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Algonquin College News

Walking (Fishing) AC: Getting Hooked on Fly Fishing

May 5, 2021
This is the second installment in Robert Sibley's two-part series about the fly-fishing lessons he received from Algonquin College Professor Jeff Jackson, Coordinator of the Outdoor Adventure Program at the Pembroke Campus.

Jeff Jackson and Tim Demmons picked me up at my hotel and we drove a few miles outside Pembroke to a stretch of the Petawawa River where we pulled a large three-person drift boat off a trailer and manoeuvred it into the water. As a newbie fly fisher I was awarded the best spot on the boat – a high, cushioned stool at the bow from where I could cast my line to the front or each side. It turned out to be a splendid day.

I’d booked a weekend with Jeff after my holiday plans last August were cancelled because of COVID-19. I was desperate to get outside and out of the city. A couple of days fishing sounded perfect. On my first day, Jeff, an Algonquin College Professor who operates a fly-fishing guide service when he isn’t working as the Coordinator of the Outdoor Adventure Program at the Pembroke Campus, provided some basics of fly fishing and introduced me to some of its techniques, rituals, and strange terminology. I learned a bit about fly rods, reels, weighted lines, overhead casting, and, of course, flies. I was immediately hooked. On this day we were going to put my lessons to the test. Tim, who guides part-time for Jeff, joined us.

Jeff said we would be fishing for smallmouth bass and, depending on conditions, use streamers and a type of popper known as a gurgler as our flies. With a streamer, you use the river’s current to pull the fly – a woolly bugger, in this case – through the water below the surface. Because the fly moves with the current and looks alive, it catches the attention of a fish, prompting it to think, ah-ha, food.

With a gurgler, you place it on the surface to float and then pull the line back through your fingers – stripping the line, as it’s called – rather than rewinding it on the reel. The idea is to animate the fly so it looks like a swimming frog or even a mouse. As you strip the line, the gurgler makes, well, a gurgling sound and creates a wake that attracts the fish.

“Fish are only worried about one thing, survival,” Jeff explained. “They need shelter and they need food and they are always trying to balance those needs. They want to stay close to shelter but they need to eat and have to risk leaving their shelter for food. What we’re trying to do is draw their attention and lure them out of their shelter with a gurgler or a woolly bugger that they think is food.”

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There’s more to it than that, of course. For Jeff, successful fly-fishing entails knowing to read the river, deciphering the significance of currents, and what different colours of water might suggest about the location of sheltering fish. Darker water indicates where the current is less strong, while riffled water means a shallow stretch of faster water. Fish like darker water.

Then there are bubble lines, strings of frothy white speckles that follow the main flow of water. Between the fast-flowing bubbles you find eddy lines where the water is calmer because, perhaps, a boulder, a fallen tree, or a riverbank has interrupted the current. That’s where the fish shelter, hiding in the eddies, conserving energy in the slower water, waiting to dart into the faster current of bubble lines that, like a conveyor belt, carries their food supply. Fly fishing, said Jeff, is all about reading the transitions between faster and slower water, between the main current and the eddy line.

“The river tells me where to fish,” Jeff said. “Spend enough time on a river and you get to know it intimately, how the current moves, where the fish are likely to be, what techniques are reliable to catch them."

After listening to Jeff’s lyrical descriptions, I knew I'd never look at a river or creek again without trying to read it and figure out what rock a fish might be hiding behind.

The reading went well on this day. Between Tim and myself we caught a dozen smallmouth bass, following catch-and-release practices that are becoming the standard practice in the fly-fishing world. Jeff, who steered the boat for the day, had crimped the barbs on the hooks to make removing them easier and lessen the trauma on the fish.

“I’ve never seen a hook in a fish in all my years in the business," says Jeff. "You see scar tissue from previous catches but then the same fish might get caught a dozen times in its lifetime."

We caught most of the bigger fish with gurglers on a flat calm stretch of river. Tim snagged the biggest one of the day but I hooked four between two and four pounds each. “That’s as big as they get on the Petawawa,” says Jeff. “I’d say you had a very successful day.”

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I had to agree. But it was also revelatory in a way I had not expected. My first strike – or rather my response to that strike – surprised me. With Jeff guiding the boat to likely fishing spots, I’d been casting for about an hour, trying to hit one of those transition zones and then letting the line float downstream from the boat before picking it up and making another cast. Nary a nibble. Not that I really minded. I was content to be on the river, enjoying a white-capped ride, contemplating the pale grey sky, spotting the occasional eagle, happy to be outside in the fresh air. Going fishing was a pleasure whether I caught a fish or not, I thought.

I thought wrong. A sudden sharp rod-bending tug on the line broke my reverie. Luckily, one of Jeff’s lessons kicked in. I raised the rod fast, trying to set the hook. The rod bent even more.

“You’ve got one,” I heard Jeff say. “Don’t let the line go slack. They can jump and shake themselves loose from the hook.”

At least that’s what I think he said. I was too excited to be sure. When the bass struck it was like a jolt of electricity shot up my arm. Stripping the line, using the forefinger of my left hand as a brake, and cranking the reel with my right hand, I  felt the fish on the line, fighting the hook. It was a strange and astonishing sensation to feel the life-energy of another creature surging along a thin line of filament into my body. 

Afterwards, I mentioned to Jeff how surprised I felt at my response. He laughed: “Yes, it’s remarkable. You have a nine-foot fly rod and 40 or 50 feet of synthetic floating line on the water, but when a fish hits that line it’s like you’re connected to another world. You feel proud when you make a decent cast, and there’s a sense of craftsmanship in doing it right, but that connection to a living creature takes you to another dimension.

“Fish exist in another environment where we don’t live and can’t really see. It’s really another universe down there and when we can make a direct connection to that universe through a fishing line, that’s a remarkable feeling. That’s part of the thrill, the recognition that there’s a whole other life on the end of this line that you’re connected to briefly.”

I was able to briefly hold that life in my hands. After I brought the fish close to the boat, Jeff netted it, a nice-sized smallmouth bass. We kept it in the net in the water while Jeff extracted the hook.

“You try to interact with the fish without harming them or having anything more than a minimal impact on its life,” Jeff said later when I asked him to explain his catch-and-release ethos.

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With the hook removed, I wet my hands to avoid damaging the protective coat that covers a fish’s body and lifted the bass out of the net for a trophy photo. The slender body shivered in my hands. I admired the sparkling golden-olive scales and the shiny dark brown coloration along the top of the body and the delicate translucent membranes of the fins. It was beautiful.

Picture taken, I lowered the fish into the water, holding it long enough for it to revive before releasing it to the river. Dumping a fish back into the water without giving it time to recover from the energy expended fighting the hook can leave it too weak to survive.

Watching the creature dart away with quick thrusts of its tail, disappearing in the dark water, I felt an odd regret at the lost connection.

When Jeff dropped me off at my hotel at the end of the day, I thanked him for one of the best days I’d had in a long time. I told him I’d be back in next summer for another jolt of electricity, for that brief alien encounter. Maybe, if I started tying my own flies, I could even bring my own woolly bugger.
(Photos: Robert with his prize catch, Jeff Jackson and Tim Demmons in the drift boat, Tim's trophy catch,
and Robert, riding in the bow.)