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Family Friendly Fly Fishing by Tom Rosenbauer

Chapter One

Fly fishing is satisfying on many levels

Family Fishing

Although fly fishing is just another form of fishing, its approach to catching fish gives it some features that distinguish fly fishing from bait or spin fishing. With bait fishing, on the end of your line is something alive that is attractive to fish by virtue of its movement, appearance, and smell. Fish will find your bait—you can sit back, enjoy the weather, daydream, and even listen to music, read, or eat lunch while you wait for the fish to bite. Spin or bait casting with an artificial lure is more active in that you can and often have to cover a wide area of water by casting and retrieving your lure over as wide an area as possible to find willing fish. With a fly rod, you have neither the smell nor movement of live bait, nor the ability to cover as wide an area as you can with an artificial lure. So fly fishing requires more hunting, more stalking, because the fly must be placed near a hungry fish and then manipulated by the angler to make it look realistic. Sometimes the current does the work for you, but often you have to manipulate the fly to make it look like live prey. And even if using the current to make your offering look like a real insect or baitfish, you constantly manipulate the fly line to make sure the current moves the fly in a lifelike manner.

So when actively fly fishing you have little down time. No reading books. No listening to music (you might miss the sound of a fish feeding). No daydreaming. Your mind is constantly focused on the task at hand, which is what makes fly fishing appealing for many people. You can't worry about the mortgage payment or the result of that memo you write yesterday. You get totally immersed in the task at hand, mentally, physically, and emotionally. 

Fly fishers often get so immersed in the quest they develop tunnel vision. I was steelhead fishing in British Columbia, filming an episode of a TV show, and even though the camera was on me and I was surrounded by spectacular scenery I got into my own little world, trying to will a steelhead to swim through the pool and take my fly. Even though I had no idea if there were any steelhead within a mile of me, I kept thinking that maybe if I changed the swing of my fly just a bit I could enchant that lone steelhead swimming where my fly was swinging into smacking the fly aside with its jaws. And when I got back to shore the cameraman said “Did you see the bear?”

“What bear?” I asked

“The bear about 30 feet from you on the far bank.”

I had been so engrossed in the fishing that a black bear had wandered down the bank, poked around in some bushes, looked at me with curiosity, and ambled off when it realized I was not very interesting. I was totally oblivious.

The clinical value of fly fishing

Family Fishing

There is a wealth of anecdotal and semi-professional evidence connected with the use of fly fishing for therapy in relation to chronic illness and injury. The immensely popular “Casting for Recovery” organization, where survivors of breast cancer get together on fly-fishing outings in a wellness rather than illness setting, has been described by many of the participants as “life changing”.   The motion of fly fishing provides valuable physical therapy, the ability to solve problems that take the woman far away from their daily struggles, and the kinship shared by a group with a shared passion has proven to be a successful formula. 

A more clinical result was related to me by counseling psychologist Greg Burchstead. In a study of Iraq war veterans with missing limbs suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, conducted by members of the University of Southern Maine, the University of Utah, and the Salt Lake City Veteran's Administration, levels of cortisol, formed by the degradation of epinephrine and associated with high levels of stress without a consequent reduction of the stress, were measured two weeks before a weekend of fly fishing, immediately after the weekend event, and a follow-up evaluation six weeks later. Cortisol levels were significantly reduced immediately after the fishing trip and were still at a lower level than the initial measurement six weeks later. 

Just as significant were statistically valid improvements in sleep patterns, lower levels of depression and anxiety, significant and sustained reductions in somatic stress ( faintness, chest pains, nausea), and significant and sustained reductions in guilt, hostility, fear, and sadness. And finally the most positive result of the study was that three months after the study, 50 percent of the participants were still fly fishing, continuing to reap its benefits.

For years I've looked for a landmark psychological study that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt the value of fly fishing to individuals and families. Ultimately I realized I was looking for clinical, peer-reviewed proof of something that is so patently obvious that it probably does not exist. Imagine going to a psychologist and asking:

“Do you think an activity that I can do with my whole family, outdoors, which incorporates some elements of problem solving; an appreciation of nature, and moderate physical activity would be beneficial?”

And the psychologist's professional answer, “D'ya think? Any more questions?” Followed by a bill for several hundred dollars.

Fly Fishing is great for what ails you

Although fly fishing is healthy for your brain it is also not bad for your body. The image most people have of fishing is sitting in a boat or on a dock waiting for a fish to swim by and take your bait. However, in fly fishing, you are almost always moving, particularly if you are wading. You're hunting and stalking fish because a fly doesn't cover much territory—you must find the fish and only then do you begin fishing. So whether you are wading a small mountain stream for trout, walking along saltwater grass beds for redfish, or chasing schools of striped bass down a long sandy beach, you can get your heart pumping.

When I hit my mid-50s both my lifestyle and metabolism slowed down with the inevitable thickening of my middle region. My wife, who is much more disciplined about fitness than I am, was using a heart monitor to measure how many calories she burned, and when I got serious about losing 15 pounds I figured I would try one. I dutifully wore the monitor through the winter, pounding away on an elliptical machine every day, watching the pounds ebb. Never a fan of gyms or indoor exercise of any kind, I decided to begin measuring the calories I burned while I was fishing.

I have a little mountain brook trout stream that I often fish on my lunch hour, so one day before I began fishing I strapped on the heart monitor. To my surprise and delight, I found that wading this little stream, climbing over rocks and wading in the current, I could burn as many calories in the same amount of time as I could on the elliptical. Using the heart monitor on a bonefish trip to Belize later that year, I found that a few hours kayaking and wading the bonefish flats allowed me to eat like a pig that night just to get enough calories into my body to prevent it from going into starvation mode. 

So the next time you and your family head out for the gym to breathe the stale air and watch your local community sweat and grunt, think instead about spending a few hours walking a local lakeshore, wading a stream, or taking a canoe or kayak onto a local pond. Your body and your mind will be renewed.

Fly fishing can be enjoyed by anyone

Fishing can be enjoyed by anyone

The moderate but sustained physical activity associated with fly fishing makes it ideal for people of all ages. Although it requires moderate hand-eye coordination, most fly fishing does not call for the strength that other activities such as running, tennis, or contact sports require. Children can cast adult-sized fly rods with ease, and unless elderly fly fishers develop arthritic conditions in their shoulders or arms they can participate well into their later years.  I know of many active fly fishers well into their 80s. A few years ago I spent a week with author/novelist/naturalist Peter Matthiessen, traveling by helicopter into Patagonia along coastal Chile for a week, and at 83 he was in and out of helicopters and fishing alongside much younger people for eight hours a day. My old boss, Leigh Perkins, retired CEO of The Orvis Company, still fly fishes (and hunts upland birds) over 300 days per year at age 84. Don Puterbaugh, a guide on the Arkansas River in Colorado, at age 82 is still guiding fly fishers for 75 to 100 days a year.

Some fly fishing is not for the very young or elderly. It can get as physically demanding as the participant wishes. Fly fishing for 100-pound bluefin tuna, playing 180-pound tarpon, or wading a raging steelhead river requires an angler in top physical shape. But that is what makes fly fishing so appealing, as it can deliver an adrenaline rush to the younger hotshots, but they can still enjoy it in their later years by scaling down their trips to fly fishing on more gentle waters, where the mental stimulation is still challenging but the physical requirements are modest.

It provides a strong connection to the natural world

Our lives are increasingly distanced not only from the source of our food but for many of us a connection with the natural world for any reason has become a distant memory overshadowed by work, school and community functions, and supposed “outdoor” activities like running or bicycling that get us outdoors but whiz us past the wonders of nature that delighted us when we were younger.

Even children are not immune and most children today suffer from what author Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, calls nature-deficit disorder. His premise is that today's children have less access to the free play in the outdoors than children of past generations enjoyed. It's easy to blame the siren song of mentally stimulating computer games, but even their time outdoors is restricted to organized sports where virtually every move they make is directed by an adult. The result, according to Louv, is an increase in ADHD, obesity, diabetes, and depression in children, all of which can be ameliorated by more free play in the outdoors.

Fly fishing provides a perfect foil to nature –deficit disorder in both children and adults. There is nothing less predictable than fishing. Every day is different. Changes in fish migration, food supply, weather conditions, and even the phase of the moon affect where fish will be and when they feed. It's this very unpredictability that makes fishing so appealing, because we are forced to think and improvise constantly, but always with the knowledge that it is nature that makes the rules, and the rules change hourly. Fly fishing adds another level of natural interaction because, in much of fly fishing, we strive to imitate exactly what fish feed upon, which calls for yet another level of understanding and study. Not only do we need to connect with our quarry the fish, and understand their natural history and behavior, we also should understand the life cycle and behavior of their prey. This does not mean a fly fisher needs a degree in ichthyology or entomology. In much of fly fishing the need to study a fish's prey is overemphasized and many effective flies are just fanciful creations that imitate nothing in nature. But the door to learn more is always open.

Fly fishing myths and misconceptions

Although fly fishing is simply another way to impale a hook into a fish's mouth, there are many popular notions about it that should be dispelled.

It's too expensive

Because spinning and bait casting rods can be bought in a big box store for under $30 it seems like fly fishing is so much more expensive, because a middle-of-the-road fly rod costs about $250 and the cheapest you can go is about $50. But we ask a lot more of a fly rod. We use it to cast the line over and over, and sometimes need to keep the line in the air, under control, for multiple casts. We use a fly rod to reposition line on the water, and finally to play a fish. And if you look at the offerings for spin rods in any of the big general tackle catalogs, you'll see as many spin rods offered at $250 and up as you do models for less than $30. Do you really think the guy with the $50,000 bass boat is using a $30 rod?

When I take my son to the lake to fish for sunfish with worms, I can buy everything I need for 20 bucks at the general store down the street. Because spin rods and push-button spin-casting rods are more mainstream, through, many more options are available at low cost because the cost of producing kids' outfits in huge quantities brings the price way down. The cost of entry is higher for fly fishing.   If I wanted to take him fly fishing for those same sunfish, I'd have to spend around $50 for a rod, $30 for a reel, $30 for a line, plus a few 10 bucks for a leader and a few flies.   So the basic price is higher, but it's about the same as an Ipod or a portable game player—and it won't be obsolete next year.

It is also true that you can spend a few thousand dollars on a high-end fly rod, reel, and line, plus premium waders, a bunch of gadgets, and a good selection of flies. But you can also spend the same amount for a spin-fishing outfit, and some spinning lures cost more than $25 each!

It's just for old guys

Everyone likes to go fishing

Twenty years ago this was a pretty safe statement. For some strange reason, I decided I wanted to try fly fishing when I was about 11 years old and taught myself as much as I could throughout my teenage years. I attended the local Trout Unlimited meetings regularly, where I was by far the youngest member, almost like a mascot, and all of my fishing buddies except one were at least 20 years older than me. When I went to college I was the only fly fisherman in my fraternity house; in fact the guys I lived with had not a clue about fly fishing, except that the fly tying materials on my desk were something to play with when they were stoned.

Then, in 1991 a movie called “A River Runs Through It”, based on the novel by Norman McLean, was released, lovingly produced by Robert Redford. The grumpy old guys who had practiced their dark art in relative obscurity were suddenly joined by brash, enthusiastic youngsters who, admittedly, did not always appreciate the history, traditions, and streamside ethics of the old guard. Trout streams got crowded. Grumbling about yuppies was rampant. Range Rovers were parked alongside old Jeeps at popular fishing access sites. And it was a zoo at first, but those who really didn't have the patience for the finer points of fly fishing soon moved on to the next thing to do and the fly-fishing world, swelled slightly but still a tiny niche, settled down.

The one permanent effect of The Movie was the entrance of more young people into this tiny world. Suddenly college kids were getting interested in fly fishing in a way I had never seen before in my 40 years observing this business. They learned casting from You Tube, traded stories on blogs and studied podcasts and internet radio shows. They made movies in the tradition of the Warren Miller ski movies and later snowboard films.  Fly-fishing photography morphed from mostly quiet studies of lone anglers smoking pipes and gazing longingly at distant mountains to edgy, angle-cropped shots, extreme wide angles from low perspectives and artsy sepia-toned photos with intentional grain or noise.

Few young people will admit to being inspired by “A River Runs Through It” because it would be embarrassing for most to confess being lured into anything by Hollywood. However, I have a number of fishing buddies under 30 who, when pressed, will disclose that it was an inspiration to them and that it was their first exposure to fly fishing and made a lasting impression.

With a few notable exceptions, fly fishing was historically a male-dominated sport. As late as the 1970s, Louise Miller, wife of the famous fly-fishing writer Alfred Miller (better known by his pen name “Sparse Grey Hackle”), a fine angler herself, had to sit on the steps of the prestigious DeBruce Club on the upper Willowemoc River in the Catskills while her husband and his cronies held court, smoked cigars, and drank scotch. Although you still see more men than women fly fishing today, you can hardly say it is an exclusive male domain any more, and it is not just women accompanying their husbands or boyfriends. There are many highly qualified female guides in fly fishing today, and they row drift boats and run flats skiffs as hard as their male counterparts. In general, women do have different goals and expectations when fly fishing than men, which we'll explore in more detail in chapter 6.

All that gear makes it too complicated

The vision of a fly fisher as seen in outdoor (and sometimes fashion) magazines is a person dressed in bulky waders, wearing a vest with about 20 pockets, all of them filled with mysterious items that must be acquired for success. The vest is adorned with multiple tiny retractors, from which hang gadgets that looked like they were filched from a dentist's office. When my wife, Robin, took her first fly-fishing class, her first impression was “I love the casting and trying to master that, but I was really intimidated by all the equipment you need to learn about. Just give me a few flies that will work and let me go off and fish.”

It's no doubt that fly fishers can and do accumulate a lot of gear, but the complexity of the gear is part of the appeal to some. When you can catch anything from a small trout in a mountain stream to a sailfish in the Gulf Stream, it's natural that different gear will be required, and in the typical well-stocked fly shop, the owner never knows what the next person in the door will need. It's hard to make a living in a specialty fly shop so the owner hedges his or her bets to make sure a sale is not lost.

Fly fishing can be really simple. For instance, for fishing a small pond for bass or sunfish, or a small meadow trout stream this is all you really need:

  • A rod, reel, line, and leader (what is commonly called a “fly-fishing outfit”.
  • Something to cut the leader after tying on a fly. It can be a special pair of fly fisherman's snips or the sharp scissors on your Swiss Army Knife. Or even a pair of nail clippers
  • A spool or two of extra leader material, called tippet material in fly fishing.
  • A box of flies. You can put a few in an old pill container or the free little plastic container they gave you when you bought the flies.
  • A hat and sunglasses for sun and eye protection. You'd need those no matter what you were doing outdoors anyway.

You can wade in the water with a pair of sandals and shorts. If the water is cold you may need a pair of waders, and if the bottom is slippery you might need special wading shoes to keep your footing on slippery rocks. But all the other gear can come later if you wish. Keep it simple if, like Robin, you're intimidated by all that stuff.

It's really hard to learn

Fishing is Easy to learn

If you have sufficient coordination to drive a car you can learn fly fishing. It requires minimal hand-eye coordination and almost no strength. A four-year-old can be taught to cast a fly rod in about ten minutes. Adults take a little longer because they have habits from other sports and activities that need to be un-learned. It's slightly harder to learn fly casting than spin fishing, because the cast is more dynamic and needs to stay under control or it gets caught in trees or in the ground behind you. And manipulation of the fly requires more input from the angler—it's less mechanical than fishing with a conventional rod and reel, where you cast a lure or bait out and then reel it back with a mechanical device. In fly fishing, the lure is retrieved by pulling line through your fingers, so although more control is required it's that sense of being in more control that adds to its satisfaction.

People who have grown up fly fishing find spin fishing difficult, too. I was making a video about fly fishing one summer and was using nine-year-old Patrick Timmins as a model. Patrick grew up fly fishing in Colorado with his Dad, and in one scene, where we wanted to compare fly fishing to spin fishing we needed young Patrick to first cast fly into a riffle, and then cast a worm and bobber into the same piece of water. Patrick nailed the fly casting part of it on the first take. He had never used a spinning rod, though, and after about a dozen casts where he either forgot to open the bail or didn't take his finger off the line, we had to fake the scene and I had to run in and cast the spin outfit into the riffle, then quickly duck out of the scene after handing the rod to Patrick. Most kids begin on a spin rod or pushbutton rod and then learn fly fishing later. Patrick just started the other way around but had no less difficulty adjusting.

You have to learn entomology to get good at it

Although fly fishing is a wonderful way to catch trout, and seems to be tailor-made for catching fish that feed on small insects, fly fishing is so much more. Today's' flies imitate baitfish, leeches, crabs, shrimp, squids, frogs, and mice as well as insects. And while it's true that a little education on the different kinds of bugs that inhabit a trout stream can make trout fishing with a fly rod more productive, you need no entomology to happily catch trout for the rest of your life. Many fly fishers delve into the depths of entomology because they find it fascinating. They love and embrace the complexity of the relationship between aquatic insects and trout. But you don't need it to have fun, any more than you need to study advanced geometry to play billiards.

Fly fishers are snobs

You'll get no argument from me that some fly fishers are snobs and seem to think that fly fishing is somehow more pure or more “sporting” than other kinds of fishing. True, you don't have to get your hands dirty putting a worm or live minnow on a hook, but hands also stay clean when fishing spinner baits for bass or plugs for tarpon. 

More sporting? Maybe. At times we do artificially tie one hand behind our backs when fly fishing, when a piece of live bait or even a spin lure would be a quicker way to catch fish. Then you hear the cliché about “getting a more sporting fight with that skinny little rod” but a fly rod, with its ability to protect a leader with its shock absorbing qualities, can be a deadly efficient fight-beating tool. Experienced fly-rod tarpon anglers regularly get 150-pound tarpon to the boat in half the time it would take on a spinning rod by using a 60-pound test leader and utilizing the shock absorbing qualities of a heavy fly rod to put constant pressure on a fish right from the start of the battle and never letting up.

The other argument from fly fishers who claim to be more pure is that fly fishing is mostly catch and release and that fish caught with a fly survive better than fish caught with conventional tackle. Time and time again, scientific studies have shown that the difference in mortality rates between fish caught with flies and with spinning lures is negligible. Even fish caught with live bait and released survive far more often than is commonly thought.

Since the 1990s, fly fishing has become much more of a populist sport enjoyed by people of all ages, from all walks of life. You'll run into the snobs here and there but they're easy to ignore, because for every snob you meet there are a half dozen others who delight in sharing their knowledge with you.