Fly Fishing School Hooks Anglers


MOST Americans, whether or not they play baseball, have heard of Yankee Stadium. But the only people who have heard of the ``Madison'' or ``Battenkill'' are likely to be fly fishers. As the number of fly fishers grows, though, more and more people can identify Yellowstone's Madison River and Vermont's Battenkill - two of the United States' premier trout streams.

One reason there are record numbers of fly fishers today is that there are more fly fishing schools than ever before. Fly fishing - which has been termed the most technique-intensive of all sports - is difficult to master. Thus, people often seek coaching before fly fishing the nearest pond, stream, lake, river, or ocean.

``Catching fish any way is fun,'' says Brock Apfel, coordinator of L.L. Bean's introductory three-day-long fly fishing school. ``But the actual act of catching a fish usually occupies about 5 percent of the time - if you're lucky, 5 percent,'' he says, and chuckles. ``So the important thing is what you're doing when you're not catching fish - in between fish.''

Fly fishing, however, does two things that other types of fishing don't, Mr. Apfel says. ``It gives you the chance to cast repetitively in a very pleasant, if not artistic manner. And it takes you generally to places that are very attractive to be in. So it's a chance to practice an artful skill in pleasant surroundings.''

In fly fishing, a fly rod is used to cast a hand-held, weighted line that propels a nearly weightless lure - or fly - to the fish. Fly fishers must master false casts, roll casts, curve casts, serpent casts, and reach casts. And fly fishers ``shoot,'' ``haul,'' and ``mend'' line - all before a fish can even be hooked, played, and landed.

Even assembling the fly and various lines onto a fly reel can involve tying five knots. Then a fly fisher must know how to recognize, when to use, and possibly even how to tie the flies themselves - Woolly Worms, Gray Ghosts, Zug Bugs, Muddler Minnows, Royal Wulffs.

But even when a novice fly fisher has mastered the right casts and can tie the right fly for the right fish at the right season - even that won't always produce a fish.

``Time and time again we see people who are good casters who don't catch fish, and we see others who are lousy casters who catch a lot of fish,'' says Apfel.

``It [fishing] is a matter of how you cause the fly to behave - that really is the bottom line. It's what you have on your line, where you put it, and how you make it act. This involves being able to `read' the water,'' he says.

In a recent L.L. Bean fly-fishing class here, there were 26 students - four of them women - from Michigan to Virginia to Maine. Participants ranged in age from their early 30s through retirement age. Classes often have teen-age participants, Apfel says.

Regardless of age, two basic types of people generally seek fly-fishing instruction. One type has never been exposed to the activity, or even to the outdoors. The other type has often done a lot of fishing, but with spinning rods, and wants to learn about fly casting.

When first-time participants try their first casts, they are anything but artistic.

``Eeiii,'' yells one woman, whose first back-cast snakes her orange line around her black rod as she stands beside the casting pool. A few minutes later, after she has managed to unfurl the May-pole-like mess, she adds, ``I think I'll try this again.''

``Hey, listen to that,'' says one Maine resident, obviously pleased at the whip-cracking sound his line makes as it unfurls behind him. An instructor patiently reminds the novice that ``cracks'' should be avoided, as they can dislodge flies from leaders.

``We are very fussy about not explaining things at the level at which they are understood by the staff, but at explaining things at the level of the introductory student - and stopping there,'' says Apfel, an accomplished salt-water fly fisher. ``That attitude makes a big difference in our success in transferring the information.''

An instructor walking past a casting pool encourages a new angler to remember the four fly-casting steps and gives encouragement as the line curls in a tangled mess only 15 feet in front of the frustrated fisherman.

But with an angler who has fly fished off and on for more than two decades and who is taking the class as a refresher course, this same instructor, a biologist from California, casually chats about the eagles and deer that frequent the pond. He points out a turtle, whose head has just surfaced near a small lily pad. Turning to leave, he suggests that the angler hold his left hand slightly lower to make 20-yard casts with less effort.

``We try to do what we do in a relaxed, nonthreatening way. It's easy to be threatening when you're trying to teach somebody something for which they don't have the dexterity,'' Apfel says.

There are numerous fly-fishing ``courses'' around the United States. In addition to fixed-base schools, there are programs where participants travel to a variety of streams or lakes. Also, most fly shops offer fly-fishing classes or give lessons. The sport's ``famous personages'' either conduct fly fishing schools or give clinics.

L.L. Bean's introductory school is in its ninth year, and between 500 and 600 are expected to graduate from the three-day course this year. It differs from most other such schools by taking the approach of the total concept of fly fishing from conservation to the equipment - its use, selection, and maintenance.

Apfel and his staff of six lecture, discuss, or give mini-clinics in safety, entomology, fish habitats, fish habits, reading the waters, fly tying, catch-and-release fishing, and fly casting. Bass-fishing videos are viewed and trout-stream models are studied.

Each eight-hour session is based at Fogg House, a farm house on about 400 acres on the outskirts of Freeport. The front room of the unimposing white frame house acts as the center of activity, although participants frequently trek to casting ponds on the property. Part of the third day is spent at Skunk Pond, where budding fly fishers try their hand at luring assorted fish.

``We put everybody through the same drill and discover that the guy who knows about fishing ends up learning as much as the person who is starting from square one,'' Apfel says. ``We cause [experienced fishermen] to think about things that they have never articulated to themselves before.

``Many fly-fishing schools are in fact fly-casting schools because ... people see this as the obvious symbol of the sport. But casting has almost nothing to do with fishing,'' Apfel says.

While the L.L. Bean instructors give advice on fishing for both salt-water and fresh-water fish, most time is spent discussing trout and bass. Instructors have varied special areas of expertise. A few are accomplished fly tiers, all are good fly casters, one is a Maine guide, one an Alaska guide, one an internationally traveled salt-water fishing veteran, and one an aquatic biologist.

But none are so fussy that they'll cast their lines for only one type of fish or in just one body of water. So when 5 p.m. comes around and the students leave, most instructors pile into a car and head off for an evening's fishing.

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