By Capt. Tony Petrella
There was a day in the long ago and far away when I watched a man furiously whipping a "fishing pole" back and forth over his head as if he was holding a long white fly swatter.
I was nearly naked and shivering in a cold Pennsylvania mountain stream at the time, but I presumed that this fellow had been stricken with some sort of seizure. Since I was a Boy Scout, on a Boy Scout weekend outing, I naturally felt obliged to see if I could help this poor man in some way.
As I started mincing over the pebbles and rocks toward the far bank, I was relieved to see him sloshing toward that same shore.
“Whew,” I thought. “At least I won’t have to drag him out of the water when he falls over.” It was then that I noticed the strange rubber pants he was wearing. “Uh, oh,” I thought. “I’m not sure I like how this is shaping up at all. Rubber pants? Like a full-length diaper? Hmmmmm.”
The older gentleman strolled toward me and affably offered a “Good morning, young fellow”, and I blurted out a very impolitic greeting of my own. “You okay, sir? I mean, you mustuv never been fishing before, the way you were waving that fish pole. Would you like me to show you how it’s done, sir?”
He started laughing like crazy, and his fedora plopped off the back of his head. For my part, I was more convinced than ever that this guy was a raving loony who was wearing rubber pants because he’d escaped from a nuthouse someplace.
When I saw another fellow walking toward us on the bank, I figured the nuthouse guards were onto his trail and was mighty relieved. But before I could wave a summons to the guard, I noticed that HE was wearing rubber pants.
The gentleman bent over and plucked his hat from the weeds. He stopped laughing, but still had a wide grin on his face when the other guy ambled up. “Bill, this young fellow obviously never saw anybody fly fishing before. What did you think was going on, young fellow?”
I bit off the urge to talk about rubber pants and nuthouses and white flyswatters that worked in some bizarre fashion because there was indeed a bug of some kind stuck onto the end of a string that was hanging off the swatter.
So, for one of the few times in my life, I said nothing.
“My name’s Charlie”, he said. “What we’re doing is called fly fishing. And what are you called?” I stammered my name, and he grinned again. “Well, Master Petrella, would you like to try fly fishing?”
That was more than 40 years ago. Since then, I managed to stumble into the fly fishing industry as a manufacturer’s representative, and became a guide in Michigan and Florida.
That means that for a very long time I’ve been driving and flying and wading and boating all over These United States in pursuit of trout and salmon and steelhead. And bluegill and carp and pike. And tarpon and snook and redfish.
And, you know what? I have the most fun of all teaching young boys and girls how to fly fish. They, in turn, have the most fun learning. They’re like little sponges, soaking up the how-to and why-for and where-at. You simply have to make it fun for them—which means getting them into fish as quickly as possible.
Of course, there are some days when they spend more time dumping water out of their waders than they do releasing fish. Which is what happened last week with three 14-year-old boys I had for a Rookie School.
Which illustrates, I suppose, something I've maintained for many years. The most reliable way of easing your son or daughter into fly fishing would be to buy a 6-foot 2-weight or 7 ½-foot 3-weight rod, some small poppers, and go catch a mess of bluegills.
Remembering, of course, that the attention span of a kid lasts about as long as Hollywood Celebrity marriages. Also remembering that they’re kids!
I had a client in Florida once whose son got battered nearly senseless on a deep sea charter and was absolutely terrified of fish, fishing, and water. Not necessarily in that order. But, Dad was determined that Son would learn to love fishing as much as he did.
So, there we were at the 10th Street boat ramp in downtown Sarasota. Dad was stoked. Son was petrified.
As I idled away from the ramp, Dad was sitting in front of the console. Son was next to me. “I’m going to go pretty slow,” I told Son. “But you tell me if it’s too fast and you want me to slow down. Okay?” A nod.
We moved out of the no-wake zone and I asked if we could go a little faster. Son gulped a couple of times, then nodded again.
Once we were in the main channel, I asked Son if he’d like to drive the boat and he looked at me in astonishment. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right here next to you”, and a trembling 11-year-old hand grasped the wheel of my Hewes.
“Wanna go a little faster?” I asked. The water was as smooth as glass and the boat felt as if it was riding on air. Another nod. “Okay. Gently move that handle upward just a very little bit.” And a big grin spread across Son’s face.
We caught a bunch of fish that day—including one spotted sea trout that a cormorant stole right off of Son’s fly and gulped it down that long, skinny black neck while Son indignantly sputtered, “Hey! That bird stole my fish!”
Soon, Son’s fear of fish, fishing and water (not necessarily in that order) had magically disappeared according to an e-mail I received from Dad the following week.
And then there was Noah Willman.
“I got your name off the Internet, and wondered if you might have an opening to take my grandson and me on a fly fishing float trip tomorrow?” Just about 30 minutes prior, one of my regular clients had called to beg off our trip for the next day. “I’m sickern a dog eatin chocolate,” he’d said. “Yep”, I replied to Dennis Riemer, “what did you have in mind?”
“Well, my grandson is here in Harbor Springs for a few days and he’s never been fly fishing before. Maybe we could do a half-day float?” And so it came to pass that on this blistering hot August morning, we were drifting down the Manistee River with Noah in the bow and determination on his mind. “I’m a musky fisherman from Wisconsin,” he had proudly told me. “I’ll get the hang of this fly-thing.”
Now, when you’re 12 years old and have been doing battle with muskies you develop a sort of “attitude.” But Michigan trout have seen an awful lot of that over the years, and thus repeatedly refused, regurgitated and otherwise simply ignored the offerings of young Noah despite his best efforts.
Until I saw a wrinkle in the water just a bit downstream and hatched a devious plan.
Without saying anything at all, I swung the nose of my longboat slightly to the right and told him to cast toward the tree limb sticking out of the water. Then I swung the bow back left and the hopper floated right over the spot where that brownie had been eating and goldarn if he didn’t up and gulp down that big yellow bug like, well—just like he was supposed to.
Noah let out a whoop and proved that he was, indeed, no stranger to catching fish. Five minutes later, I was out of the boat with the net and 17-honestly-measured-inches of Manistee River brown trout was momentarily in young Noah’s hands.
Even though it was his first fish ever on a fly, and a very respectable one at that, he didn’t protest too much or too loudly when I eased it back into the cool water and we watched it slowly drop through the depths and settle comfortably behind the rocks.
“Pretty cool,” he said. “Think we’ll catch any more?”
Later that night, when I e-mailed the photo of Noah and his beautiful fish to Grandpaw Denny, I made a point to mention that we might have spoiled Noah for life—getting him into a fish like that his first time out.
“Naw,” he shot back. “Noah can’t wait to go out again. He thinks this fly fishing stuff is pretty neat!” Neat. Yes, it surely is. Noah had one of those Memorable Moments. The kind you want on Kodak. Or ESPN.
For me, probably the finest “learning” moment in my many streamside adventures took place on a hot day in mid-June, 1974.
I was living in Atlanta, and had “discovered” the Coleman River, way up in the northeast corner of Georgia where North Carolina and South Carolina both come to say howdy.
Rabun County, where the movie Deliverance was filmed, was about as backwoods as the movie made it out to be. And some of the Good Ole Boys who gave me hard-eyed stares from their ancient pickup trucks obviously didn’t have many branches in their family trees.
Ah, but the Coleman River was beautiful. Waterfalls crashed down from between huge glacier-crushed boulders into a foamy broth. Smooth glides then made a rainbow of its pebbly bottom, hiding the brown trout and brookies that were clustered in that icy water like so many jewels in a treasure trove. I couldn’t stop babbling about the place to everyone I knew.
So, it finally was arranged that my best friend Dick Beardsley and his 10-year-old son, David, would go fishing with me. Sort of. Dick’s idea of fishing involved ripping apart lobsters over a chilled glass of Chardonnay. David had never owned a rod. But when they pulled up in front of my apartment early on the appointed morning, David now proudly showed me his new Popiel Pocket Fisherman Spinning Combo and six Mepps spinners.
I looked long and hard, but was disappointed when I couldn’t find any lobsters in the cooler. I’d have settled for a couple of crab claws.
Dick and I passed the two-hour drive talking quietly about our own youth. His Boston. My steel mills. Sioux Indians, and Atlanta Braves. David slept. Then the sun popped over the mountains and David asked the question that every boy asks after waking from a sound sleep on a car trip: “Are we there yet?” We were.
We parked where the Coleman comes into confluence with the Tallulah River and started hiking up the trail cut into the mountainside along the Coleman. We walked a while, looked at scenery, and marveled at the river’s beauty. But, since the Coleman was designated as fly-only, and David barely knew what a spinning rod was for, we went back to the Tallulah and rigged up.
Rarely have I seen a budding nuclear physicist have so much fun. David hopped from boulder to bank and back to another boulder. He pitched his spinners into the dogwoods, into the pines and occasionally into the water—where he’d get snagged on submerged logs.
Finally, he was down to just one lure. “Waaaaaaaalll,” Dick intoned in his Massachusetts twang, “I guess youaaaa fishing is about oveaaaa, young man!” David looked beseechingly at his father. I looked from one to the other, but kept quiet.
Dick looked at David. “Waaaaaaaalll, I guess we did come all this way to fish, didn’t we?” As he dug out the car keys, I asked if he could find his way back into town. In the hour Dick was gone, I started teaching David the basics of fly fishing. We lifted rocks looking for nymphs. We studied mayflies in the bushes. We did some casting with my fly rod.
We were having a lot of fun, actually. Until an unkind gust of wind grabbed
David’s spinning rod off the boulder where he’d set it and hurtled it into the churning black water of the Tallulah.
“Uh, oh,” David said, and sat down. We were quiet for a while. Then, somehow, a story was hatched about how a really big fish snapped up David’s lure and pulled the rod right out of his hands. Yeah. We refined the story several times until we had the events etched perfectly in our minds. His young Abbot to my Costello.
Dick’s voice startled the both of us. I suppose we must have both looked pretty guilty about the deception we were planning to pull because his very first words were, “What happened to your pole, David?” Real quiet, real knowing.
And without missing a beat that 10-year-old boy stood up, threw his shoulders back, looked his father in the eye and said, “It fell into the water, sir. I’m sorry.” I was never prouder of any young man as I was in that instant when he stood up to take his medicine.
Me? Well, I sorta looked everywhere except at Dick, embarrassed about the trickery I’d been instigating.
Dick was quiet for a couple of heartbeats. Then he stuck the lures into his shirt pocket, found his pipe and made a big production about getting it lit. Then he just smiled, turned around and started walking back to the car.
On the drive back to Atlanta, David quickly fell asleep. Dick and I both were quiet until he took that great big pipe out of the corner of his jaw and rolled his head sideways at me.
“You two were cookin’ up a story back there on that rock, weren’t you?” He poked the stem of his pipe at me and cocked his head like FDR during a Fireside Chat. My mind raced while a slow grin spread across his face.
There were a lot of things that I might have said just then. But, in the end, I simply said, “Nope.” Just “Nope.”
Capt. Tony Petrella is a former sportswriter who covered the National Football League, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball for the Palm Beach Post and Atlanta Constitution . He also spent more than 10 years as an editor and publisher in the magazine industry. For the past 18 years, he’s devoted his time to fishing and hunting throughout America, both as a fly tackle manufacturer’s representative and as a Coast Guard licensed Captain. He guides in southwest Florida’s flats and backcountry, as well as Michigan’s fabled rivers and streams. He can be reached at 231-585-7131.