Two years ago, the staff at our middle school began to think creatively about activities we could get students involved in. Our goal was to connect students to fitness and promote healthy choices and lifestyles. We considered a wide array of clubs that promoted wellness and fun- snowshoeing, running, tai chi, and yoga. The idea was to give the students a choice and make it fun, and it’s more likely that the activity and healthy choices will become a permanent part of their life. The same philosophy applies to adults. As a track and cross country coach, I sponsored a “run club” and was pleasantly surprised by the number of students that came early to school to run. The clubs were a wonderful outlet for kids who had varied interests who may or may not already belong to a team sport and a place to make new friends. Feeling, however, that I had omitted one of my life’s great passions, I introduced a “fly fishing club.” I recruited my friend and seasonal guide to come help us out.
The club generated some immediate interest from a few skeptical/curious students. I can’t blame them; in our corner of the world, if you casually mention “fly fishing” it either conjures images of fishing for or with houseflies or among adults, “A River Runs Through It,” the only connection to fly fishing they have thanks to Hollywood. I guess if they have us fly fisherman equated with Brad Pitt in some form or another then we’re doing alright.
The club met every Friday morning and we had three students that showed up regularly. We covered setup, knots, casting, even some fly tying and entomology. Kids are much better students than we sometimes give them credit, especially when they are interested. I say this with experience as a classroom teacher and a former swim lessons instructor for both children and adults. Adults would come to lessons with pre-conceived ideas or things they have seen which resulted in muscle memory habits that are often difficult to break. The same applies to fly fishing. Kids are interested and new to these skills and are often in the mindset of being a student, that is to say, teachable and willing to learn. It seems we sometimes lose this ability as we grow older.
We culminated the year with a casting competition for a puck of flies that my friend had tied. Nearly all the weeks of casting skills we had taught flew out the window as the students worked to hit the target we had placed out in front of them. They laughed, struggled, and had a great time. The skills didn’t matter- they were having fun, and that’s what it’s about. Eventually one of them, slowed down his cast, hit the target, and was beaming with his new prize. Those are the moments that you do this kind of thing for: the look on his face was reward enough and reassurance we needed to keep the club going.
When school started in August of this year, students were already asking about when Fly Fishing Club would start. A fall coach, I planned on November as a good time to begin, allowing fall sports and that “settling in” time to expire. The club had generated more interest this year, a few newcomers that had talked to me in hall. My favorite line, “Hey Mr. R, I’m kind of interested in fly fishing club this year. I don’t know- fly fishing- it just seems like it would be something good for me to know.”
When November came around we had five attendees show and have had near perfect attendance since. We started with the same skills as last year, spending some Fridays in the classroom on knots and some at our pool, working on roll casts with hookless hoppers. We put our focus on fly tying this year, however. Tying, as we know, involves some tools and some expense, and being no money in the school budget for vises and the pieces of various animals we require, we sought out a grant from our state DNR.
The grant provided us funds for a trip and materials. In the meantime, we reached out to various TU chapters and fly fishing associations across the state for help. These are amazing groups of people when it comes to helping kids. Days after requesting help, I was sent an email from a man across the state who wanted to help out by sending us his old vise and tool set. He shipped it that day (which must have been pricey to do) so that a student could have the opportunity to learn to tie. It’s been used every Friday since. More recently, a man sent us homemade bobbins and threaders to use in our club, and another chapter is setting us up with used rod/reel combos for next year’s club. The generosity we’ve had bestowed on our group is incredible and speaks for the generous attitudes of fly fishermen and women.
With tying, our emphasis has been on making it fun. We chose some beginner patterns to start with and let the students decide the colors. We try to repeat the pattern the next time, so it sticks. We’ve tied a lot of wooly buggers and beetles, flies they can use around town on the river and ponds. Quick learners, they have learned how to use the tools and ask questions when they need help. I’ve been amazed with their excitement and enthusiasm. Every Thursday afternoon they make sure we’re still on for Friday morning and ask to borrow copies of Fly Fisherman magazine or the Feathercraft catalog to look at on weekends.
The Friday before spring break, they convinced their study hall teacher to host an impromptu fly tying session during the last half hour of the day. It’s fun to hear them talking about fly fishing in the hall or during free time in class. They talk gear, flies, and where they want to fish. A few of them have really found their creative niche with fly tying, bringing in patterns they’ve tied and the stories of their experiences. They find patterns they like, ask questions, and experiment with hooks and materials they are finding everywhere. It’s refreshing and inspiring to see their ingenuity. I’ll never forget the mouse pattern one student brought in a few weeks ago. He had seen it in a magazine and did a great job replicating the pattern down to the shoestring he creatively used for a tail. He told me how he had glued it, and as I held it, I could still feel some moisture. I quickly asked, “Is this wet glue?,” not wanting to pry my fingers apart. His reply, “No, I just tested it in the sink before I came to school!”
I don’t believe that these kids have a real understanding of how excited we as instructors are to be a part of this club as much as they are. Introducing them to a new skill, helping them to tie a fly and be proud of what they created, and seeing their reaction to a technique has been a rewarding experience. At the end of April, we’re taking our club on one of our first club fishing trips to trout streams north of us. We’re all very excited to put their skills to the test and looking forward to a memorable day on the water.