I was walking in the park the other day, as I am known to do from time to time, day-dreaming of trout rising and the possible relationship between squirrel behavior and the plots of Verdi’s Operas (there isn’t any), when I stopped before the little par-3 golf course, and specifically, before the putting green. There stood a group of guys and gals wearing acceptable golf attire and endlessly practicing their putting.
That gave me an inspiration, and after concluding my walk with more useless speculation as to why overweight middle-aged men are irresistibly attracted to loud farting motorbikes, I ambled back to the car, where in the trunk sat a nifty glass fly rod and a reel complete with line and an old leader. “Putt away you St. Andrew’s dreamers,” I thought aloud to myself, “I will join you on the Itchen…er… Itchy Grass River,” as I swatted a mosquito on my ankle.
I placed three trout (twigs rather of the birch or char variety) at different distances and conjured the spirit of Charles Ritz as I played with rhythms and thumb pressure and timing, and the fly (a piece of a nearby convenient gum-wrapper) landed as close as I could make it to the targets. I had done this for half an hour, and was getting ready to leave, when a guy walking his dog asked me the dreaded question... “Are you catching anything?” “Just practicing for senility” I quipped, causing him to tighten the leash on rover a bit and curl an eyebrow as he walked just a fraction faster and changed directions to take him and his canine companion away from me all the quicker.
I had become “That Guy.” You know the one or the type. The guy with the long beard who plays the bagpipes near the kite-flying area: the idiot dressed up as a mime who stands dead-still outside a shop window posed as a mannequin for hours: or one of those train-spotters who everybody fears will start talking to them about trains.
Yet, as I pondered in that park, fly-anglers should do this. They should be seen on ponds and rivers practicing with the long rod; line making graceful loops so that their time on the river is filled more with reflection and less with frustration. Yet, I am the only person I have ever seen doing this. That might be due to too much time at the tying vise or the fact that my glasses might need updating, but I don’t think so.
Years ago it was common in any park with a lagoon or pond to house a casting club. England and France had them in spades and so did America, especially during the Great Depression and into the 1950s where they were a family outing and a cheap source of recreation. The great fly-casters were formed here, especially in organizations such as the Casting Club of Paris, or the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club in San Francisco. The Golden Gate club still exists, but most of the local groups sedately casting away in local parks and sipping beers on weekends withered away as their members died off and younger generations never went out doors or suffered from maladies such as Digital Flu, or Too Busy Disorder.
Awhile back, another avid fly-fisherman and I seriously discussed starting a casting club. We would meet, it was postulated, at a local park on the river, and each caster would bring a rod and a bottle of wine and some cheese. Cigars would be welcome. It was to be a fraternal men’s group. A place where lies could accompany clarets, plumes of smoke, and loops of line. The idea of each bringing fine cane, glass, and graphite rods to share and try out reached a snag when a local doctor, who considers himself a great fly-angler was handed a rod by me to try out and immediately began major malpractice on it. Yea, that’s what I needed. “Sorry about the rod Erik… it just seemed to break mysteriously.”
I imagined who would show up at the group. Ten people at first and a fine time would be had by all, and then seven and finally four… two being tournament casters sporting 19 foot graphite lances and shooting heads and competing against each other (and the rest of us who couldn’t give a shit). The other guy would be some codger with a crooked Orvis Battenkill or Wright McGill who never fished and drank all our wine. The final two would my friend and I who would become more and more aware that Oscar Wilde’s famous quote that “I would never be a member of a club that would have my likes as a member” might apply here. Even if it worked out, I mused, it might just turn into an elongated casting lesson for free, which is part of my day-job anyway. I still might try to organize a club like this, but am aware that it might become the world’s most misanthropic and lonely men’s club.
I thought back to the 12 years or so that I had taught for local clubs and organizations at their annual casting clinics and picnic. Inevitably as the picnic progressed, more and more people wandered into the open fields and knolls to cast their fly-rods, but as I began the formal tutorial, I would be left with only the true beginners, as the rest of the established club members would rise in unison like a pod of German Browns to the scent of cooking bratwurst and foamy hops and retire back to the riffle of the picnic tables, leaving me to do whatever it is that an instructor does with 20 new casters.
Don’t get me wrong, I like teaching beginners the best. Wide eyes and good listening skills result in good casters and less bad habits, unlike the guys in the clubs who would demonstrate the same fatal flaws I tried to break them of for the past ten years to no avail.
When I did manage to cast with one of the regular members, they always offered the same caveat or excuse. “I am not a really good caster,” they would proclaim, and then slink away to ensure that their handicap would not be rectified anytime soon. I was puzzled. Then one of the older and wiser fellas told me that “They didn’t want to look bad, and were embarrassed by their casting.” Aha… and how silly. Then why was I there to teach a casting class, if the majority of casters were too shy to learn? Was fishing a game of lies? Were those tales told at club meetings where the 50 foot cast using 6X tippet and a size 22 midge hooked a 20” brown trout best absorbed after a martini so dry it confounded the senses? Should Old Rusty’s tale include instead a foul hooked chub with a botched roll-cast and a size 10 Adams? I took a sip of scotch and feared to tread there for obvious reasons.
Yes, we don’t want to make fools out of ourselves. Perhaps that is why fly-fishing is a solitary sport. Our tales and treasured literature sees us tangling our line around gorse-bushes, inventing new choice invectives, splashing our line on the water and scaring away all the fish, and finally catching the smallest fish in the river once our dry-fly accidentally sank. We look around sheepishly and see if anyone noticed, and straighten up a bit when we find ourselves all alone. Nobody saw us thank dog… now back to hooking bank side brush or festooning trees with little ornaments.
Contrast that to the golf course. Here stand parties of golfers progressing forward on the links, all in open view. Here your foibles are in full-view to all. Slice that drive and hit your Boss’s elderly crippled mother in the noggin and you might want to take a look at that Peace Corps brochure. Botch that 15 foot putt ten times for a quadruple Humphrey Bogie and your face will be so red that you could take the place of the flag on hole # 19, that being the clubhouse after your sixth gin and whoopee. So golfers are far more serious than fly fishermen? Either that or they are more sensitive to embarrassment. For anglers are serious about their sport too. Yet they would rather be eaten by zombies than spend ten minutes twice a week in the back-yard solving their problems.
I remember the moment I began practicing in earnest and became a better caster as a result. It was during a fly-fishing event I was working at a local shop. One of the reps, a tournament caster took an 8-weight rod and threw the line into the backing with grace and little effort. He then offered me the rod, but I begged off saying that my arm hurt. Rather it was my ego that suffered contusions that day, for I had strength, but no grace, and poor timing at best. The next day found me at the park, fly-rod in hand. I have a nearly perfect forward cast today, but a back cast that several master casting instructors still puzzle over, frowning and wondering why it works at all. I continue to learn on the water and on the grass. Some day I will be a caster worthy of the river, but for now, there are still situations on the water that confound me, and if fly-fishing isn’t a game of problem-solving and challenges, then I will hang up my rod and my pen and horror of horrors… take up golf.
As I tell new fly anglers, “Nothing you can do will improve your fly-fishing fun and fulfillment more that learning to cast proficiently.” Not necessarily far, but at 30 feet. Pick-up and lay-down, roll, steeple, side-arm, reach, etc.
So if you hook your friend in the ear on your errant back-cast, the ensuing verbal conflagration might serve you well in remembering not to drop your rod tip or break your wrist. It also might serve as a reminder that you might want to join me at my lonely post as ‘That strange guy standing in the park and fishing in his mind’. The putting green awaits, and practice makes perfect… or perhaps less of a quadruple Bogy on the stream. But then you might have to bring a new tape-measure to the river with you to measure your success rather than the extent of the stretch of truth told over a 12 year old… err.. 6 year old, err… 6 month old scotch. Errr… cheap bourbon.
See you on the velvet green!