The pond was flat and still, almost mirrorlike. The bright Sunday morning sunlight made it difficult for the fly-fishers standing on the muddy banks to spot fish beneath the surface of the water — a crucial part of fly-fishing. James Pastucha, at the time the retail fishing manager at Haverford’s Orvis store, strolled behind them, keeping a watchful eye on us.
“There’s a fish right there,” he said, leaning in behind me. “I just saw a flash of silver near that clump of weeds. You should try angling your line over there.”
I squinted hard at where he was pointing but only saw brown water. “Polarized sunglasses,” Pastucha responded, catching my look of bewilderment.
I was in the middle of the free fly-fishing classes offered by Orvis nearly every Saturday and Sunday through the summer and in fall when weather permits. The company started free fly-fishing classes in 2010, which are now offered at all 88 retail locations. You need neither gear nor experience to attend — only interest — and can sign up for a class on Orvis’ website.
Before my trip to the pond in Wayne’s Fenimore Woods Park, I had fished a few times, mostly on family vacations, using hot dog chunks and $10 fishing poles bought from gas stations. Having grown up in North Carolina, I prefer crabbing, a very low-skill activity that involves dangling a raw chicken leg into brackish water to lure hungry crabs into a net.
My lack of experience showed when I cast my fly 20 feet away from where Pastucha had pointed, to no effect.
I had always known that fly-fishing was different from spin fishing, or what most people know as regular fishing, but I didn’t know how they differed until I took Orvis’ class.
Fly-fishing requires a graceful casting motion and using the weight of the line, rather than the weight of the bait, to propel the fly forward. Unlike a worm or a minnow, a fly is an artificial lure, fashioned out of foam and feathers to look like the bugs fish prey on. Fly-fishing happens year-round, although trout fishing — a favorite of seasoned anglers for its intensity and challenging nature — is best done in spring and fall, because trout prefer cold water.
A few weeks before the pond session, I attended the first two-hour portion of the class at the Orvis store on Lancaster Avenue. It started with casting lessons in the parking lot.
John Parisi, an employee at TCO Fly Shop, which partners with Orvis, taught me the proper way to do a forward cast, or getting the line out straight out in front of you.
“You want to wait for just a second when your arm is vertical, so the line goes behind you and comes forward with enough momentum,” Parisi said. “If you cast forward too quickly, then there won’t be enough force to make the line go where you want it to.”
Following his advice, I tried to land a cardboard cutout of a fish, which I was supposed to pull in using tiny bits of Velcro attached to the end of my line. I missed again and again, before finally “hooking” the fish. It was tougher than it looked.
Afterward, the class headed inside for more intricate instruction. We learned about the different types of flies — fluffy dry flies float, imitating adult insects landing on the surface of water; colorful streamers trick fish into thinking they’re crayfish or baitfish; poppers make attention-getting ripples when fishermen “pop” them out of the water — and how to tie knots commonly used on the water.
The second portion of Orvis’ 101 course took place at the pond in Fenimore Woods Park. The instructors distributed fishing rods for casting practice.
The goal: to catch a fish and remove the hook without injuring it.
Kristen Cortez, a Vanguard client specialist who had also attended the first portion of the class, managed to catch two fish during the two hours at the pond.
“This is definitely not easy,” she said while watching Pastucha unhook a small bass from the end of her line. “When my husband and I went fly-fishing in Vermont with a guide, I caught a ton of fish. I think it’s because we’re doing this on a pond, when really you’re supposed to be doing it over running water.”
With less than five minutes in the class to go, Pastucha took my rod and swapped out the popper on the end of my line for a small, fuzzy green weenie, made from what looked like a lime-green pipe cleaner.
“It’s a pretty stupid-looking fly,” he said. “But it always works.”
Sure enough, less than a minute later, Pastucha had hooked a bluegill. He passed me the rod and I reeled it in, marveling at how much of a fight a fish the size of my hand could put up.
A few months after fishing in Wayne, I drove up to French Creek State Park to meet and fish with Larry Matthews, a retired pathologist who has been fly-fishing since he was 14. I wanted to see if I had retained any of the information from Orvis’ free classes, and figured that Matthews, who learned how to fish with a fly rod on the Schuylkill, could help me.
We picked a spot near a dam so the flies wouldn’t get caught in the trees and bushes, and got to work.
Over the next few hours, Matthews showed me how to tug a wet fly through the water gently after giving it enough time to sink; how to cast parallel to the shore without hooking weeds; and how to spot places along the edge of the lake where fish like to hide.
“The fastest way to learn is to get some old stuff off eBay and figure it out,” Matthews said. “You don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on gear in the beginning because you might not know whether you like it enough to do that.”
To catch a lot of fish, he said, the best thing to do was to practice casting until it became one smooth motion. My casting was pretty rusty that afternoon, and we agreed that not much of my previous instruction had carried over.
Matthews said he goes fishing every week because being next to the water, focused on the task of hunting a particular fish, relaxed him. Even though my lack of skill made me feel stressed during our afternoon, I could see his point: Fishing, in general, requires you to pay attention to your surroundings, mentally and physically. Fly-fishing, specifically, demands even more mental engagement — answering questions like, “Will my fly get caught in the tree if I cast here?” or “Is the fly I’m using wrong if I haven’t gotten a bite in 20 minutes?” is a big part of the experience. And it was nice to get away from the buzz of the city, if only for a few hours.
On my seventh cast, I managed to hook a yellow perch, its yellow and green scales glittering under the sun. It was the first fish I had hooked by myself on a fly rod. I was sure it was mostly dumb luck.
“Congratulations,” Matthews said as he unhooked the fish for me. “These are actually pretty delicious.”