THEY were a diverse crowd. The husband and wife from Virginia. The Michigan executive. The soldier from upstate New York. The Massachusetts television producer. The fellow who commuted by car from his home in Maine. The retiree. The yuppie. But they all had one thing in common. None had learned fly-fishing at his father's knee. Sitting with this eclectic group at the opening session of a three-day introductory fly-fishing school, I knew I did not fit the profile of a beginning fly-fisher. While by no means an accomplished fisherman, I had nevertheless fly-fished for nearly three decades and was attending the course to brush up on fishing skills I thought I might have lost in my last two nonfishing years. I also admit I was curious about finding out what necessary skills my father had not taught me.
Dad had introduced me to a casting rod when I was five. He gave me my first spin-casting lesson when I was eight. And in early March he bought me my first fly rod and reel when I was 11, promising that he'd take me to Pennsylvania to open the trout season on April 15 - if I learned to fly cast by that date. The chance to go on a Pennsylvania trout-fishing pilgrimage was all the incentive I needed to learn to fly cast.
For my first fly-fishing lesson, Dad took me to the front yard on a windy, northern Ohio spring day. Bundled in my red-cotton hooded car coat I could hardly move. I watched my father carefully cradle my glistening white nine-foot fiberglass rod in his right hand, strip line off the small black reel with his left, and, with a deliberate whiplike motion, forcefully bring the rod back till it pointed straight up, then drive it back down, unfurling about 25 yards of inexpensive chartreuse line in a perfect cast. It was a splendid sight. I half expected a fish to burrow up from the ground and grab the end of the line - the cast was that good. He cast again with the same perfection. Then it was my turn.
The line from my first cast somehow listlessly landed behind me. My second cast snagged a large sugar maple tree. My third cast nicked the ear of Kerry, our German shepherd, who thereafter chased casts four through 12.
During the next few weeks of practice and Dad's patient instruction I gradually learned how to regularly cast 20 yards of line, until my father pronounced me fit for opening day. We went to Uncle Bill's discount store for the necessities: a transparent plastic fly box, a small aluminum net, a six-foot monofilament leader, and six wet flies. All this, plus Dad's spare wading boots and the cotton creel he had ordered for me, were all I needed.
We drove the next day to York, Pa., bought two fishing licenses, and went to Jim and Lida Stewart's farm in Airville, where we spent the night. But before we went to bed, Dad made sure I still knew how to tie the improved clinch knot - the only knot he said I'd need to know. The next day we got up at 3:30 so we could begin fishing at daybreak.
We fished near one another all morning. Dad frequently would pass by with various fishing tips. I learned to avoid overhanging branches by casting sidearm, to cast upstream so that my black Wooly Worm fly would be dangling in lifelike fashion when it neared a submerged log, and to keep the line taut whenever it was in the water, in anticipation of a fish strike. With his quiet coaching, my technique improved. But I remained fishless.
As we walked back to the Stewarts' house for a late-morning lunch, Dad frequently stopped to point out various stretches of Muddy Creek. The big hole below the bridge looked promising, he said, but usually only contained bottom-feeding suckers, and wasn't worth fishing. Various stretches of swift, shallow water downstream from the bridge were good if you fished upstream and near the banks, so that the trout didn't see you coming. And the deep section near the wooden railroad bridge where a tiny stream flowed into Muddy Creek often was a good bet at midday. He said that streamer flies, which resemble minnows, often were good when fished deep in that hole - particularly the yellow and red Mickey Finns, one of which we had picked up at Uncle Bill's. A few minutes later, Dad bent down in a shallow part of the stream and scooped up a handful of water, pointing out various bugs. He then showed me how much one of the bugs looked just like the tiny Wooly Worm I had fished with earlier that morning.
After lunch I headed for the deep hole near the railroad bridge. I pulled my Mickey Finn from my fly box, attached it with an improved clinch knot to the leader, and began my upstream cast. Five casts later as my line was straightening in the water above the deep hole my stiff fiberglass rod suddenly dipped under the weight of a 10-inch rainbow trout that I landed minutes later.
I recalled Dad's five-week fly-fishing ``course'' 28 years later in Freeport, Maine, as I watched an instructor ``double-pump'' 35 yards of line on a single cast, saw a world-traveled, saltwater fisherman tie the Duncan Loop knot, observed an Alaskan guide demonstrate how to ``read'' a trout stream, listened to an aquatic biologist lecture on stoneflies and mayflies, and watched a master fly tier show how to match fishing flies to various aquatic insects.
The instructors were expert and patient. They gave hints on fishing Black Stone Nymphs and Muddler Minnows. The school was one of the world's finest. The course was comprehensive. The facilities were nearly idyllic. The not inconsequential tuition fee had been well spent. We all had shared a valuable experience.
Two weeks later I drove to a local New England stream, got out of the car, and walked to the water. I assembled my feather-light black graphite fly rod and attached it to my aluminum/magnesium alloy adjustable-drag, rim-control fly reel. I pulled out a few feet of scientifically designed supple floating weight-forward line, threading it with a super-light double-tapered leader through the rod's guides.
I pulled a Mickey Finn from a fly box, attached it with an improved clinch knot to the leader, and began my upstream cast.