Editor’s Note: Have you ever wanted to try something brand new in a safe, supportive environment? Sure you have! We sent contributor Deb Luskin out to explore a new realm. Here’s her story:
Learning to Fish: Day 1, A Lot to Learn
After a lifetime of moving through the landscape – on skis, by bicycle, by boat and on foot – I wanted to learn better how to be in it. I wanted to learn to be still and observant and fully participate. I wanted to learn how to fish.
What little I knew about fly-fishing already appealed to me: it was solitary, didn’t require much equipment, might provide corporeal sustenance, and was famous for renewing the soul. I liked that. But every fly-fisherman I knew had learned as a boy. I needed to find out how a middle-aged woman with no previous experience could learn.
It turns out learning to fish is easy. Or, at least, finding someone to teach you how is easy. A quick internet search turned up Let’s Go Fishing, a federal program funded by a federal excise tax on fishing gear through the Sport Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act. A little more searching landed me at the Let’s Go Fishing page on New Hampshire Fish & Game website, where I found a free class in northern New Hampshire on a weekend in early June. I signed up and went.
I left home shortly after 4:00am and drove north, arriving in cold, damp mist at Coleman State Park in time for our 8:30 start. We’d been warned the course would take place rain or shine, so 28 of us showed up in layers of fleece under rain gear. Happily, we started out in a large room with a welcome fire.
Welcome, we were. New Hampshire’s Let’s Go Fishing program is sponsored by the state’s Department of Fish and Game and taught by a cadre of experienced and dedicated volunteers who were eager to share their fishing knowledge and passion. Kyle Glencross, the Let’s Go Fishing coordinator for New Hampshire Fish and Game, welcomed us and handed us over to Jim Riccardi, a volunteer with the program since it started in the late 1980’s. Jim, in turn, introduced us to the seven other volunteers, and then to the fishing essentials of rod, line and reel.
I was wrong about the equipment. While it’s true that all you really need is a rod, reel and line with a fly, it’s also true that there’s huge variety among all four of these components. Fly fishing lines alone varies by type and weight and there are hundreds of choices. Jim entertained us with the details without overwhelming us. He also reassured us that, to get started, we could buy a fairly inexpensive kit ready to cast, just like the rods supplied for us to use during the course.
Next up, August “Red” Merker added to our knowledge of equipment basics with a quick class in waders – the waterproof long pants fisher-folk wear into the water. He explained the safety issues associated with each kind – hip boot, boot waters and stocking waders. He also demonstrated how to negotiate safely in moving water, including the use of a wading stick and inflatable PFD.
Heads stuffed with new information, we broke for homemade cookies before reconvening outside on the lawn, fishing rods at the ready. The mist had lifted, and the wind hadn’t yet come up, but it was damp and chill, so it felt good to be moving.
Kris Riccardi demonstrated the four steps of the cast, and we spent the next forty-five minutes practicing. With eight instructors distributed among twenty-eight students, we had a better student-teacher ratio than most elite colleges. We all had plenty of coaching, and we all achieved some degree of dry-land success.
Back inside around the fire, we talked about hypothermia and other issues of water safety before moving on to Fish, Food and Flies with Jim Prendible, who had both slides and specimens for us to examine. Matching the hatch to the catch is of particular interest to me. I used to keep bees, and I have a general interest in insects, which are second only to humans in effecting climate change. Termites, for instance, adapt to protect grassland; humans, sadly, tend to degrade it. But I digress.
Jim taught us about insects in relation to fishing: their flight characteristics, wing types, and body shape. He introduced us to the three types of caddis fly, probably the most important insect for fishing in New Hampshire. We also learned about the stonefly, mosquitoes, midges, crane flies and – the bane of humans in the northeast – blackflies.
After learning about real flies, we learned about the artificial flies used to catch fish. These are splendid creations, and appear to more closely resemble high-fashion earrings than any insects found in nature. But that’s the catch: flies are tied to mimic the way fish see the bait from beneath and through water. Fishing, I started to realize, means learning to think like a fish.
Finally, Jim showed us the water-stained field guides he uses for identifying insects at water’s edge. Just when it was beginning to seem as if we’d need to earn PhDs in aquatic entomology, Jim also told us about New Hampshire’s Fishing Report, which includes information about what’s hatching and what lakes, streams and ponds have been recently stocked. You really can be a beginner and have success – if you can tie knots.
After a lunch break, we all received three different colored pieces of monofilament, and Jesse Tichko, an active volunteer in New Hampshire’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman program, taught us the basics. She and Red demonstrated four basic knots on climbing rope. We followed with our monofilament, learning a Surgeon’s Loop, a Loop-to-Loop connection, a Surgeon’s Knot, and the Improved Clinch Knot. These are the knots we needed to attach the leader to the tippet to the hook. It was during this exercise that someone said, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of fun.” I liked learning all this new information; I liked tying knots; I was having fun.
Kris led us outside into the full sun and high wind for our second session of dry land casting, this time to learn how to handle the line with our off-hand. It’s hard to cast into the wind, but it was lovely to be outside and put some of our new knowledge to work. Then back indoors to cover three more subjects: Gear, Regulations, and Fish Identification.
Adorned in his fishing vest, Bob Backeil, a fisherman from Maine, was outfitted like a walking tackle shop. He showed us what he carries and how it’s stowed, pocket-by-pocket. In addition to pockets for spare leaders, tippets and flies, he has tools attached by retractable lanyards, so if he drops his scissors or pliers or wading staff, it doesn’t end up in the drink. Between fishing equipment (including a net that attaches by a magnet at the back of his collar) to safety equipment (compass and map, matches, first aid) to comfort items (sunscreen, bug dope and lunch), there’s a lot to carry! And one of the things every fisherperson must carry is a valid license. Bob Babula, a retired New Hampshire conservation officer, went over the rules in the New Hampshire Fish and Game Digest, a copy of which was in the packet of useful information we all received. Also in the packet was a booklet describing New Hampshire’s Fish.
Walter Ryan elaborated on fish identification with a Power Point presentation. In addition to showing us the obvious characteristics of color, spots, stripes, mouth shape, and placement of fins, Walt also told us where these fish are most likely to be found. Some are strictly cold-water animals who live in water under 68-degrees; others prefer warmer water. Some fish like moving streams; others hang out in shallows and weeds. Knowing where fish lurk helps not only find them, but also helps with identification. And identification matters; there are limits on what size and how many fish can be legally caught and kept. This would be critical information the following day, when we’d presumably catch fish and learn how to safely release any that either weren’t legal or that we weren’t going to eat.
All meals were on our own for the weekend. My husband had packed me a cooler of nourishing food. After class, I hauled it and my tired self thirty-miles on, to my destination for the night. The scenery in the slanting afternoon light revived me, and I enjoyed the drive northward to the Cabins at Lopstick on the First Connecticut Lake.
I live in southeastern Vermont, where the Connecticut River is deep and wide. I was torn between driving to the actual headwaters at the Fourth Connecticut Lake or checking into my cabin. According to Courtney, the friendly woman at the front desk, the Fourth Connecticut Lake was both a drive and a hike, and I’d had enough driving for one day, so I stayed where I was and poked around.
There’s a first-rate tackle shop attached to the office, and I admired all the cool fishing gear I would eventually need. The Cabins at Lopstick are endorsed by Orvis, the famous purveyors of fishing tackle headquartered near my home in Vermont. Lopstick sells Orvis equipment, including a multitude of flies; they also provide fishing lessons and fishing guides. “Another trip!”, I thought to myself as I settled into Drake, my cabin on Back Lake, for a prolonged sunset to end a full day.
After years of sleeping in tents and shelters along the trail, I found Drake to be quite deluxe. It had a complete kitchen, bath, two bedrooms and a living room equipped with a television, cable and wifi – in addition to a gorgeous lake view and soundtrack provided by loons. Best of all, it had heat, which I greatly appreciated when I awoke to 32 degrees at dawn; I had to scrape frost off my windshield!
Learning to Fish, Day 2, Success! (Sort of . . .)
I took advantage of the early light to visit the Second Connecticut Lake. I was hoping to see some moose which frequent Route 3 around there. Instead of charismatic mega fauna, however, I spied a swimming beaver, watched two pairs of Canada geese (one with three goslings in tow), and braked for a fox family crossing the road.
Since my husband packed me everything but coffee, I stopped for breakfast on my way back to the park for another 8:30 start. This time, we donned waders and assembled at the edge of Little Diamond Pond for our third casting lesson of the weekend. This time, we had a live demonstration of playing and landing a fish with Kris “catching” her husband Jim. And then the moment of truth: we tied on our flies (with the Improved Clinch Knot, of course) and spread out along the shoreline to fish.
Almost immediately, I caught my first branch, losing my fly. But Walt showed up, as if on cue, with another, along with some advice on how to improve my roll cast, which would keep my line out of the trees. Up and down the line, I heard cries of, “Fish! Fish! I caught a fish!”
I only had a few nibbles, so when Jim stopped by, he gave me a bigger fly and some pointers about make it look delicious to a fish. I kept casting and stripping the line back in. Whenever I found myself getting impatient, I looked up. A bald eagle. A pair of loons. Fish rising just beyond my reach. Then Jesse stopped by with a suggestion for dropping my line further out. I did it, my rod bent. I had a fish on the line!
Jesse talked me through reeling it in and grabbed the line to show me the Brookie – a gorgeous, spotted fish! I stood there, grinning in disbelief. “Seven inches,” Jesse estimated. It seemed much bigger, especially since it spit out the hook and got away.
All in all, getting started with fly fishing turned out to be easier than I’d expected, but there’s still a lifetime of learning ahead for me. If you’re thinking of trying it yourself, take advantage of this or another program; you’ll get the benefit of people who have spent decades learning what they’re teaching you.