Learning on the Fly

Every sport has its quintessential season, and for many fly fishers, fall is the favorite—a time of year when less-than-hard-core anglers have already hung up their waders till next spring, leaving rivers and streams blissfully quiet, devoid of human traffic. As foliage turns to bold shades of gold and crimson, fly fishers begin scanning the air for equally brilliant-colored insects—the Blue-Winged Olive and Mahogany Dun mayflies that start hatching in profusion, carpeting the river’s surface and driving big trout to distraction. Up come the fish, sipping in these tiny morsels as if snatching hors d’oeuvres off a cocktail tray.

The beauty of trout rivers and their environs is just one aspect of fly fishing that draws men and women to the sport. There’s also the incredible variety of fish and fishing venues, the opportunity for exotic travel and, perhaps the biggest draw of all, the ongoing learning experience and challenge of trying to outwit a trout.

“I first took up fly-fishing 15 years ago, and the first thing I thought was, ‘I wish I’d started as a kid,’” says Bob Rosenberg, a recently retired endodontist from Kentfield. But that hasn’t discouraged him, not for a minute. “Learning to cast is just the first step,” he says. “The best thing about fly-fishing is ascending to higher skill levels in various aspects of the sport—and getting to the highest levels does take time and experience.” And yet “unlike with so many sports we play as we get older, where we can’t jump as high and run as fast, diminishing physical skills aren’t really a factor in fly-fishing… you just get better and better.”

Rosenberg now spends his summers in Idaho on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, one of the most revered—and demanding—fly-fishing spots in the country. Lately, in winter he and his wife, Susan, have traveled to New Zealand, where he stalks huge trout in crystal-clear water, in rivers where most anglers are helpless without a professional guide.

But most fly fishers start closer to home. “I’d say a good 80 percent of our beginning customers are interested in fishing local trout waters,” says Rickey Baker, head of the fly-fishing department at Western Sport Shop in San Rafael and Santa Rosa. Fortunately, some of the finest trout fishing waters in California are just a few hours’ drive from Marin. Larry Lack, a Novato fly-fishing guide and instructor, touts the fishing opportunities on the North Fork of the Yuba River, the Upper Sacramento, Putah Creek, the Stanislaus, Fall River and Hat Creek. “When working with beginners,” he says, “I like teaching on the water rather than in a room. I find that retention is much greater if you apply the skills as you learn them.”

Lack, who’s also a board member of the Mount Tamalpais Fly Fishers (about 50 members of all skill levels), says beginners shouldn’t put pressure on themselves to become instant experts. “If they make a conscious effort, most fly fishers can be members of the ‘5 to 95’ group in just five years,” he says. In other words, “they’ll be among the 5 percent of fly fishers who catch 95 percent of the trout.”

Many fledgling fly fishers think once they’ve learned to cast a fly rod, they’ll begin catching fish at will. But casting is just the first step in the learning process. Baker has all budding fly fishers watch the DVD entitled Bugs of the Underworld: the Natural History of Aquatic Insects. “Trout fishing is all about bugs,” says Baker, “and once you get a fuller understanding of that, the more effective a fly fisher you become.”

Mill Valley resident John McCosker, former director of the Steinhart Aquarium and now senior scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, started ascending the learning curve as a kid growing up in Southern California. By age 12 he was accompanying his father on fly-fishing trips to the High Sierra. “We learned by trial and error,” says McCosker, now an accomplished flytier and fly fisherman. “And the equipment—a cheap five-dollar bamboo rod from Thrifty Drugs and poorly tied commercial flies—didn’t make things easy.”

Neophytes today have a distinct advantage, McCosker says, thanks in part to Selective Trout, a book published in the early ’70s that shed new light on the subtleties of the sport and provided important insights into what trout are eating and when. That, combined with remarkable improvements in fly-fishing technology—graphite rods, lightweight reels, slick fly lines, more sophisticated fly patterns—plus today’s wealth of books, videos, magazines, and websites on the subject and wide array of experienced guides, means “you can quickly jump-start your fishing without paying years of dues.”

Typically, fly anglers begin by heading out on their own or with an experienced friend, but there’s a lot to be said for taking a class or two first. Fly Fishing 101 at Western Sport Shop covers such basics as understanding fly tackle, artificial flies and their uses, casting a fly rod and lots more. For those who know they want to jump in with both feet, as it were, fly-tying classes abound at area shops. Equally valuable is spending a day or two on the water with an experience guide—not inexpensive at $375 a day for you and a companion plus a $70 to $80 tip, but if you view it as both instruction and a fishing trip, it’s money well spent.

Although many beginners measure their success by number of fish caught, those who’ve been at it a while make a distinction between fishing and catching. Rather than catching dozens of fish, Bob Rosenberg would rather be out on the water all day learning more about what makes a trout want to take his imitation fly. Of course, “there are more than a few days in any given season when I’d like to hook at least one fish,” he admits.

Unlike sports such as golf, fly-fishing doesn’t allow you to handicap yourself. “Every day of fishing is different from the last,” McCosker says. “The wind may be howling, causing insects to blow off the water and trout to lay low, or today’s weather and conditions may be identical to those of last week when trout took your fly with wild abandon, but today they totally ignore you.” It’s that uncertainty that keeps fly-fishing interesting, plus the great challenge of figuring out why yesterday’s solution isn’t working today.

Still, there are those days when you wade into the water and everything falls into place—you’ve located a big trout, watched it come regularly and methodically to the surface to feed, realized that it’s gulping emerging mayflies, and you say, “Aha! I’ve got it.” And next thing you know, you’re into a 20-inch trout that goes airborne—brazenly showing off the crimson and gold rainbow running the length of its body and harmonizing perfectly with those fall leaves now drifting through the sky.

Learning Curve

Local fly-fishing classes cover everything from fly casting tying to rod building and entomology (the study of insects).

Mount Tamalpais Fly Fishers (mttamflyfishers.org) meets at Town Center Corte Madera the fourth Tuesday of every month, and membership is open to anyone. The club organizes six or seven fishing trips a year and offers classes in casting, rod building and other related skills.

Western Sport Shop has fly-fishing gear as well as clinics and classes for nominal fees, including Fly Fishing 101; for specifics, call 415.456.5454.

Larry Lack provides guiding and instruction in all aspects of fly-fishing. 415.883.5363

California Fly Shop, in San Carlos, stocks a full range of equipment; holds classes in casting, fly tying, entomology and more; and offers private casting classes and hosted fishing trips. 650.508.0727

Orvis of San Francisco Palo Alto and San Jose carries fly-fishing gear and will refer anglers to Orvis-endorsed lodges and outfitters. The stores have a set class schedule May through October along with classes by request the rest of the year. 415.392.1600


Get in Gear

Shops that rent rods, reels and waders are hard to find; you’ll most likely need to purchase these, along with a fly line and other items like flies, leaders, and so forth.

The cost to get started will run approximately $600 to $1,900 depending on the quality of the gear.

The cost breakdown:

Rod: $50–$600
Reel: $50–$300
Fly line: $50
Waders and wading boots: $150–$450
Fishing vest: $100
Miscellaneous items
(tippet material, nippers): $200–$400