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Down by the River

The Orvis Fly Fishing School Baptizes a Novice in the Intricacies of Casting Lures and Catching Fish
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

As the sun sets on a spring evening in Vermont, I am waist-deep in the Battenkill River, a rocky, wet mecca for fly fishermen the world over. Though the afternoon was unseasonably hot, the evening air has been cooled by a passing storm, and in the fading light the river is slate-gray and still swollen from the late-melting snows of one of the coldest Northeast winters on record. Despite my new neoprene waders, the water chills my thighs and the strong current threatens to knock my legs out from under me should I take a false step.

With me is Bill Cairns, a stocky, thoughtful man with more than 30 years' experience in teaching and guiding fly fishermen. He's now at the Orvis school. Master and novice have waded upstream for the past hour during the "evening rise," that time between dusk and dark when the river comes alive with feeding trout. On this night, the cool air keeps insect activity to a minimum, and the fish are elusive. Even on a good night, this section of the Battenkill is notoriously difficult to fish, its steep banks and overhanging foliage challenging the skills of the most proficient caster. In a quarter mile of wading, we have seen no one else on the river. According to Cairns, it's an insider's spot; downstream the fishermen can be as thick as mayflies.

A Boston native, Cairns has fished the Battenkill since he first came to Vermont in the late 1960s to work for the Manchester-based Orvis Company, the world's premier supplier of fly-fishing equipment and accoutrements. In 1968, he helped found the Orvis Fly Fishing School, which he directed for 11 years before leaving to start his own custom-fly-rod company. Now he is back at Orvis as a master teacher of the fine art of fly casting, taking on the unenviable task of instructing people like me. Around Vermont, people talk about his casting ability in reverential tones, and I personally have seen him shoot 100 feet of floating fly line with effortless precision.

Standing at a spot where the water swirls into a deep, wide pool, Cairns points out where the big fish should be--up under the shadows along the far bank in the eddy of a fallen tree. A trout, he explains, will hold a position facing upstream, letting the current sweep food toward it and striking insects that hit the water in its line of sight. From one of the many pockets on a faded fishing vest he extracts a well-worn fly box packed with brightly colored dry flies.

"Let's give this a try," he says, holding out a No. 16 mahogany spinner, meant to imitate a female mayfly as she drops back on the water to lay her eggs and die. Using a recently learned knot, I attach the fly to the nine-foot leader at the end of my weight-forward, floating line, feed some of the line through the guides on the graphite rod, and with a quick backward-then-forward motion, send it curling out over the water. The fly falls short of the mark, so I let it drift a moment, lift the rod tip, and this time shooting line, put it just behind the fallen tree.

"That's it; good cast," says Cairns. "Now let it drift with the current....OK, pick it up and cast her upstream again. Good, let it float back...."

On the fifth cast I get a strike, the line going suddenly tight in the water, the rod bending and dancing with the force of the fish. Then just as quickly as it hit, it's gone. The line and rod feel lifeless; the fish is away, probably to the deepest end of the pool, and the sudden flash of excitement I felt is gone with the fish.

"That was a big brown," says Cairns as I strip line in and prepare to recast. "He tasted the hook, so he won't strike again tonight."

For another 15 minutes we work the pool, raising a small brook trout, but otherwise having little luck. Deciding to make one last move, we go upstream again and then across through a deep channel where the water is chest-deep. For one shaky moment it feels as if I will be swept downstream: new waders, fly rod and reel, fishing vest, duckbill cap and all. When I'm safely on the far side, Cairns hands me another fly to try, a Hendrickson emerger, which, to a fish, has the appearance of a young mayfly about to leave the water. For another half hour I work the river, side casting to keep the fly out of the trees, putting it upstream, watching the current take it swiftly down, then picking it up and putting it out again. Though a couple more brookies break the surface, this time there are no strikes, and finally, with the light fading quickly, it's time to call it a night.

On the way back to where I have parked my truck, Cairns takes me over for one last look at the river. Below us is another wide pool, and we watch as a big fish breaks the surface, all sleek and silvery in what's left of the evening light. From somewhere downstream comes the honking of Canadian geese. A mist is rising and the air is heavy with the scent of sweet fern.

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