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Flies, fly rods, and kids: Lessons in fishing and life

“Tim! Raise your rod tip!” Tim raised his rod tip.

“Now, give him some more line!” Tim let out some more line.

Actually, the 11-year-old Tim could have done just fine without all the adult “help,” but that’s just how adults are, needing to give our sage advice to the young. Tim finally landed a nice bass, about 1 1/2 pounds, on his fly rod. Most of Tim’s companions had caught some bluegills, but this was a “real fish.” It was not his first fish on a fly rod, but it was definitely the fish of the day. Tim and his companions were all members of the local 4H program in Archuleta County, Colorado. The Sportsfishing class has been customized for our unique area, to consist of fly tying and fly fishing.

But, let me back up to the beginning.

When I retired from teaching several years ago, we moved from the Texas Gulf Coast to Pagosa Springs, and one important item on my “bucket list” was to learn how to fly fish. It was about five years into retirement when I finally announced to my wife that it was time. The problem was, I didn’t have anyone to teach me, so I decided that it would be necessary to locate a local instructor for some formal lessons.

Then I got to know Ken. As it turned out, he was not only a fly fisherman, but an enthusiastic one, who loved to teach others the art. Also, he would not accept payment. What a deal.

Well, the teaching sessions commenced, and I began to acquire a little knowledge and the “necessary” gear, and quickly became an enthusiast (my wife may use a stronger term). Never mind that I really didn’t know much about what I was doing, I was definitely hooked, and it was obvious that if I had enough of the right “stuff,” I would certainly catch fish. And, as any fly fishing enthusiast will tell you, the natural next step in the sport was to learn to tie flies. “Aha,” I thought, “I’m gonna need more stuff!”

I did begin to gain a little confidence, thanks to Ken, and I actually caught fish. Ken and I began fishing together several days a week, but I noticed that there was one day in the week that Ken could never go fishing, because on that day he worked with “his kids.” These kids turned out to be young people in the local 4H program where Ken and his friend Bill were teaching fly tying and fly fishing. It was obvious that my friend was very proud of these youngsters and their accomplishments. He would enthusiastically tell of how one young lady could already tie a good fly on a size 20 hook, and one young man was really learning to cast with style and grace. I mentioned to him that after a couple of years of fishing experience, maybe I could get involved, and help out. I’m a retired teacher, and the thought of working with young people again invoked some fun memories for me. Ken told me I didn’t need a couple of years, as he planned on getting me involved the next year.

Needless to say, I am now involved.

4H is a program, outside the public school system, that operates on the county and state level. Its roots are in raising livestock, small animals and home skills. It now incorporates many other skills and interest such as entomology, shooting sports and, yes, sportfishing.

As we began the program this winter, I entered my fourth year with 4H. The year after I started, we were joined by another fly fisherman, also named Bill, so now we were four. Since lakes and rivers are generally frozen in the winter in this part of Colorado, the obvious thing to start with is tying flies. When the water thaws, we begin instruction in fly casting. Then we go fishing every week, usually at one of our local lakes. I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, fishing every week!” Well, somebody has to do it.

The first year with the 4H kids, I didn’t know much more than the youngsters I was teaching. I did know how to teach, however, and I had experience in starting someone who knew little or nothing about the subject. Besides, Ken and Bill were always nearby, in case I got stumped on something.

The one little guy in that first class that sticks in my mind from that first year, was Dean. Our program didn’t have many tying vises at that time, so the students would have to take turns, with one tying and one “watching.” Right! Anyone can tell you that no 9-year-old boy is going to sit and quietly watch anything for long. Dean was no exception, and he loved to distract the person who was tying, as Dean “observed.” Two years later, he was helping other beginners, and would often catch the most fish on our outings, with a very nice, stylish cast.

Our fishing outings are always enjoyable, because kids belong in the outdoors, and we, the adults, have fun helping, and, sometimes, just watching. After a session of casting on the grass, or in the high ceiling, 4H building, with special shortened rods, we venture to a local lake to actually fish. Each beginner starts casting with a puff of bright colored yarn on the leader, until we are convinced he/she can cast the line relatively safely. Only then are they allowed to tie on a real fly, with a real hook. It’s surprising how many of them will catch a bluegill or crappie, with a fly rod, the first time out.

Naturally, other aspects of the sport must be taught besides casting and fly tying. Before we head to the water, the strongest emphasis of all is placed on safety. We remind them that sharp hooks and bodies of water have inherent dangers that must be respected. A session is also spent on basic knots, for tying on flies and spicing the tippet to the leader. We also try to remind them to take a moment to appreciate God’s beautiful handiwork that surrounds us.

Those of us involved in this program are certainly proud of it, but what we’re really proud of, and what’s really important are the young people we are teaching. Watching kids learn to use a skill that can be difficult and sometimes frustrating, is a fascinating thing.

Tim, mentioned earlier, has an older brother, Dan, who is also in the class. Now Tim is quite a fly fisher, arguably the most serious angler in the group, and he often catches more fish than his older brother. Dan takes it all in good stride, but when he “beats” Tim, he really lets him know about it. Jaden has been at it for a year now, and has a remarkably smooth, rhythmic cast that I personally envy. Brandon, one of the youngest and smallest, is also in his second year, and he exudes unbridled excitement every time he goes fishing, and, I have to say, his excitement can be contagious.

We now have a new class of first-year anglers, and after finishing fly tying for the season, they are now learning to cast and fish. This group is especially fun, partly because there are four girls and three boys. Now any man will tell you that adding women to the mix causes things to get much more interesting. The boys are pretty quiet, polite, and tend to go about their business of tying flies and fishing, without much comment. Keena, a bright, inquisitive 8-year-old, can usually get a new fly right the first time. She has her own fly tying kit, and is dead serious about the whole business. She also looks like she is going to be quite formidable with a fly rod in her hand. Shayla, Angette and Amanda are older, quiet, and are proving to be pretty fast learners in their own right. The dynamics of this year’s class, beginners, second and third year members, is really fun to watch, especially now, that they are beginning to catch fish. We don’t promote competition, but no fisherman ignores the other person’s fish or how big it is, or who catches the most.

I’ve noticed that two of our first-year students, Lorin and Shayla, have a nice, natural cast that speaks of some experience. In other words, as we would say in Texas, “This ain’t their first rodeo.” Lorin and Shayla both caught fish on their first time out with 4H. Preston, in his second year, has improved rhythm and smoothness, but he could still use some more patience. Keena, truly a first year angler, had to deal with most beginners’ obstacles and challenges, but she shows promise, and she even caught a little yellow perch her first day out. That first fish on a fly rod, as all anglers know, is a landmark event. There’s no way to count how many times we have to admonish our young fly fishers not to break their wrist, and to wait for the fly line to reach its limit on the back cast. It is, however, rewarding and beautiful to watch, when the message finally sinks in and they get it all right.

Our program is not about awards, but many of our young anglers have done quite well with their projects at our county and state fairs. We are, naturally, like proud parents, when they do well. We do tend to brag on them just a little bit.

Speaking of parents, another positive aspect of this program is parent involvement. Many parents attend our sessions, watching fly tying instruction or coming out to watch the fishing. Some parents even bring out their own fly rods and join in the fun. One mom attended virtually all the tying classes, and she has pictures of every fly her daughter has tied. The parents’ involvement becomes especially important when we take the group to an end-of-the-season overnight trip to the Conejos River.

The Conejos River: That beautiful stretch of river in southern Colorado is a perfect place for young anglers to experience fly fishing in moving water, because there are many places where the water is not too deep or too fast. We require some parents to join us, so that the kids can be watched and attended to, if they need help. The parents (and the sponsors), have at least as much fun as the kids, and we sometimes even get to fish a little, too. The two main priorities on these outings are: 1. Safety 2. Have fun.

The Conejos River is no pushover when it comes to giving up fish; it can actually be somewhat stingy, but we have had kids catch fish there, and we consider it quite an accomplishment. We stay at the rustic, but comfortable and affordable, Rocky Mountain Lodge, near Platoro. We roast hot dogs and marshmallows on an open fire, and Bill and Ken fix a terrific pancake breakfast on each trip. The kids, (and the adults), go through at least three or four bags of cookies in a span of less than two days. It goes without saying, no one goes home hungry.

Our trip to the Conejos this year was, again, a smashing success. No, we didn’t catch a lot of fish, but we did fish, and everyone had a great time. We were especially proud of our kids when we drove up to the Platoro Reservoir to try for some rainbow trout. We encountered some pretty serious wind, and all of our young anglers cast with the wind, just as we had taught them to do! Nobody complained about too much wind, because they had already done it many times.

What can be better than taking a thing you really love, and sharing it with young people? Technology such as cell phones, iPods and computer Internet, can be useful tools, but can often become an obsession, and therefore destructive. Kids in small towns have some advantage over city youngsters, when it comes to outdoor activities, but they still have the draw of technology to deal with. Getting them outside and helping them learn a beautiful, graceful skill that they can enjoy the rest of their lives, makes the time and the effort worthwhile. How many of us wish we could have learned to fly fish when we were 10?