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 aquamarinepool on the McCloud River, near Mt. Shasta in California. Untilthree 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. "Givehim more line and let him run!" my guide, David Cooks, instructed.But the line went slack, and I glimpsed a dark shadow boltingaway.

"I hate to say it, but that might have been the biggest rainbowI've seen in this river," Cooks said. My expression must havesignaled my disappointment. "Don't worry. There will be otherfish," 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 Imight take up later in life, along with quilting.

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

"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," hesaid dismissively.

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

It's all about getting out on thewater

Clearwater House on Hat Creek, in northeastern California, isone of several Western fishing lodges where beginners can learnfly-fishing basics. For roughly $260 a day, including meals andlodging, you'll be taught essential skills: how to tie knots andrig your rod, how to "read" the water to determine where the fishare, and how to cast and "present" a fly to a fish in a way thatlooks natural. Cooks had a great way of explaining that lastconcept: "If your fly moves through the water faster than thenatural 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 oftips like that. But the program involved more than just listeningto them talk. The value of multiday fly-fishing clinics ― asopposed to one-day clinics where you learn to cast, often in aparking lot ― is the chance to go out on the water withexperts who walk you through every step. For all the books andmovies about the poetry of fly-fishing, the fact is that it's a lotmore fun when you start catching fish.

Fishing for several days also exposes you to a variety of waterconditions. On our second day, we hit the waters of Burney Creek.Calm and stocked with small fish, it's a perfect place forbeginners. Shaded by sun-dappled vine maples and wild ginger, it'salso a good example of the old cliché "trout don't live inugly 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 toknock a person over. (We learned how to use a wading staff forstability.) That was the day I began to love fishing. But love, asthey say, is closely related to hate.

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

"This is just a bad spot," he said. "Watch. My line will do thesame 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 afeisty 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 gota fish on!" filled me with elation.

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

But something had, in fact, happened. I remembered what Cookshad told me earlier, when I asked him why he chooses to spend hislife fishing. "Getting to look at the fish is the best part," hesaid, "because each one is unique and beautiful. You wonder abouttheir trials and tribulations, how they got here. You get to sharea moment with them."

A moment you don't forget.

FISHING CLINICS AROUND THE WEST

Each of the following multiday programs is geared towardbeginners. Except where noted, prices are per person and includeall instruction, lodging, meals, and use of equipment.

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

Brock's Flyfishing Specialists. Two-day seminars on theOwens River in the Eastern Sierra, near Bishop, CA. May-Oct; $300 (includes tuition, equipment, and some meals butnot lodging). www.brocksflyfish.com or(760) 872-3581.

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

Mel Krieger Fly Fishing Schools. Multiday fishing clinicsnear 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 areoffered at two Western locations. Evergreen, CO, Apr-Sep; Coeur d'Alene, ID, Jun-Sep; $490 each (includes tuitionbut not meals or lodging). www.orvis.com or (800) 239-2074ext. 728.

GETTING RIGGED FOR AROUND $500

Rod, reel, and line. A 9-foot, 5-weight rod with reel andfloating line will get you started on any Western waterway. Don'tscrimp on this essential gear. Sage LE Kit: $240.

Vest. This indispensable garment holds all of your tackle. Abig back pocket can hold a jacket and a sandwich. Several modelsfrom $45.

Waders. We recommend breathable Gore-Tex chest waders with asafety belt. Wear lightweight polypropylene long johns underneathfor comfort. Simms Freestone waders: $149.

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

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

Other necessities. A hat, long-sleeved shirt, and sunscreenkeep off sun. Sunglasses ― polarized are best ― cutwater glare.

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