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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 2)

This weekend, belying that notion, 45 would-be fly fishermen (and women) are registered to take the Orvis course, a large group by the school's standards. To accommodate that number, we are divided into three smaller groups of 15: the Brown, Brook and Rainbow Trout. After registration, my group, the Browns, is taken on a tour of the Orvis rod-making factory, where both bamboo and graphite rods are made, and then led out to the casting ponds for an introduction to the matter at hand, fly casting. Ted Strong, our instructor for the morning, quickly runs through the anatomy of a fly rod and reel, then demonstrates the proper way to rig the line and hold the rod for a cast. We huddle close against the cold wind. The oldest in our group is pushing 70, the youngest is an 11-year-old boy, four are women and three-quarters of us are absolute beginners, a fact that goes a long way in dispelling my earlier apprehension.

Strong, a tall, sandy-haired man with a moustache, teaches fly casting in the pragmatic, humble fashion that characterizes the school as a whole. Using a by-the-book approach, he runs through the four basic elements of a forward fly cast, explaining the virtues and pitfalls of each in turn. As with all the Orvis instructors, watching him work makes the whole process look deceptively easy. Actually, as Strong points out, casting is the most difficult yet most essential element of the sport. The problem for most beginners lies in the fact that there is no weight at the end of the line to carry it forward, instead it must provide its own momentum. Done right, fly casting is a sort of poetry in motion, the line making a long, elegant loop behind the caster, followed by a mirror image of the loop on the forward cast, then settling gently on the water.

"Establish a smooth, consistent rhythm...one...two...three...four, like dancing," advises Strong. "At the end of the back cast, you want to make a brief pause. Otherwise you get a whiplike action that we call the '$2 snap,' because it usually means you've popped a $2 fly off the end of the leader."

We meet back at the casting ponds after lunch for some hands-on practice. There are five instructors assigned to our group of 15, so that every couple of minutes one stops to watch me cast over the water. Cairns stands for an extra moment observing my style and then offers his advice. "Think in terms of picking up something heavy and then putting it down gently," he says. "Most of the important action takes place in the back cast. You can tell a lot about someone's casting ability by watching what is happening behind him."

A half hour of the picking-up and putting-down motion and my casting arm and shoulder begin to stiffen with the effort, until finally they feel as if they are about to fall off. This time Davis has some suggestions. "Be as relaxed as possible," he says, taking the rod from my hand and making a few effortless casts. "There's a kind of 'muscle memory' that takes place so that after a while you don't have to think about casting to do it right."

Before long, I seem to be getting the knack of it. Though I still have to concentrate, the line is rolling out across the water more or less the way it should, my arm and shoulder are somewhat relaxed and the entire process is beginning to feel like fun.

The next morning the wind has died to a whisper and the day promises to be warm. By 8:30 the Browns are bouncing up a steep country road on our way for advanced casting instruction at the Equinox pond, which has to be one of the most beautiful man-made bodies of water on Earth. The first lesson of the day is in false casting, which is simply making a series of forward casts without letting the line touch the water. It has a number of applications including altering the direction of your line and adding momentum for greater accuracy.

From false casting we move on to shooting line, a technique used to increase the length of a cast. To shoot line, the caster 'strips' about 10 feet of line from his reel, which he lets fall about his feet. Then, holding the line tightly above the slack portion, he performs a cast, releasing the line as the rod sweeps back into the forward position, so that the slack portion is carried out with the momentum of the cast. Shooting can be done on a single forward cast or in tandem with a series of false casts for greater distance.

It is while we are practicing this technique that Cairns gives me a private demonstration of his casting abilities. Taking the rod from my hands, he strips out a long length of line and makes a forward cast, the line shooting through his fingers. But instead of letting it settle on the water, he performs a false cast, stripping more line as the rod moves back and shooting it on the forward motion. When, after several such maneuvers, he finally completes the cast, he has put the entire floating line and a portion of the 100-foot Dacron backing attached to its end out on the water. "It's not as difficult as it looks," he says, handing back the rod. "With a little practice, anyone could do that."

Finally, that second afternoon, we get a crack at the famed Battenkill. Rishell, who had earlier given us a presentation on fly selection and entomology, warns that the purpose of the exercise is to teach fundamental river skills--not catch fish. Still, there is an extra sense of excitement as we assemble on an open stretch along the river. While we attach flies tied on barbless hooks to our leaders, the school director gives his pitch for the catch-and-release philosophy of fishing. "There is ever-growing pressure on trout fisheries in this country, so as fishermen it is up to us to preserve the species," argues Rishell. "After all, the fun is in hooking and landing a trout, not eating it."


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