Ever since Brad Pitt starred in the Hollywood classic, A River Runs Through It, fly fishing has gained a legion of followers and devotees. Wading in a cool, peaceful river, casting a fly, and watching wild trout rise up to the surface to eat your offering tugs at the inner core of every angler. And the sport would likely swell even further if the misguided impression that fly fishing takes some sort of special skill still didn't linger.
Fortunately, there are people like Peter Charles, who operates the Hooked 4Life Fly Fishing School, on southeastern Ontario's magnificent Grand River, to set us straight.
"Fly fishing has suffered too much from the idea that it is something that only a few can enjoy," says Charles. "Forget all that elitist Zen nonsense that you may have read or heard about. If you love a challenge, if you yearn to learn more, then you will love fly fishing.
"Fundamentally, fly fishing is about the experience, more than about how many fish you catch. If you can cast a spinning rod or baitcaster, you can fly fish. Even folks with physical disabilities can do it, so it really is open to everyone."
Indeed, Charles, who saved up his paper route money as a youngster to buy a Blanchard Algonquin fibreglass rod, a horribly made metal fly reel, and cheap, level floating line, says it was a natural progression for him to teach people how to fly fish. After all, after spending his adult life teaching management skills and computer competence to business executives, how difficult could it be?
"The cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approaches to fly fishing didn’t appeal to me," says Charles. "So I developed a method that would have a broader appeal and offer two things: it had to fit the individual, and simplify fly fishing down to its basics. The last thing I wanted to do was present a long, boring laundry list of things an angler had to memorize."
Charles' unique style of instruction lets him tailor every fly fishing session to the distinctive traits of the individual: his or her interests, body type, and physical skills. He avoids the endless repetition of "do this" and "do that," and the learning curve is amazingly quick.
"With qualified instruction, I can have you casting a fly to a fish in only a few hours," says Charles. "There’s an understandable temptation for people to teach themselves, or to rely on a friend, but I've tried both methods and they don't work.
"Obviously, the learning curve varies from one person to the next, but I’ve watched a reasonably athletic person make the transition in under two hours. Qualified instruction shortens the learning curve from months to hours. Trying to learn on our own makes the journey much longer and more frustrating. It’s probably the biggest reason why people give up on the sport and shove their fly rod into the closet to collect dust."
What I found interesting, too, was Charles' observation that it is much easier for him to teach a raw rookie how to fly fish than someone who has spent years fumbling around with a fly rod, as he confesses he once did. Being self-taught, he says, is an exercise in learning how to fly fish incorrectly, and once the bad habits are ingrained, the unlearning process is a struggle.
What isn't a struggle is wading in the pastoral Grand River and fly fishing in such a peaceful classroom.
"The Grand River stretches 300 km (180 miles) from the Luther Marshes to Lake Erie," says Charles, who notes that the river starts out as a warm water fishery, but then progresses to a cold, tailwater brown trout one below Belwood Lake. "In the spring and fall, the river receives a run of steelhead from Lake Erie that spawn in the many cold-water tributaries of the Grand. The brown trout fishery is maintained by stocking, but the steelhead fishery is self-sustaining. I offer a six-hour course that is evenly split between casting instruction and guiding. It makes for a complete day to be able to go from not knowing how to cast a fly to catching a fish on one."
It is worth noting, too, that while Charles has taught groups with as many as 12 individuals, he prefers one to three students. Large groups are fine, he says, for introducing folks to the sport, but the individual approach lets him offer in-depth instruction.
And he provides everything that is needed for a day in the water, except for waders—which, in the summertime, aren’t even necessary given the pleasantly warm conditions.
"About the only thing I insist upon is that everyone wears glasses, or sunglasses, for eye protection," he says. "Beyond that, a hat and sunscreen are good ideas, and of course, a valid fishing license."
As Charles reminds us, fly fishing is a sport that everyone can enjoy, not just an elite few wealthy individuals who have access to private waters. And it is not horribly expensive. Entry-level tackle these days is superb, so you can get started for a few hundred dollars. Just remember, though, before you spend a penny on tackle, invest in casting lessons that will drastically shorten your learning curve, and save you time and money in the long term.
Indeed, after a few hours of tutelage with Peter Charles, you may not come away looking like Brad Pitt, but I am betting you'll cast better than him. And you'll be Hooked4Life!