Living

Novice trout fisherman finds that timing is everything

We begin this lesson with a cliche, a quote from "A River Runs Through It" - the gorgeous Norman Maclean fly-fishing book, not the movie starring the gorgeous Brad Pitt : "So my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian-style, on a metronome."

Tick.

And continue with a quote from Rob Dickerson, a certified fly-fishing instructor as well as a salesman at the Bass Pro Mother Shop in Springfield, Mo. This quote is about Brad Pitt in the movie.

"What you see in `A River Runs Through It' is kind of like being a rodeo clown. He has to be very good to do it that badly."

Tock.

And move on to a revelation from Englishman Keith Oxby, my official Orvis fly-fishing instructor.

"Did I tell you I taught his brother, Doug Pitt, to cast? The family are from Springfield. He's a very nice guy, very laid back. He said they were going to come back and take the school. I said, `Can you arrange to bring your sister-in-law?' Who at that time was Jennifer Aniston. . . . "

Tick.

And we'll get back to fly-fishing in a moment (tock), after a few words about Branson, Mo.

Branson, less than an hour south of Springfield and a mere 40 minutes from Oxby's Orvis Fly-Fishing School in Dogwood Canyon, is precisely the kind of place that sends fly-fishers fly-fishing.

Now, Branson is a great place for live music and comedy shows. Jim Stafford, Shoji Tabuchi and, yes, Yakov Smirnoff are terrific onstage. So if you crave live entertainment at rational prices, by all means come to Branson.

But the town just happens to be home to the ugliest, most maddening touro-centric thoroughfare in America. Missouri Highway 76 is worse than Gatlinburg's Tennessee gateway to the Smokies; worse than the "free XXX movies" junk-motel row between the Las Vegas Strip and downtown; worse, even, than anything in Florida.

How bad is it? The standard-gray Wal-Mart across Highway 76 from the Water Chute and Maggie Moo's Ice Cream, alongside the Taco Bell but west of the Bumper Boats, is actually a relief.

Ever been to Dogwood Canyon?" asked Bass Pro's Dickerson. "It's trout heaven."

Located in the town of Lampe, it's where we met Keith Oxby. "I suppose," he said during his introductories, "I've probably caught something like 4,000, 5,000 brown trout in this stream. There are some big rainbows here. There's a young lady here that probably weighs 15 pounds. A big girl."

A brief bit about Dogwood Canyon Nature Park: It's a 10,000-acre, privately owned, quasi-wilderness straddling the Missouri-Arkansas border, property of Bass Pro founder John Morris and open to the public on a fee basis ($7.95 to walk it, $20 to fish it for an hour, $25 for a tram tour, $155 to play cowboy with the resident longhorns, etc.). Along with the cattle and horses, it's home to a bison herd, a herd of elk, a 4.2-mile trout stream and, for the last five years, a campus of the 10-location Orvis Fly-Fishing School.

Tuition for two days of intense instruction by Oxby is $430. Though that includes lunch both days, that might nonetheless seem pricey to most working folk, especially when you factor in the unavoidable costs of lodging and Shoji Tabuchi tickets, neither part of the package.

"To be honest," he countered, "if you went and had a (fishing) guide for the day, you'd probably pay something like $250 - so in a way, I don't think it is expensive. How do you value somebody's time and experience? You can pick my brain to your heart's content."

Oxby is 58 but looks younger, a man of modest height with a Nottingham accent that sounds Australian, a retired Royal Navy engineer who married an American girl and is about to gain his U.S. citizenship after 10 years here. He's been to a lot of places and done a lot of things and is passionate about many of them. It seems fly fishing, passionately speaking, trails only his family.

"The sport is actually very easy," he said. "It's people who insist on using their brains that make it difficult. My worst students are college professors. They have to analyze the damn thing . . . The easiest person in the world to train is probably a 12-year-old girl."

Our reason for being here, on this particular assignment, is there simply is no "greener" way to fish than fly-fishing, particularly for trout. Power boats, with their hum and fuel consumption, can't navigate trout streams and would spook the fish if they did. Catch-and-release, which allows fish to fight another day (and grow to be bigger girls and boys), and low-impact barbless hooks are the law in many trout habitats and are exceptionally common among fly-fishers who have a choice.

In a sport like no other, the participants often wade right into the water and quite literally become part of the environment. The kinds of manufactured lures (spinners, spoons, that sort of thing) used by spin-casters and have no resemblance to anything in nature, don't have a role here.

The trick is learning how to take a graphite rod (around $100 up to $700 or so), a reel ($40 to hundreds), coated floating line (tapered, yellow is nice, about $60), fluorocarbon leaders ($13 for a two-pack) and a teensy-weensy fake nymph with a surprise inside (a couple of bucks, or tie your own - an art form), and through skill and connivance convince a wary 2-pound trout that, to borrow a horse term, the feed bag's on.

And if that sounds complicated . . . well . . .

"Some fellows want me to wave a magic wand and turn them into Brad Pitt overnight," Oxby said. "It doesn't quite happen like that."

(Sigh.)

"I can give you the basics."

His classes are typically three or four students at a time; this one, by sheer happenstance, was one. Me.

Our indoor classroom was the fairly luxurious, John Morris-built Trappers Cabin, which contained 1) all the appropriate taxidermy and, more important, 2) air-conditioning. The lesson began with an explanation of the equipment and how it works ("What," my instructor asked, "makes it a 5-weight line?" Answer: "Huh?"), followed by an official Orvis video-enhanced tutorial on the basics of fly-casting.

The basics of the basics: With the more-familiar spin casting, you have a weighted, hook-equipped lure on the end of the line; with a flick of the wrist, the weight of the lure takes itself, and the line, out where the fish are. With fly-casting, you're casting the line; the lure is just along for the ride.

Not only that: You send the line and a near-weightless fly backward, wait an instant while the line straightens out behind you and the rod bends with the weight of that line, then bring the rod forward, the line riding the torque of the rod straight in front of you and, in the end, the fly settles gently on or in the stream inches from the mouth of a hungry trout.

Theoretically.

From the video narration: "You will learn there is a distinct lapse in time from the moment the rod is stopped until the line straightens out." When we strolled from the cabin to the official casting pond, a pretty spot on Dogwood Creek, Oxby the Englishman simplified the English.

Teacher: "Back cast . . . forward cast."

Student: "Now, I may screw this up once or twice."

Teacher: "I'll watch you."

Student: "I figured."

Early attempts - just line, no fly, no hook - were merely awkward.

"Slow down, slow down. Relax. Back cast. Forward cast. Tick . . . tock. Tick . . . tock."

I kept going, like a Presbyterian metronome. Something unpleasant kept happening between Tick and tock.

"Look at your forearm, Alan. Make your forearm work a little bit. You're tending to use your wrist. Tick . . . tock. A little bit higher at the front. Tick . . . tock."

For every decent cast ("Good one! That's a nice cast! That's wonderful!") there were, well, several of the tock-tick kind. Then the bad form turned creative. "Now you're flicking it. Don't flick it."

In print, all this ticking and tocking may look more, shall we say, ticked than it was in real life. Actually, Oxby was calm, his upper lip stiff and his frustration far less than that of his student, who couldn't imagine Brad Pitt ever looking this pathetic - nor, for that matter, this fat, but that's another column.

Lunch beckoned. Which was good. I was starting to miss Highway 76.

"Don't beat yourself up," Oxby said, suddenly sounding fatherly. "It happens. You've just got to remember: back cast, forward cast . . . "

After the bison burgers there would be more casting, this time with a hookless fly attached to the end of the leader. And new variations of incompetence. One left me wrapped in tapered yellow line.

"Relax. Rod-tip down, Alan. Rod-tip down. You're jigging your fly all the time . . . "

I'd stopped flicking. Now, I was jiggling.

Yet ever so slowly, I was making progress.

"Good job, Alan. Nice cast. There you go. Wonderful. That's really good. Just try . . . left hand to your side, out of the way. Don't go so far back, Alan . . . "

Sleep came reluctantly after that first day. The clock radio was electronic, but you know what I was hearing.

The stretch of Dogwood Creek we fished on the afternoon of the second day, following a second morning of drills and instruction and some frustration, was especially lovely, even in the notorious mid-summer Ozarkian humidity. It is this greenness, this freshness, this sanctuary from the madness of the world's Highway 76s that draws fly-fishers to trout streams almost as much as compliant trout.

"A lot of the reason is the places where you fish," a fly-fisherman named Nick had said at a fly shop in Mountain Home, Ark., in the heart of serious Ozark trout country (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text). "You're generally around the mountains. You're around the clearer streams. Tiny mountain streams ..."

I have fished, one way or another, in other beautiful places - among the Florida Keys, with the loons on fly-in Ontario lakes, off the rocks at Montrose Harbor. I have watched fisherpeople work fly rods in Colorado and Michigan and New Zealand and Newfoundland and Vermont and other places, and been fascinated by what I saw. And always, when that fascination eased, there was . . . the place.

Now, there was also this: I was learning what they were actually doing.

Oxby lifted a rock off the bottom of Dogwood Creek and discovered live mayfly nymphs underneath, bugs the size of a small child's hangnail.

"Open your fly box," he said. "You've got a selection of flies there. Which one are you going to choose?"

There are roughly 4 quintillion varieties of flies, including one from Orvis called The Fly Formerly Known as Prince ($1.95).

I caught my first trout ever, a 19-inch rainbow trout, on a store-bought fly that was startlingly close to a mayfly nymph the size of a small child's hangnail. I would catch two more rainbows within an hour, on two different flies, one of them a beetle-like dry fly. (That wet-dry explanation will have to wait for a sequel.)

Each fish fought nobly. Unless snatched by a heron or an eagle or an otter or some other - natural predator, all three fish are alive in Dogwood Creek today, eating natural bugs and waiting for anyone looking for a fight.

It is impossible to describe the pleasure. Oxby, who understands better than most, seemed to share in mine. "Your presentation was good," he said. "Your set was good. You fought the fish properly. You used the reel, and I'm outta here.

"You're done. You're a fisherman."

Rob Dickerson, back in Springfield, had said something interesting about fly-fishing.

"It's simple to learn," he said. "It's almost impossible to be great at it."

Impossible?

School had just begun.

Tick . . . tock . . .

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