On a picture-perfect day last fall-spotless blue skies, the russet hues of autumn leaves glowing in crisp sunshine-I found myself standing in the middle of the Smith River, a tailwater an hour south of Roanoke, Va. Icy water burbled around my calves, but I felt only a pleasant coolness, clad as I was in waterproof waders and neoprene booties, plus special wading boots with felt soles. These are good for staying upright on slippery river rocks, but slippery to walk in on dry land, my guide Darrin Doss warned me.
I've always loved spending time in natural settings-camping, hiking, canoeing-but this was my first attempt at fly-fishing, and my first time suited up in all the gear that trout-stream fly-fishing requires. When, some weeks earlier, I'd told my family that I would soon try my hand at fly-fishing, they mocked me. "You, in waders?" my brother said, chuckling. "Have you ever even held a fishing rod?" my dad teased. It seems they'd forgotten the many times I had fished while growing up in the country-albeit with a homemade bamboo pole rather a fancy fly rod. As a kid, I was not the least bit squeamish about spearing a worm with a hook, and I'm no more spooked by that prospect today. I could maybe see their point, just a little-this fly-fishing expedition would be a divergence from my typical leisure-time activities-but I'm always game for shaking up the routine.
That October morning in Virginia, Darrin drove us through a picturesque wooded valley and down a gravel road where we met up with his fishing buddy Paul Fogle, a retired fellow with an easy, infectious laugh. Paul invited me to climb into this truck bed where I could don the gear I'd be borrowing from him. "Shuck ‘em shoes off, girl," he said, and I did. This was fly fishing lesson #1: Suiting up takes some time. I can imagine it might take a good while longer in even colder weather. (Fly fishing, happily for its enthusiasts, is a year-round sport.)
After donning the waders, I pulled on an extra pair of wool socks, then the neoprene booties, and finally the boots, to which Paul hooked the cuffs of the waders. I popped my iPhone and a pad and pen in the front pocket of the waders, and that was it for me, but the guys had more gearing up to do; packs containing leads, line, boxes of flies, a collapsible staff for Paul (handy for staying stable when navigating tricky, slippery rocks), and more. "I feel like I'm going on a Bataan Death March with all this stuff on," Paul joked. "Everything is attached to you when you fly fish," Darrin explained-in the event that you take a tumble into the water.
We made our way into the Smith, which was running around 45 degreesthat morning, about as warm as trout will tolerate. I quickly discovered that navigating wet rocks beneath swiftly moving water takes a good deal of agility. Before entering the river I had felt fairly confident in my ability to wade without incident, but five minutes in, I began to change my tune. It can be difficult to see precisely where your foot will fall when you're in the river, and moving upstream, from rock to slippery, algae-covered rock, was at times a truly precarious venture. Forget catching anything, I thought; I'll be happy if I avoid the ignominy of tumbling ass over elbow into the water. Darrin, however, hopped from rock to rock with incredible ease-all while carrying his rod and sporting a very expensive Nikon D10 slung over his shoulder.
Then they began casting, and these guys definitely made it all look easy. Observe a fly fisherman for five minutes and you too may think, "OK, I got this." But casting, the most crucial aspect of fly fishing, is a deceptively complex move to master. Your goal: To lift your line from the water and have it arc out completely behind you-this is what's called the back cast-then send it forward, where it spreads out in a neat line before you in the water. Then, presumably, a fish will be enticed to try a nibble of your fly. A line that falls to the water in a wiggly, squiggly pattern is, well, a sign of a poor cast.
This movement, performed hundreds of times by a fly fisher on a day's outing, requires just the right set of subtle arm and wrist movements and timing. There are numerous comparisons employed to teach newbies like myself: throwing a dart, painting a ceiling, hammering a nail. Perhaps the most common metaphor used by guides is the clock face: Imagining your arm as that of a clock, you hold your rod at 9 pm, lift it to about 12 on your backcast, then back to 9 again on the cast.
Naturally I felt clumsy at first trying to cast. Well, not even just at first. But I could see that, with practice, the rod and line would become more familiar in my hand, and my arm would develop that wonderful thing known as muscle memory. That's not to say that casting ever becomes something you can do entirely without thinking about it. But the concentration it takes becomes meditative, and relaxing in turn. "It sort of washes your brain," Paul told me. "There really is a lot more to it than catching a fish. It's peaceful, it's serene."
And it was, even when I wasn't doing it right. When Darrin would cast, his line would make the most wonderful whispery whistle through the air. That sound, punctuating the burble of the river and the patchy harmony of birdsong, might have been my very favorite thing about the experience that day. Then I'd take my turn casting, and a snap! would ring out: a perfect indicator that my moves were, to put it kindly, that of a novice. A good fly cast is a world away from a whip crack.
I practiced casting for a while, trying to tamp down the nervousness that always makes me perform clumsily in these circumstances. I enjoyed absorbing the fishing lingo that Darrin, ever-patient, used. "Strip it in, strip it in," he said-which meant to use my left hand (the one not holding the fly rod) to pull in slack line, causing the fly to glide, hopefully somewhat naturalistically, through the current. On a few occasions, when he thought maybe I had something, he'd cry, "Set the hook, set the hook!" After a while I figured out what this command was asking of me: a swift yank upward on the rod, in an effort to get the hook firmly embedded in a potential catch's mouth.
The hours passed, blissfully. Vultures vectored and swept the cloudless skies above us. The guys could read the water, the various currents in it; they knew where to hunt for the sun-shy creatures. (Fish don't have eyelids, so they don't much like light, Darrin explained.) Darrin and Paul both caught a few trout, and I got to see their bright, ruby-speckled beauty up close. I'd had no idea that trout were so fetching. We admired them, threw them back; they went invisible in an instant.
Darrin kept offering helpful tips, and I kept working at improving my cast. But frankly I was fairly content just standing waist-deep in cold water, watching the lovely arcs of the pro anglers' lines, and soaking in the murmur of the natural world, the current pressing gently but urgently against my legs. The effort one extends to simply stay upright in fast-moving river water can really be quite good isometric exercise, and as mild a current as the Smith has, it was enough to leave me exhausted and in need of a nap later that afternoon.
I left the river that day having caught nothing, but elated by the experience. (And I never did fall in, so you could say the day was at least a 75 percent success.) In fact, I had so much fun that I hoped to fly fish again soon with my father, who has been a casual enthusiast of the sport for some time. But winter set in, and it was late March before we were able to take our rods out-not to a nearby river, which still would have been a bit too cold for our tastes-but to my parents' backyard pond. As he readied his rod-tying the tippet onto the leader, which in turn is connected to the line-Dad observed something similar to what I'd heard from Paul that day in October: "Catching a fish is not all the enjoyment of fly fishing. Part of it is the process."
Of course, with several months passed since my first try, my casts were still far from polished. If there's one true thing about fly fishing, it's that it's like almost everything else: practice makes perfect, and the more frequently and regularly you do it, the quicker you'll improve. Dad gave me some pointers, and he told me about fishing the Caney Fork, the Piney, the Buffalo. Again, no fish found our lines-but it hardly mattered. For a few minutes, we stepped away from the demands of our busy lives, and into the flow of the natural world - our worries cast away from us.
DOs and DON'T'S
Do take some lessons with a guide before you fish on your own. A casting lesson on dry land is a good idea.
Don't feel like you have to shell out big bucks on a fly rod. Orvis casting instructor Tom Brown says very good rods can be bought for $100-$200. (An $800 rod, however, is the difference between good and great.)
Don't mistake fly fishing for a "guy thing." The number of women fly fishers is growing much more rapidly than fly fishing men, Brown says. Visit www.intlwomenflyfishers.org for lots of info just for female fly fishers.
Do study the flora and fauna of the places you'll be fishing, and bring binoculars for wildlife spotting. Good fly fishers are experts on the ecology of the rivers they fish.
Do walk softly when approaching the edge of still water. Fish can be spooked by your footsteps.
Do keep your casting practice sessions short: 30-45 minutes. Orvis experts recommend frequent but brief practice sessions, rather than long ones.
Don't squeeze the fly rod handle too tightly. No white knuckles! Just a gentle pressure, thumb facing forward, parallel to your rod.
WHAT TO WEAR
Sunglasses, preferably polarized
Sunscreen and lip balm with SPF
A hat with a brim
Long wool socks
Waders, wading boots and booties, if you're going to be wading