Lefty Kreh made it look so easy. The legendary fly fisherman stood on the lawn of the Prospect Bay Country Club on a chilly March morning, teaching a group of fishing enthusiasts how to perfect the art of casting. His orange line whipsawed back and forth, in perfect symmetry, and his wrist didn't look like it was moving at all.
"I'm 88 years old," he reminded the group several times. Fly-fishing doesn't require major muscles or a lot of experience, Kreh told the group assembled for Tiefest, a yearly event that honors him. It just requires patience and concentration.
I've got those, and some other assets in my quest to learn to cast. A fly fisherman friend of mine told me that women tend to be better students than men. They have more patience, he said. Children, though, can be a mixed bag. Some have a short attention span and find the outdoors boring. But others revel in learning something new, and couldn't be happier when they feel that first tug on their line.
There was another reason to believe I might catch on to fly fishing; I'm usually not afraid to make a fool of myself as I try to learn something new. You might politely call it being game.
I called Dave Budniakiewicz, a fly fishing expert at Great Feathers Fly Shop in Sparks, MD, to ask for a lesson. He told me we would have to wait a month or two until the sulphur mayflies began appearing. When that happened, he said, he'd be happy to teach me and my 7-year-old daughter how to cast.
This information was important. Fly fishermen do not use conventional bait. They use delicate flies, hand-crafted from feathers that mimic the bugs the fish find in nature, or if they are fishing in the Bay, they will use "flies" that imitate small bait fish. A fish is not going to bite on a beetle if it's mayfly season. They know better. At fly shops like Great Feathers, salesmen will list the in-season flies on a blackboard outside as if they are the daily specials.
We waited until Budniakiewicz confirmed that sulphur mayflies were thick in the Gunpowder River. Then, on a chilly May evening, my daughter, Maya, and I headed north after school. Our first stop: Dick's Sporting Goods. We needed a fishing license. It cost about $12. We also needed hip-length waders, but they didn't have any in kids' sizes. I opted not to buy any for myself, either. It didn't seem fair.
We piled into Budniakiewicz's wagon and headed to a beautiful stretch of the Gunpowder close to the Prettyboy Reservoir. Budniakiewicz, wearing waders, walked out into the stream, stopping at a spot with a riffle, where the water dimples near a rock. My waders came just above my knees; Maya was in kid's rain boots. I hoped we were fast learners, because the water was cold. May is a great time to be out on the river, but fly fishing is a big summer sport as well. Fishermen tend to have their favorite spots in the Chesapeake and its rivers and will hit them until late fall.
Before we could start, a man walked by us, wearing shorts and carrying a conventional spinning rod. He asked us if we were fishing upstream or downstream. Budniakewicz showed him our spot, assuming the man would go elsewhere. But instead, he stood about 15 feet in front of us.
Later, when we told Great Feathers shop owner Mike Watriss about the incident, he shook his head and said, "Bad stream etiquette."
Before long, our patient teacher had caught two small trout. We watched his graceful lines, not sure we would be able to replicate it.
I went first. Pretend the rod is an extension of your arm, Budniakiewicz told me. In about five minutes, I felt a tug on my line. A small brook trout. We quickly got it back in the water, not wanting to harm it.
Then it was Maya's turn. At this point, after about half an hour in the water, her boots were waterlogged. I offered her mine and waited, barefoot, for her to catch a fish. I figured she'd be cold and give up soon, but no. We would be here until she caught one. I shot our teacher a look, as if to say, I'm freezing, can we move this along? But it would happen when it happened.
In a few more minutes, Maya landed a trout that looked a lot like mine.
"Can we catch another one, Mommy?" she asked.
I hated to say no, but I was worried about frostbite. Still, she had such a good time that she didn't complain about her cold feet until we were almost at the car.
In all, we caught four fish. The guy who tried to block our spot? None.
I asked why. Was it his rod? Or just bad karma?
Our teacher suggested it was because the fish wanted flies more than they wanted whatever bait he was using. Still, I was hoping for karma.
Watriss, who has owned Great Feathers for about 20 years, said it's impossible to pigeonhole fly fishing into a demographic. There are people who come in who work hourly jobs, and then there are millionaires. What binds them together, he said, is the love of the outdoors and solitude.
"It's not about catching fish," Watriss said. "It's about just having an hour to empty your head."
My time on the beautiful Gunpowder would have been more, um, peaceful if I wasn't worrying about a 7-year-old's frostbite. I would be glad to return to the river. Next time, I'll spring for the waders.