the river and passed around an ice-cube tray, each section containing a small water creature picked from under the rocks so we could identify it and its matching fly counterpart.

``There's probably 500 different species of mayflies,'' Rick told us. ``That doesn't mean you need 500 different flies. Choose one that looks, well, `buggy.' Or one that either imitates food or is an attention getter.''

Each evening we could go off independently to the nearest stream to practice what we had learned that day. But not before a quick stop to purchase the perfect fly de jour. A glittering three-inch fly resplendent in blue marabou wrapped with gold and silver tinsel that looks something from a ``La cage aux folles'' hat may be attractive to you, but ``that's for Alaskan salmon. Try these,'' advised Buck, handing out a couple of nondescript brown fuzzy stone nymphs.

Buck caught 19 trout that evening. My fishing buddy from St. Paul and I, fishing just yards away, caught zip.

It's really on the last day, after you've received a diploma, made one last dash through the store, and still have a few more hours left on your fishing license that it all comes together. Then, in the stillness of the late afternoon, you find your own quiet bend in the stream, take off your shoes and socks, and wade through the clear, cold water of the rushing stream to quietly fish.

All I caught was a 40-foot weeping willow. And as I don't have a fireplace, I released it. The most euphoric moment was finding a four-inch rainbow fingerling, trapped in a little pool. Shining like a Christmas tree ornament, it flashed all its color as I scooped it up, held it for one brilliant moment, and released it back to the stream.

A successful day doesn't necessarily mean catching fish. We learned far more -- how to move through a stream silently as a tadpole, to study every rock and ripple, and the value of each creature as minute as a mayfly.

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