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Algonquin College News

Walking (or Fishing) AC: Lessons in Fly Fishing

May 4, 2021
Algonquin College writer/editor Robert Sibley joined the College’s communications team in 2018 and was soon struck by the potential for telling Algonquin’s story through occasional "walkabouts" that explore the unique programs and services that give the institution its reputation for experiential, learner-driven education. In this first part of a  “walkabout,” one of several he’s done in the last few years, Sibley receives a fishing lesson from Pembroke Campus Professor Jeff Jackson.

I held the woolly bugger between my thumb and forefinger. I’d never picked up a fishing fly before and found it hard to believe any self-respecting fish would see a small hook dressed with what looked like scrap pieces of brown fur and bits of feather as food.

But I followed instructions and released it to dangle on a thin line of filament at the tip of the first fly rod I’d ever held. Gripping the rod, I stretched out my arm, cocked it to a near-perpendicular position beside my right ear so the line would fly overhead behind me, and then brought the rod down and forward in what I hoped was one smooth motion.

To my amazement, the line sailed out in a long arching loop to settle the fly on the water about 15 metres away. I’d aimed at a more distant spot but I wasn’t going to complain. It was the first time I’d managed to set the line reasonably straight instead of having it flop in a tangle of coils at my feet. It was my best fly cast yet. I was pleased.

I was even more pleased when the man who’d been giving me my first lessons in the art of fly fishing spoke: “Nice cast. You got the line where you wanted it.”

Jeff Jackson is a veteran fly fisherman. He’s also an Algonquin College professor and the Coordinator of the Outdoor Adventure Program at the Pembroke Campus. He holds a PhD from Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business and has a long list of publications on adventure-based risk management issues to his name. Add in 25 years of expedition and guiding in places as far afield as the Yukon, Austria, Mexico, and Costa Rica. If Jeff thought I’d made a decent cast, then I must be improving.

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But then the credit is his. In the summer, when he isn’t teaching, Jeff operates a fly-fishing guide service. I’d managed to snag a couple of days with him in August. Thanks to COVID-19, I’d had to scuttle a month-long canoe trip in the Yukon and I was desperate to do something outdoors. A few days of fishing sounded good and when I found Jeff’s Algonquin Fly Fishing guide service on the Internet I made a booking.

The problem was I knew nothing about fly fishing. And the last time I’d gone fishing was as a boy with my father and back then we used traditional spin-and-cast rods. No problem, said Jeff. He was willing to take on a newbie for a weekend that included a half-day of fly-fishing lessons and a full day on the Petawawa River in a drift boat. It was the best short vacation I’d taken in years.

Fly fishing is different from the more traditional bait-and-float techniques used with spinning and casting rods where a heavy lure pulls a light fishing line through the air to a particular location. With a fly rod you do the opposite – a heavy line “throws” a lightweight fly to where you think the fish are located. The fly rod itself is composed of various parts: the blank shaft, a grip where you hold the shaft, and a reel seat to which a reel loaded with line is attached. Blanks come in different weights and lengths depending on the fishing conditions and the kind of fish being pursued.

I was hooked the first day, enamoured with the disciplined techniques and the arcane terminology. Fly reels, leader lines, nail knots, false casting, stripping line, tippets, fishing the drift; I loved the idea of it all. And then there were the flies, small hand-tied artificial lures created from natural or synthetic materials and secured by thread on a small hook. There are, as I soon learned, different kinds of flies – dry flies, nymphs, streamers, for example – for different conditions. And, as it seems, they all have outlandish names – Royal Wulff, Muddler Minnow, Meat Whistle, Copper John, Silly Wiggler, Woolly Bugger.

My entrance to this fly-fishing arcana began, appropriately enough, with a lesson about fish. “Let’s start with the ‘why’ of fly fishing,” Jeff said on my first day of instruction, taking me to the Muskrat River off Mud Lake Road. “It’s all based around food.”

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Fish eat tiny bugs, so you need a way to deliver those bugs. Simply put, fly casting is a technique for delivering imitation food to the fish. That’s different from spin casting where you use the flashing lure to attract a fish.

Fly fishing starts with learning how to cast a fly rod loaded with reel, line, leader, tippet and, not to be forgotten, the fly. The idea is to deliver that fake bug to where a fish might be. I spent my first morning trying to accomplish something approximate to that notion. As Jeff put it: “We spend a lot of time figuring out how to put our line in the air so we can get the fly to where it needs to go.”

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it wasn’t. Still, following Jeff’s instructions, I learned to hold the rod in the proper position as I stood in the cold water, letting out a rod’s length of line on the water, angling the rod without letting the tip touch the water. “You don’t want to scare the fish by disturbing the water too much,” Jeff said.

With my wrist locked and a relaxed grip on the rod – or so I tried – I lifted the rod, pulling the line off the water, raised my arm to a nine o'clock position, accelerating the movement to one o’clock, and then after a brief hard stop just past my right ear, I dropped my arm forward hard so the line that had looped behind me suddenly reversed course and sailed overhead to land in the water about 15 or 20 metres in front of me. 

It was all supposed to be done in one smooth motion. There's poetry in the movements if you master them and don't wrap the line around a tree branch or snag your ear with the fly hook. Ideally, the line settles on the water in a generally straight line with the fly going about its business of fooling a fish. Easier said than done. It took numerous casts before I even approximated the ideal. I avoided damaging my ears but my feet were numb from wading in the cold water of the Muskrat River. I loved it.

I certainly didn’t become an expert fly fisherman that morning, but after a couple of hours, I was occasionally able to place the line near where I wanted it to go. After that, we moved on to other techniques – false casting, roll casting, stripping line – and I was introduced to my first fly. The brown Woolly Bugger reminded me of nothing so much as my grandfather’s heavy eyebrows.

The Petawawa River beckoned.

Part 2 will be published later this week.
(Photos: Robert Sibley, newbie fly fisherman, Professor Jeff Jackson, the veteran, and Jeff offering a lesson)