Down by the River
The Orvis Fly Fishing School Baptizes a Novice in the Intricacies of Casting Lures and Catching Fish
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.
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.
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."
I soon discover that having a fly attached to my leader has an amazing psychological effect on my ability to put the line where it ought to be. After several frustrating attempts, Davis suggests that I try 'rolling' the line, using an abbreviated cast that eliminates the backward motion altogether. Still, the fly seems to have a will of its own, getting caught on rocks in the shallow water, snagging on weeds along the bank. By the end of the afternoon I have come to realize that there is more to catching a trout than being able to make a decent forward cast.
By midmorning on the last day of fishing school it is sunny and already hot in unpredictable Vermont. The Browns are spread out along the 60-yard length of earthen dam that forms one edge of the spectacular Equinox pond, preparing our gear for a last go at catching the wily trout. We have just sat through our final formal presentation of the course--on fly-fishing equipment--in the pond lodge. The amount of gear and paraphernalia available has me wondering if I will have to remortgage the house to take up the sport seriously. Even a moderately priced outfit (including rod, reel and line, waders, vest, assorted flies and tackle necessities, stream thermometer, polarized sunglasses, appropriate cap and sundries) could set me back about $1,000, and that is only for trout fishing--to say nothing of bass, salmon and saltwater fly gear.
While I am still getting the line out where I want it, one of my fellow students, a stocky young man fishing off some rocks near the lodge, catches the first fish of the morning. Over the next hour he proceeds to take a trout about every 10 minutes. By the sixth time, I am pretty annoyed, both at him for catching so many trout and at myself for not even getting a strike.
Rishell suggests that I put the fly out about 50 feet, where a trout made ripples in the water. This requires shooting line, and it takes about three tries for me to make the cast. I watch the fly drift slowly over the spot where the trout ought to be and I cannot really believe what is happening when it disappears below the surface, not until the tip of my rod bends low with the strike. I've hooked a trout! I bring him in slowly, savoring the feeling that what is happening here is all between me and this fish. When I finally get him close to the shore, I reach down and hold him while I take the fly from his mouth. It's a medium-sized brown, about 14 inches. After I let go, the trout stays steady for a moment and then with a flick of its tail darts back into deeper water.
Though there's still an hour before it is officially over, for me this is the end of the course. In three short days I've gone from less than zero to being able to catch a fish with a fly rod and reel.