Part Fourty-five

Randy Fratzke

Teaching a Youngster to Fly Fish

By Randy Fratzke


I had a rare opportunity last week to teach a 13 year old how to fly fish. A friend called and said his thirteen year old son had saved up his money and bought a "combo" fly fishing unit out of one of the mail-order catalogs and he was wondering if I'd take the time to show him how to use it before it got broke. This was last Wednesday, the winds were blowing about 15 to 20 mph that day... less than ideal for teaching a youngster the basics of fly casting. I agreed to do it Friday afternoon, providing the weather and winds cooperated.

Friday came, the winds were calm, the sun was out and it was beautiful, then they showed up....

Now first of all, I'm primarily self taught, since there aren't a lot of great fly fishers here in the great state of Iowa... there were only seven certified instructors in the state in 1997. I knew his dad and he did a lot of fishing, mostly with spinning rods and live bait. (I'd asked his dad if he wanted to learn fly fishing once and he said "nope, it takes two hands and I like to have a beer in one of mine!" Anyway, I figured I could at least show him the basics and give him a few pointers on what to do and what to avoid.

They showed up around 1:30 in the afternoon. My friend, his son, a brand new fly rod and reel and a sack containing line backing, fly line, one leader and a one-page instruction sheet on how to assemble the whole works. That was it, nothing about knots, setting the drag, or casting.

So the first part of the lesson was on the front deck and patio table. Laying out the components, putting line on the reel, tying the fly line to the backing and the leader to the fly line. The youngster was easily distracted, and basically just wanted to fish. I was trying to explain to him why it was important to use the right knots instead of the ol' granny knots. I'm still not sure if I got that through.

OK, now down to the front yard for some casting lessons... I put a 1/64 split shot on the end of his leader so he'd have a little weight. I showed him how to let enough line out to get the leader knot through the rod tip so he didn't bust his new rod yanking it through the guides. I had him pull about 15 feet of line out of the reel and loop it at his feet. Then I picked up my rod and showed him how to use the "clock system" to cast.

Then I had him try it.... the line went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth and then landed on the ground in front of him. I set my rod down. My cast had been a single, straight back and forward cast, no false casts or anything. His was a flailing mess of tangled line and leader... My work was definitely cut out for me!

I asked him why he did it "that way" instead of what I'd shown him? He said, "he'd watched the guys on TV and that's the way they always did it."

OK, time to turn the TV off... This time, I had him start over, just one cast, no false casts, straight back and straight forward. It landed in front, starting from the rod tip to the leader. He was pretty excited until I told him the leader was really supposed to land first, not the other way around. So I had him try it a couple of more times, each with the same result. Then it dawned on me, he's casting like he would a spinning rod, breaking the wrist and lowering his tip.

OK, now I knew what to correct. I went back up to the house, got some Velcro strips, came back down and lashed the butt of the rod to his arm and told him to cast now, and not to lower the rod tip below the 2:00 level. To his amazement the leader was landing first. It still wasn't pretty, but it sure was an improvement!

I had him practice this in the lawn for another 15 minutes until he was sure that he was doing everything right. I coached him during that time, trying to show that his loop was falling apart and collapsing in a heap because he kept stripping too much line out, trying for distance. I kept saying that distance didn't count for beans if it wasn't accurate.... So to prove my point, we moved over to the shore line of the river.

Now the bank sits about 4 feet above the surface of the water. Which, as far as I'm concerned is almost perfect for fly fishing. There are no trees, shrubs, bushes or anything else to get in the way for the back cast for about 30 feet. (My landscaping!) I stood the youngster on the shore line and said "Cast...". He did, and all of the line fell in a huge pile in front of him with a huge splash. I looked at him and asked if he knew what he did wrong?

He said timidly, "too much line out?" I said, "what else?" "I let my rod tip down?" I let him try a few more casts, usually with the same results. Finally I said, "Okay, we're going to try something else. Reel in all but about 20 feet of line." He followed my instructions.

"Now pinch the line under the fingers of the hand you're holding the rod with." He immediately objected saying that if he did that he couldn't let any more line out." I immediately agreed! Then I told him to take his left hand and put it in his left pants pocket. At first he balked a little, looked over at his dad, his dad shrugged his shoulders, and the lad jammed his hand in his pocket and smartly asked, "now what, stand on one foot?" I let it pass... I told him to lift his rod up sharply and cast it forward in one stroke, remembering to feel when it was loaded and when to stop the forward motion. He did it, and made a beautiful, leader first cast!

His eye's lit up like a light had been switched on somewhere! He looked over at his dad and screamed, "Wow, that's what it's supposed to look like!" We practiced on that a while, he was doing very well, so I advanced him to another step. I had him pull out about 8 feet of line and loop it at his feet. He immediately grabbed hold of it with his left hand like he was going to start flailing again when I told him to pinch the line again under his first finger and put his left hand back in his pocket.

He looked pretty confused... then I explained that when he brought the forward portion of his cast to about the 2:00 position to lift up on his finger and allow the line to shoot out from his feet to extend the cast. He did it, with great success.

I just looked at him and said, "see, you don't even need your left hand at this point" The he asked if he'd done a "double haul?" I said "no, maybe in your next lesson, but not at this point" You need to practice this much, get accurate at casting and fish a little, then come back and I'll show you some new tricks."

We took the split shot off and tied on a Royal Humpy that I knew the blue gills liked and sent him down the shore. His dad and I sat down on a bench and watched.

His dad grimaced each time his son cast wrong and smiled each time he did it right. He didn't say anything to the boy because he knew that his son knew what he'd done wrong. We talked for a while, sitting in the sun, and just let the boy fish. Once in a while a word of encouragement or a minor correction, but mostly sat back and enjoyed watching the excitement of youth.

Suddenly I heard a splash, and the boy yelling, "I got one, I got one, and it's gotta be a monster, look at the way the pole is bent!" We walked up the shore line to where he was "fighting his monster."

After a several minute struggle, the boy pulled in a small sunny. He looked a little embarrassed, and his dad was laughing, "some monster... not even big enough to clean!" I looked at the now thoroughly embarrassed boy and said, "things feel a lot different on a fly rod than they do a spinning rod, so don't feel bad about thinking you had a monster."

Then I picked up the fish, still hooked on the line, handed the rod to the boy's father and threw the fish back into the water.

I said, "here, you reel it in once, and tell me how big a fish it feels like." He agreed and after he landed the fish, handed the rod back to his son saying that it was a lot of fun, something he might even consider.... "especially if he could do it while holding a beer in his left hand...." ~ Randy Fratzke

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