Get hooked

Fly-fishing can be addictive once you learn the basics

Amy McConnell (pictured in full gear at left)

Standing on a rocky ledge, I peered down into an aquamarine pool on the McCloud River, near Mt. Shasta in California. Until three days before, I had never even held a fly rod in my hand. Now, attached to the end of my line was an enormous rainbow trout. "Give him more line and let him run!" my guide, David Cooks, instructed. But the line went slack, and I glimpsed a dark shadow bolting away.

"I hate to say it, but that might have been the biggest rainbow I've seen in this river," Cooks said. My expression must have signaled my disappointment. "Don't worry. There will be other fish," Cooks consoled.

"But I want that fish," I said.

He laughed. "Now you see why it's so addictive."

Fishing used to strike me as a last-resort sport, a pastime I might take up later in life, along with quilting.

And then I met my husband, who grew up with a fly rod in his hand. On our first date, he asked me if I had ever caught a fish.

"I think so," I said.

"You think so? How big was it?"

"I don't remember the details."

"Then you haven't caught a fish. You would have remembered," he said dismissively.

A year later, at a five-day beginners' fly-fishing school, I realized he was right: you never forget your first fish.

It's all about getting out on the water

Clearwater House on Hat Creek, in northeastern California, is one of several Western fishing lodges where beginners can learn fly-fishing basics. For roughly $260 a day, including meals and lodging, you'll be taught essential skills: how to tie knots and rig your rod, how to "read" the water to determine where the fish are, and how to cast and "present" a fly to a fish in a way that looks natural. Cooks had a great way of explaining that last concept: "If your fly moves through the water faster than the natural drift, it'll look like a burger skidding across your plate. Would you want to eat that?"

Cooks and Clearwater's other guide, Scott Saiki, were full of tips like that. But the program involved more than just listening to them talk. The value of multiday fly-fishing clinics ― as opposed to one-day clinics where you learn to cast, often in a parking lot ― is the chance to go out on the water with experts who walk you through every step. For all the books and movies about the poetry of fly-fishing, the fact is that it's a lot more fun when you start catching fish.

Fishing for several days also exposes you to a variety of water conditions. On our second day, we hit the waters of Burney Creek. Calm and stocked with small fish, it's a perfect place for beginners. Shaded by sun-dappled vine maples and wild ginger, it's also a good example of the old cliché "trout don't live in ugly places."

On the third day, we tackled the more challenging Pit River, where reaching the good fishing spots required clambering over big, slippery rocks and wading out through currents strong enough to knock a person over. (We learned how to use a wading staff for stability.) That was the day I began to love fishing. But love, as they say, is closely related to hate.

It was noon and I still hadn't had any strikes. I wondered when we would break for lunch. I was growing increasingly bored and hopeless. Maybe I'm just not cut out for this sport, I mused. My line snagged on the bottom ― again. I yelled to Saiki, "Why do I keep getting snagged?" Sensing my frustration, he dropped what he was doing and came to my side.

"This is just a bad spot," he said. "Watch. My line will do the same thing when I cast." To demonstrate, he cast once, then twice. On the third try, his line became taut and I caught a glimpse of a feisty trout.

Then Saiki did the last thing I expected: he handed me the rod. "You fight it," he said.

I grabbed the rod and held on. Hearing someone yell, "Amy's got a fish on!" filled me with elation.

"You got it! Strip in more line!" Saiki was yelling. Suddenly he was holding his net in the water, and filling the net was a rainbow trout. The fish lay still for a split second, then thrashed again. Trembling, I slid the barbless hook out of its lip. Then I held the trout as gently as I could while moving it back and forth, as our instructors had taught us to do, to revive the fish before releasing it. The instant I let go, it darted into the depths and vanished, as if nothing had happened.

But something had, in fact, happened. I remembered what Cooks had told me earlier, when I asked him why he chooses to spend his life fishing. "Getting to look at the fish is the best part," he said, "because each one is unique and beautiful. You wonder about their trials and tribulations, how they got here. You get to share a moment with them."

A moment you don't forget.

FISHING CLINICS AROUND THE WEST

Each of the following multiday programs is geared toward beginners. Except where noted, prices are per person and include all instruction, lodging, meals, and use of equipment.

André Puyans Fly Fishing Seminar. Seven-day seminar on rivers in Idaho and Montana. Jul 13-20; $2,875. www.andrepuyans.com or (925) 939-3113.

Brock's Flyfishing Specialists. Two-day seminars on the Owens River in the Eastern Sierra, near Bishop, CA. May-Oct; $300 (includes tuition, equipment, and some meals but not lodging). www.brocksflyfish.com or (760) 872-3581.

Clearwater House. Five-day "Mastering the Art of Fly Fishing" seminar. Women-only beginner seminars are also offered. May-mid-Oct; $1,050. Cassel, CA, 70 miles east of Redding; www.clearwatertrout.com or (530) 335-5500.

Mel Krieger Fly Fishing Schools. Multiday fishing clinics near Mt. Shasta. May-Jul and Sep; $590 for two-day clinic, $790 for three-day. Reserve through the Fly Shop, Redding, CA; www.theflyshop.com or (800) 669-3474.

Orvis Fly Fishing Schools. Orvis's 2 1/2-day programs are offered at two Western locations. Evergreen, CO, Apr-Sep; Coeur d'Alene, ID, Jun-Sep; $490 each (includes tuition but not meals or lodging). www.orvis.com or (800) 239-2074 ext. 728.

GETTING RIGGED FOR AROUND $500

Rod, reel, and line. A 9-foot, 5-weight rod with reel and floating line will get you started on any Western waterway. Don't scrimp on this essential gear. Sage LE Kit: $240.

Vest. This indispensable garment holds all of your tackle. A big back pocket can hold a jacket and a sandwich. Several models from $45.

Waders. We recommend breathable Gore-Tex chest waders with a safety belt. Wear lightweight polypropylene long johns underneath for comfort. Simms Freestone waders: $149.

Boots. Felt-soled footwear provides traction on slippery rocks. Several models from $80.

In or on your vest. Basics include line clippers and a hemostat (to release fish). Wait to buy terminal tackle ― flies, leaders ― at a fly shop near the river or lake where you'll be fishing.

Other necessities. A hat, long-sleeved shirt, and sunscreen keep off sun. Sunglasses ― polarized are best ― cut water glare.

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