October 20th, 2008

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I Now Teach with Ease
By Joseph Meyer One More Cast Fly Shop

We are a loosely bound team of casting instructors that gather at Fly-Fishing shows and we donate our time giving casting lessons. Most of us are there to give something back to this sport by teaching others, especially little guys. Some are working towards their Certified Casting Instructor's certificate and there's me. I'm trying to learn more about teaching. I like to hang with other instructors and learn from them.

I openly possess a stronger than average sense of self-worth but not when it comes to my teaching; secretly, I flounder. Those who have taught with me politely let others know that I have a rather full personality. My outward demeanor belies the fact that I still struggle with students. I want to use the precise words to explain the mechanics so even beginners can easily grasp the fluidity of the cast. It's not easy and I work at it constantly. My self-confidence is easily rocked when I err in front of those whose teaching style I covet.

At the last Show I worked, we all gathered over morning coffee. From one instructor whose style I admire came this:

"You've really improved since the last time we worked together and have blossomed into a very good instructor. Who is your biggest teaching influence?"

This was one Hell of a compliment and both the sincerity and the source surprised me.

The author of the compliment thrown my way is a Master Instructor with the Federation of Fly Fishers. When a teaching candidate is ready to be tested, they demonstrate their ability in front of two Masters. Our watery planet boasts about 100 Masters and I was sitting in the presence of three of them. One has publicly singled me out and wants to know who influenced me. I thoughtfully inventoried the folks who have helped me become a better teacher. I've been blessed to work with and for talented people; some are recognized industry icons and some are folks you've never heard of. All have had an influence on my teaching style.

Meet Zen Master Bill, a legend in Wisconsin. At one of my Trout Schools, I enlisted Bill to help with the advanced casters. In a streamside pasture I gathered my students and asked them to cast a bit to warm up then we would provide some individual pointers. Bill leaned against a fence post, watching as a student was furiously false casting. Any other instructor would rush over to calm the student, re-explain the mechanics of the cast, and slow everything down then review it step by step. Not Bill, he just stared. The student looked over at Bill fully expecting a critique of his casting.

Bill unfolded his arms and tipped up his cowboy hat with his index finger so the student could witness his full incredulous-ness then asked, "I gotta know, why do you hate your rod?"

It was our turn to be incredulous. The other instructors and I froze and were unable to react if there were violence, tears or both.

Bill continued, "You paid good money for it but you cast the damn rod like you hate it."

The Zen Master then grunted with disgust, strolled over to another fence post situated in a shadier part of the pasture, struck another leaning pose and proceeded to hand roll a cigarette.

My student, desperately alone in the pasture, kicked at the dirt then paced back and forth a few steps at a time as if waiting for a train to pull into his imaginary station. He flipped his flyline up and out of his way to keep from tripping on it as he patrolled the platform. He made another casual flip of the flyline, almost an afterthought. Then came another flip, then another, this one with purpose. He raised his casting plane vertically still casually flipping the flyline and the light bulb went on. Smooth casting strokes soon followed and the student was now making his once hated rod behave. He performed a much more relaxed cast, amazing himself and the others.

By now the Zen Master had finished his smoke then stabbed out the butt on the sole of his boot. He announced that he had to go feed his horses and jumped in his rig. We watched it spew gravel as he headed up the hill to his farm. A major casting error was cured in a lesson that consisted of precisely two sentences punctuated with the Zen Master firing up a smoke and just watching. There now exists a grateful trout angler with a lovely cast; the easy mechanics are burned into his muscle memory. An awed fellow instructor opined "He really ought to leave a silver bullet before he heads off, don't you think?"

In another School on the Wolf River, he had my students wade over and he swept them into his wide embrace.

"I need to ask, but do not want an immediate answer to this question. Just think about this: When is Fishing not Fishing and more importantly, when is not Fishing, Fishing?"

Bill waded upstream to a Buick-sized boulder, leaned against it in full Cowboy mode and rolled a smoke. My student anglers looked at each other like startled owls. One shrugged, then waded off to resume flailing the same water he had worked for the last hour. His sister, a college sophomore wise beyond her tender years but in possession of a cast that would not extend beyond her own shadow at High Noon just stared downstream the entire time it took the Zen Master to finish his smoke.

" A blip!" she announced, "Look, there's another blip!"

In the shade of a tag alder she had observed a miniscule rise that belied the size of the snout that caused the "blip." However she misnamed it, she was the one who spotted the trout and she noticed it not by casting, not by wading, but by just observing. She was Fishing.

From the Zen Master came a decidedly un-P.C. salutation, "Well now, Missy. You spotted it, aren't you going to wade your pink self over and catch it?"

"Um, yeah. But not with this fly, the rise form is all wrong."

She clipped off her Caddis then smartly clinch-knotted a parachute Sulfur. Gaining confidence with each step, her cautious wading brought her close and she now had the timing of the rises dialed in. A nine-foot rod, a ten-foot leader and a firm stop of the rod in both directions delivered the fly like a butterfly landing on sore feet. A blip then a take!

The flailing brother waded over to help net her prize Brown then mumbled, "I coulda caught that fish from where I was standing. I coulda air mailed my fly right under the alder. Flip cast like a girl, Jeesh."

"Horse shit!" came from Zen Master Bill, echoing down the river. "You were wearing out a flyline over fish-less water. I'm here to tell you that you were most certainly not Fishing. Because she was studying the water, Little Missy over here not only spotted the riser but she correctly noticed that it wasn't a caddis rise. She was Fishing, damn it.

He continued, "You never noticed that fish because you were busy turning this river into Cappuccino. Stop casting. Observe. Be aware of what's in front of you. The trout will tell you what they are eating if you notice the rise form. Watch, then put something that looks like it on their dinner plate."

I learned a lot about teaching from Bill, not the least of which was his simplistic approach to presenting the fly: Feed the fish. I'm still learning Bill's Zen approach and I successfully pull it off on rare occasions.

If you have read any of my other stories, you've met another of my influences, Wally-the-Wise. Being in his presence while he is teaching is like being in church. No Hell Fire and Damnation from this preacher, the quiet message from his streamside pulpit is one of reverence. His respect for the resource is profound. No greater words can be said about a trout angler than these: He cares more about the fish than the fishing. He cares more about the water than the fish. Water is the common element to all whose lives Wally has touched whether they fish or not. If you've ever been taught by Wally, you'll remember it forever. You don't just fish Wally's water; you're Baptized in it.

Gary Cooper-like, Wally's Gospel is quietly delivered: "Give thanks for this resource and protect it. Give thanks for your abilities and cherish the time you are allowed to fish." Here ends the message from Wally-the-Wise, Amen.

Reverence for the resource is what I try and instill on my students.

Then there's my friend Donna, I teach and fish with her often. She doesn't possess classic beauty but she looks good in waders and after a day on a stream and the waders are shucked, a swipe of a hairbrush and a touch of Sienna Terra tint from Alba Botanica are all she needs to be ready for dinner. More than a few heads turn when we stroll into a dining room.

Donna is a note-taker and when teaching with other instructors, she often scribbles bits of learned wisdom in her journal. If one were to publish that journal it would out-sell Lefty's new tome on casting. Behind her back, my fellow instructors refer to her as Little Joan after Joan Wulff and her quiet confidence that comes from being a master at her craft. I so envy the fact that she is at ease with her teaching.

Most of us can make a pretty demonstration cast but where Joan's cast is an aerial ballet, Donna's is a waltz. She exemplifies the adage that one must make both a back cast and a forward cast with equal importance. Her casts are demonstrated vertically and effortlessly; a mirror image in 4/4 time. When Donna executes her cast, she ever so slightly eases her weight back on her right heel then glides forward as if someone was holding her in his arms while waltzing. I don't know if she has had any formal musical training but Donna can play First Chair 5 weight in anyone's orchestra.

Recently, Little Joan and I taught at a Fly Show and there was an all day parade of young casting students. We stood back to back and I could easily hear her patter with her students. She put a young woman student at ease by saying, "Together, we are going to make some bad casts; before you're done you'll make some really good casts."

Donna immediately took away the nervousness that most folks have when casting in public and the young woman comfortably improved. I now take notes when Donna speaks.

With beginners, she's more than just a cheerleader and her nurturing teaching style is one that protects the egos of those who are more advanced yet she delivers the same strong message to those with varying abilities: "Stop the rod."

Strong yet nurturing, I try to teach like Donna.

I've learned from all of the instructors I've introduced to you but there is one you've not yet met.

She started college in mid-life in order to become an English teacher. As part time student with a crazy house full of boys under the age of 8, she still found time to study. Her sons were amazed that she could hit them with breakfast, get everyone off to school, they in a yellow bus, she in an old Chevy, rally everyone for dinner then rehearse and act in college theatrical productions at night. This hectic schedule kept pace for the 8 years it took her to earn her teaching degree.

After graduation she taught English, Speech and Drama to low ability high school sophomores and her students adored her. Although her teaching style was friendly, she was never a student's friend. She was an Educator.

From her, I learned this about teaching:

Teach skills then build on those skills. Keep at it and don't quit on a student.

Don't dumb-down your lesson becuase it's easier on the instructor, bring the entire group along even if it's harder to do. You owe this to the students.

Confidently teach but be honest, " I don't know" is an acceptable answer from a teacher but only briefly. Research, teach yourself then share it with others.

And this more important than everything else: Teaching is more about sharing what you know than showing what you know.

The Buddhists have a saying: When the student is ready, the teacher appears. When I was ready, you were there.

I now teach with ease.

Thanks Mom. ~ Joseph

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