Hooked on Fly Fishing
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Apr 1, 2014, 13:11
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT A Colonial Heights Middle School student is squeamish about touching a fish she just caught fly fishing.
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — The bright yellow line looped through the air, out over the water and back again. It made a whistling sound each time it cut through the air. “Swish. Swish. Swish.” The line extended longer and longer until it was finally released with a tiny splash of the fake bug hitting the water.
This is how fly fishing is done by a seasoned veteran -- in this case, Colonial Heights Middle School eighth-grader Jimmy Michaels.
He is among more than two dozen students who are part of the school’s Fly Fishing Club.
On the early Saturday morning of March 22, members of the club lined the banks of the ponds at Virginia State University’s Randolph Farm for a chance to get some hands-on guidance from masters of the sport.
The middle-schoolers were paired up with volunteer guides from the Fly Fishers of Virginia.
Volunteer Bob Hicks helped lead eighth-grader Jared Best through the paces.
“There’s your weapon, sir,” Hicks said as he handed over the rod after fitting the line with a wooly bugger lure that Jared had tied.
“Bring it back sharply and then forward,” Hicks said. “... Don’t be afraid to lay it out there.”
It was Jared’s first year in the club although he has spent time fishing with a typical rod and reel.
“They call us fly fishers but I think everyone of us are spin fishers too,” Hicks said.
Fly fishing is done using a longer, lighter rod. A thick fly line is used with a smaller line attached to the end. The thick line is heavier and can be whipped back in forth without a heavy weight at the end. With each whipping motion in the air, the line can be extended longer and longer until it gets out 30 or 40 feet and out into the water.
The line is not reeled back in, but pulled down in a loop out from the rod, a technique called stripping.
The students have been practicing casting techniques after school during the fall and winter months and also tying their own lures.
This trip was their first chance of the school year to get their hooks into real fish.
The trout pond at VSU had just been stocked two weeks ago. The water was dyed blue to help keep cormorants or eagles from picking off the fish, but it was mostly seagulls flapping about on this windy day.
The first hour at the trout pond proved unproductive, so they headed over to the hybrid striped bass, which welcomed the brightly colored lures with open mouths.
STARTING THE CLUB
The Fly Fishing Club is now in its second year. Sixth-grade history teacher Rick Ridpath said he thought of the idea to start the club when he was approached about a fishing team. He wasn’t interested in a competitive team but thought a fly fishing club would be fun -- and possibly the only one of its kind in Virginia.
He pitched the idea to FFV and they were very enthusiastic. They immediately bought 15 rods.
Volunteers from the group have also given a lot of time to help teach the kids.
FFV was started in 1982 and now has about 150 members. The group also does work for Project Healing Waters, which brings wounded warriors out for fly fishing.
Bass Pro Shops also donated rods and fly tying kits for the club.
Ridpath learned about fly fishing from fellow teacher Chuck Davis, who is a co-sponsor for the club. He met Davis through school and they became good friends. Ridpath said he learned a lot about both conventional fishing and fly fishing from Davis.
Davis has been fly fishing for about 10 years and teaches technology education at the middle school. He started off spin fishing in the James River, catching smallmouth fish but then gravitated towards fly fishing.
“It’s always been my escape,” Davis said.
Ridpath said he grew up doing some fishing but always wanted to do more.
“To me, that’s where I want to go,” he said. “I really loved fishing but I wanted to take it to that next level.”
ENJOYING THE CHALLENGE
Ridpath and the other fly fishermen said they like this method not because they catch more fish, but because it is challenging and requires a different mindset.
“If you are fishing with a worm, you can just toss that thing out and kick back. I watched a guy last week, he was fishing literally from his truck … in the driver’s seat,” Ridpath said.
With fly fishing, it is a much more active approach.
“You’ve got to put some mental thought into what you are doing, so its not really that fly fishing is relaxing, it’s that it takes your mind off of everything else,” Ridpath said.
That’s one of the reasons he started the club. He knows that it can be therapeutic and that years later these kids can still use this skill as a way to put things out of their mind.
“Whatever is going on in life, when you are fly fishing, everything is just focused on that fly and that line in the water,” he said.
Ridpath said you can do fly fishing anywhere you can do conventional fishing, it just might be harder. He said the biggest obstacle can be the wind, which will make it difficult to cast the lightweight flies.
Colonial Heights Middle School eighth-grader Jimmy Michaels casts during a field trip March 22.
Ridpath said people who see him fly fishing will come up to him and ask him about it because they are curious.
“People notice because it is different,” he said.
FFV Volunteer Doug Walden, who helped Gabbi Brewer with her casting technique, said he enjoyed the challenge.
“It’s a nice feel to have that rod load up, just the loop you can get in the line. It’s just really relaxing,” Walden said.
He said it is also a little bit of a challenge to imitate what the fish are eating at that time of the year and know how to read the rivers and streams to know where the fish are likely to be.
Fish can be more active during certain parts of day and at different depths depending on the temperature.
On this field trip, they were using wooly buggers that sink down about two or three feet. Walden said that in warm weather, they would use dry flies that stay on the surface.
They can try those out when they take another trip to Petersburg Country Club in a few months.
Richard Roadcap, a volunteer from FFV who was guiding middle-schooler Laura Pully, said he likes fly fishing because “It takes your mind off of things. You get outdoors. You don’t have to answer the phone. And the best bonus is you might catch a fish.”
Volunteer guide Ray Ward said there isn’t much benefit strategically to fly fishing.
“I’ve just figured out that I don’t like to just sit with a bobber and a worm,” he said.
A DIVERSE CLUB
Ridpath said a wide variety of kids take part in the club. Some are die-hard anglers while others have never fished at all before joining the club.
“You’ve got kids out here that are straight-A students and you’ve got kids out here who … sometimes struggle to pass classes,” he said.
And it is not just boys who participate. Half of the members are girls.
Among them was seventh-grader Abby Proffitt, who made the first catch of the day -- and the second. She was a little squeamish about touching them though. She started with the club last year, but this was her first time fly fishing. She liked fishing but was interested in a new way to do it.
Sixth-grader Spencer Alderson also caught her first fish with a fly rod during the trip.
“I thought it would be a fun thing to do with all of my friends,” she said.
Her father, Mickey Alderson, who teaches art at the middle school, tagged along with the club. He said he had never fly fished either before she joined.
“When one of the kids gets tired, I’ve been practicing my cast a little,” he said. “I’m learning along with everyone else. I’m like a big kid.”
He said he always gets a surprised reaction when he tells people there is a fly fishing club at the school.
Rebecca Branch at first said she wasn’t quite sure what she liked about fly fishing, but after a moment to think about it, she said she liked the motion of the line going through the air.
“It looks like a whip,” she said.
Some kids were so excited about fly fishing that they got their own rods, Ridpath said.
Members of the Fly Fishers of Virginia served as volunteer guides.
He said typical school work is not necessarily meant to be fun, but giving them something to do at school that is fun is helpful. He said fly fishing also teaches them focus and patience.
Ridpath said the club allows a teacher and a student to have a different type of connection.
“Some of those kids that struggle in class, I teach them in class, but here we don’t have that tension between a teacher and a failing student. That’s all gone. Here, he’s just a kid fly fishing,” he said.