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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

(continued from page 1)

Bucolic evenings on a river aside, if there is one thing the crew at the Orvis Fly Fishing School tries to do, it is to demystify the sport. As Cairns notes, "there are two important motor skills you need to learn in order to fly-fish: how to cast and how to wade a stream. The rest is just common sense."

John Morawski, another long-term Orvis instructor and private guide, agrees. "It takes concentration and determination, but so do skiing, golf and tennis," says Morawski, who has led fly-fishing expeditions as far afield as Argentina's Patagonia region. "If you're a beginner and you take our course, you are going to be that much further ahead because you'll develop good habits right from the start."

Since the school's inception 26 year ago, Orvis instructors have helped thousands of students master the essentials of the sport. According to Rick Rishell, the school's current director, this year more than 1,200 people will take the course, and he expects to add more instructors and class hours next year to accommodate the growing demand. "I keep thinking interest in fly-fishing will level off," says Rishell, "but our enrollment has grown steadily year after year."

The Orvis school is one of the great deals in sporting instruction. For a $395 fee, students get a two-and-a-half-day total-immersion course in fly-fishing--everything from how to 'read' a river to proper techniques of removing and releasing a trout from a hook, including presentations on knot-tying, fly selection, entomology, equipment and fishing techniques as well as many hours of individual casting instruction. Use of necessary equipment is included in the price--as is lunch at the Equinox in Manchester, one of New England's oldest and finest resort hotels. And Orvis can arrange for special room rates for students who want to stay at the hotel while they are attending the school.

"We get some students who have a vague interest in fly-fishing, but probably won't pursue it, and others who are just looking to have a pleasant weekend in the country," admits Rishell. "But most people come because they have a keen interest in learning the sport, so we feel obligated to give them quality instruction."

Part of that obligation, according to the director, translates into the depth of experience and commitment of his instruction staff. "I look for people who, like me, have fly-fishing in their hearts," claims Rishell, a third-generation fly fisherman whose grandmother tied flies in her spare time. "I try to get instructors who just love to fly-fish and love to teach it and to interact with other people. Most of them have been doing it since they were kids."

This is certainly true of Cairns, who learned the sport as a child from relatives and neighbors in northern Massachusetts. Morawski, who has fly-fished for 34 years, first started when he was 12. Another instructor, Dick Davis, a Vermont native who has been with Orvis for 39 years and is now the company's master bamboo-rod maker, says he can't really remember a time when he didn't fly-fish. "I must have been about seven years old when I started," says Davis.

A sign of the passion that Orvis instructors have for the sport is the fact that when the end-of-the-day school bell rings, most of them head for the river to fish the evening rise. Rishell says he fishes "up to 70 days a year." Cairns claims he tries to get out "at least three or four times a week." And Davis, with characteristic Vermont frankness, notes that, "I pretty much fish all the time."

Early one May morning, just three weeks prior to my evening-rise adventures with Cairns, I head north on Vermont's scenic Route 7A for a weekend course at the Orvis school. Though the sky is clear, a Canadian wind blows cold between the peaks of the Green Mountains. My essentials for the weekend include a heavy windbreaker, my trusty duckbill cap, a change of clothes, a notebook and three pens. I have also brought along a copy of The Complete McClane for inspiration and a half dozen Dominican maduros to help take the edge off after a long day at fly-fishing school.

Truth is, I am worried enough about this assignment that I hardly notice the lush Vermont landscape. To call myself a novice at fly-fishing is to miss the mark by a wide margin; I know nothing about the sport. My view of expert rod-and-line work has always been that you have to be brought to it at a tender age, preferably by a gruff but well-meaning grandfather. Then, later in life, you write a book about how learning to fly-fish with Grandpa was really a rite of passage, and if you are lucky enough to sell the story to a major film studio, you can retire early to a place where the fishing and the weather are always good. Absent the early introduction, I'd always thought it best to leave fishing with flies to the lucky few.

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