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Hooked on Fly Fishing


by Nanci Hellmich

Fly fishermen’s passion for the pursuit runs deep.

Rush Benton, 57, enjoys everything about it. “You are in beautiful surroundings interacting with nature. You are in the river, and the water is moving,” says Benton, senior director of wealth management for CAPTRUST in Raleigh, North Carolina. “It’s a thinking sport. You have to think about what fly to use and how to present it to the fish. You have to read the water to figure out where the fish might be holding.”

There’s something rewarding about catching a fish after you’ve made a good cast with the right fly, adds Benton, who fly fishes regularly for smallmouth bass in a creek on his farm in Tennessee and for trout on vacations in Montana, a mecca for fly fishermen.

Others are equally effusive. It’s a great escape, says Tom Rosenbauer, 62, author of The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide and Fly Fishing for Trout. He has been fly fishing for 50 years and writing about it for 40. “You can’t fly fish and worry about anything else. It’s an all-consuming intellectual and physical pursuit. Whether you are standing in a stream feeling the water around your legs and watching a warbler in the trees or concentrating on a trout feeding, you are immersed in it.”

Danny Summerlin, 44, a CAPTRUST financial advisor in Raleigh, North Carolina, agrees. Over the summer, he went on a four-day fly-fishing trip to the Canadian Rockies, where he was surrounded by mountain peaks, waterfalls, and crystal-clear rivers. He disconnected from the rest of the world. “You are concentrating so hard on the fish in a breathtaking setting that you forget about anything else,” he says.

About 4 million people fly fish, according to the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. It’s a male-dominated sport, but more women are getting into it, says Jess McGlothlin, 28, communications director for the association in Bozeman, Montana. She fly fishes frequently, sometimes in flip-flops and a skirt.

For some people it’s a way of life—they fly fish during the week, on the weekends, and on their vacations, says Michael Caranci, 35, a manager of The Fly Shop in Redding, California.

The difference between fly fishing and conventional tackle fishing is that you are so much more involved, Caranci says. “You are engaged in everything you are doing. You are observing and moving. You are thinking: What is the fish eating, and how do I get this clump of chicken feathers to hook a fish with a brain the size of a pea? Even with such a small brain, they outwit us most of the time.”

One of the appealing things about it for many anglers is you never stop learning. Besides improving your skills, you are studying entomology (insects) and the nature of rivers, he says.

Some people are intimidated to try it because they think it’s too expensive or too hard, but it doesn’t have to be either, Caranci says. “You can spend a lot of money doing it, but you don’t need to, especially if you are just getting started.”

Rosenbauer, the marketing manager of Orvis Rod & Tackle in Manchester, Vermont, agrees. You can pay as little as $150 for a rod, reel line, and leader, and another $10 for a few artificial flies, he says. You don’t need to worry about waders, vests, and all the other gear you see on TV. You can put your stuff in your pocket and wade in a stream in your shorts or quick-dry pants wearing a pair of sandals or sneakers.

Plus, you don’t have to go to the expense of traveling. Most people can fly fish within five miles of their home or place of business, if they don’t care about catching a trout or salmon, Rosenbauer says. “Any place you can catch a fish, you can fly fish.”

Some enthusiasts enjoy going to nice lodges and fishing in trout streams in beautiful locales such as New Zealand or Argentina. Like any pastime, you can spend a lot of money. To some people, the toys are part of the fun, he says.

Before wading into fly fishing, Rosenbauer recommends learning some basic skills. There are several ways to get training, including attending a free class from a local fishing shop or Orvis store; learning from a friend or relative; teaching yourself by using videos, books, or magazines; attending a fishing school for a day or two; or working with a professional guide.

Even veteran anglers sometimes hire guides so they can fish in the best parts of the water. Because fly fishermen usually catch and release, guides sometimes take several clients to the same spot over the course of a week and catch the same fish a couple times, Rosenbauer says. “Guides are important these days, because most people don’t have time to explore on their own.”

Summerlin, who considers himself a novice, says working with a guide for several days during his recent trip to the Canadian Rockies made a big difference in his skills. “I would recommend spending time with a qualified guide. He or she will coach you as much as you want to be coached. It’s like getting a private lesson as opposed to doing it on your own and teaching yourself bad habits that you have to break later.”

The amount of respect that fly fishermen and guides have for the welfare of the fish is quite remarkable, he says. “They have a conservationist’s bent. They want the fish to live and reproduce so our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy fishing like we are.”

It’s mesmerizing to watch an experienced fisherman cast, Summerlin says. Jim Evans, 64, former vice president of human resources for Orvis, agrees. “When you watch someone who is an exceptionally good fly caster, your jaw drops,” he says. “I don’t always catch as many fish with the fly rod as I do with spinning tackle, but I love the serenity of fly fishing and the rhythm of the cast.”

Casting a fly rod takes some practice, and it requires hand-eye coordination, Rosenbauer says. There are lots of different styles, and everybody casts differently.

Another skill that anglers have to master is matching the flies to what the fish in the area are eating. Artificial flies are used to catch sunfish, bass, trout, pike, bluefish, shark, bonefish, sailfish, salmon, walleye, and even catfish, Rosenbauer says.

When selecting flies to fish in different locations, you are trying to imitate the bugs that the fish eat, Benton says. He tries to cast so the fly hits a specific spot on the water where it looks completely natural as it drifts down the river. “Trout are good at picking up on what’s natural and what’s not. It’s challenging.”

If you go into it with the expectation of catching a lot of fish, you may be disappointed, Benton says. Even an experienced fly fisherman can spend a day and catch just a fish or two, but you are still in a gorgeous setting doing something you like to do.

And when you do land a big fish, it is exhilarating, Benton says. He takes a look at the prize and then releases it back into the water. “I’ve never kept a fish. I put them right back and catch them the next day.”