Should a guy try to teach his gal to fish? Never! That’s the conventional wisdom. Chris knew I’d written TU’s Guide to America’s 100 Best Trout Streams when we met. “I’ve always wanted to fly fish,” confided this inner city Baltimore lady on our first date. “Will you teach me?”
No surer route to relationship Armageddon was there, I thought, than trying to teach a new lady friend to fish. When giving instructions, I have a tendency to be a bit authoritarian—highly unusual, I’ll admit, among gents of my vintage. Not only that, but I’m told with some frequency by people who actually know me that my casting technique is so bad it’s a wonder that I catch any trout at all. We agree on one thing: I’m the last one to teach anyone how to throw a fly.
What to do? Chris had never seen a fly rod, let alone held one. To the uninitiated, the notion that the line cast the fly is completely incomprehensible. Explain it all, I could. Demonstrate it, probably not. That was best left to others.
“Would a book on fly fishing help?” Chris asked. I advised not, so she immediately bought one. It helped her understand equipment nomenclature and its uses. Over dinner one night we evolved a five-step strategy for her to learn to fly fish.
She’d begin with a basic casting lesson, but rather than using the instructor’s gear, she’d learn with the rod and reel she’d later use when we fished: a 5-weight, 8-foot, 6-inch—ideal for trout streams and tailwaters around our homes in Asheville, North Carolina. The first lesson would focus on casting only—no knots, fly selection, or stream reading.
Next, we’d do a float in a drift boat on the South Holston or Watauga Rivers across the Blue Ridge in Tennessee. Wild browns and rainbows abound in both. Fishing a nymph under a strike indicator was the surest way for Chris to catch her first trout.
In addition, her casts would not have to be as precise as they would on a stream, and she wouldn’t need to worry about back cast other than not hooking the guide—extremely bad form—or her partner fishing from the back of the boat. The guide’s fishing style would be different from her instructor’s. To resolve the differences, we’d practice afterwards on a pond in a nearby county park.
The next step would come during a second session with her initial instructor to refine her basic casting skills and address any bad habits she may be forming. The final step would be a day’s guided fishing on a heavily stocked private stream. Here she would experience hooking, playing, and landing a good-sized trout, plus reading water, fly selection, and a bit of gentle wading.
With her curriculum agreed upon, she needed appropriate gear. From local outdoor-sports chain stores, we built her outfit of inexpensive trouser waders, wading shoes, neoprene booties for when we wade wet, a lightweight, breathable rain parka, a fishing shirt with ample chest pockets, a waterproof hat, and polarized sunglasses. I’d donate the 5-weight and matching reel to the cause.
Dale Klug, a colleague from my Trout Unlimited days and head of Biltmore’s Outdoor Adventure program, arranged for Chris’s initial casting lesson from Jules DuFrane on the estate’s lagoon along the French Broad River.
The morning of the lesson arrived, but the wind was a little gusty. Biltmore advised postponing, but we’d scheduled the steps in her curriculum, and I was loath to let a little thing like a brisk breeze get in the way. By the time we arrived, a Force 7 gale was blowing, standing up was becoming difficult, and wiser heads insisted that I wait for her to begin casting ’til the wind died down.
I decided to cool it and listen to the good folks we’d engaged to teach Chris. Listening is probably the most important lesson for any guy teaching his lady to fly fish.
The following week we floated the Watauga River below Elizabethton, Tennessee, with Matt Champion of South Holston River Fly Shop. Not 20 minutes into the drift, Chris had learned to plop her weighted nymph rig into the seam where Matt wanted her to. Within the hour she hooked and landed a brown of about 13 inches. For the first time she felt a trout throb in her hands.
A couple days later we spent an hour practicing short casts of 25 feet or so on the county park pond. To not be bothered by fish so she could see where her fly was landing, I clipped the hook from a tiny popper for bream and tied it to her tippet. Chris had been confused by Jules’ four-count casting cadence. We simplified it into two counts, like the rhythm of the metronome that the Rev. Maclean used to teach Norman and Paul in The River Runs Through It.
A column assignment for Sporting Classics on a combo turkey and trout trip in Georgia’s northern mountains took us to Noontootla Creek Farms. Its private, fee-fishing water provided a great lab for Chris to build on what she’d learned on the float and apply it to small-stream fishing. Guide Carter Morris showed her how to make side-arm casts that delivered her weighted nymph and bead-head dropper into the run where trout would likely hold. Her reward: a feisty 14-inch ’bow.
At first, waders and wading shoes felt awkward to her, and she stumbled and soaked her shirt. I should have insisted that she have her wading staff out and ready as soon as she stepped into the water. Again, not wanting to inject myself into the guide’s teaching, I failed to show her its all-important use. Fortunately, the way she learned was not too dangerous.
Her final lesson with Jules at Biltmore focused on roll casting, that oh-so-important skill for anglers fishing tight mountain streams. To celebrate her introduction to fly fishing, we again floated the Watauga with Matt. She honed her skills at mending and stripping line and earned herself a chunky 15-inch brown.
Best of all, at the conclusion of her lessons, we’re still speaking . . .