If there is anyone who can appreciate the highs and lows of the sublime pastime of fly-fishing, it would be the New England skier.
Think about it: We head to the mountains, full of anticipation and hopes for a spectacular day on the slopes, without ever being 100 percent sure of exactly what we’ll find. It’s even more of a leap of faith when we line up months before Thanksgiving to buy our season passes, with little “hard data” about what the winter will bring. That’s the reality of winter in the Northeast.
The weather, and the snow conditions, can be wildly inconsistent. That’s part of the charm of New England skiing, right? Same holds true for fishing. One day, you can get totally skunked (invoking the wise words an old Maine guide once shared with me: “There’s a reason they call it fishing, not catching.”). Yet, the next day, in the very same spot, you might have a tremendous day pulling slabs out of the water.
And that, of course, is the reason we keep coming back.
“You have to certainly try it,” said Scott McEnaney, director of Orvis Adventures, the outdoor retail giant based in southern Vermont. “It clicks for people when they cast a fly, present that fly, and feel the fish on the end of the line.
“From there, people are hooked and they start to build a desire to learn more and become better anglers,” he said. “The beautiful thing about fly-fishing is there are so many tactics for the advanced angler that change as the conditions change.”
A corresponding reality is that regardless of whether it’s an epic day on the water or a session worth forgetting, anglers are still spending time outside, often immersing themselves in breathtaking settings, far from the madding crowds. Which raises another similarity to our favorite winter pastime: Fishing fans love finding escapes in remote areas, from the serene lakes of Maine and New Hampshire to the rolling rivers and bubbling brooks of Vermont, western Massachusetts, and Connecticut, or even along the region’s stunning rocky coastlines.
“It’s healing to be in the woods, or on the water,” said McEnaney. “I believe it transports us to a primal part of our existence. For me, it’s like foraging for mushrooms, hiking to the top of a hill, or studying interactions in nature so you can use what you’ve learned elsewhere in your experiences with the natural environment.”
That brings yet another bonus. Much like many skiers and snowboarders have voiced their concern about the reality of climate change and stepped up to support real-world solutions, anglers typically develop a greater appreciation for the environment.
“One will learn to love the outdoors through fly-fishing, and once one learns to love something, they’re willing to act to protect it,” said McEnaney. “So, we teach people to love the outdoors, love the sport, and by doing so, we create conservationists.
“We build a network of people who come together to conserve our natural resources and use that passion to expand and protect what they love,” he said. “This has been the best part about my journey into the outdoors.”
Want more? Fly-fishing, like skiing, is a pastime that has a wide appeal to a wide number of participants. You don’t need to be Bode Miller to love skiing, and you don’t need to channel your inner Charlie Moore to enjoy casting a line.
“Whenever I fish, or talk about fishing, I’m no longer surprised about who is interested in it,” said Cynthia Harkness, owner of Massachusetts-based Fearless Fly Fishing and a program director for the nonprofit Casting for Recovery. “There is no look of a fisherman, no age, no gender. I see mothers, fathers, sons, grandparents, college students, retirees, professionals, world-class medalists — it’s way bigger than what I thought the scope of the fly fisherman was when I first started out.
“My image was the guy chest high in waders, with a big beard, holding a huge trout,” she said. “Well, that’s sometimes out there, but most of the time I see friendships grow over long days in knee-high rivers catching all kinds of different fish.”
The camaraderie, she said, only adds to the overall experience.
“The sport is simple, fun and accessible,” said Harkness, who counts the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts and the flats on Cape Cod among her favorite fly-fishing spots. “Yes, sometimes I hear that it’s complicated, the gear is too expensive and there are no fish around. But that’s not all true.
“It’s like riding a bike, she said. “You can enjoy the casual ride every day to the store, or around the block. And then you can take it to the next level, and bike through the vineyards in France. Fishing can become whatever level you want it to be, whether you’re just interested in that Christmas card picture holding your first-ever catch, or make it a travel destination to the Spey River in Scotland.”
Harkness, in addition to her work with Casting for Recovery, an inspiring nonprofit that provides fishing escapes for breast cancer survivors, also focuses a number of her outings on women. Several years ago, when she was still working for the Orvis retail store in Dedham, Mass., Harkness launched a Ladies Fly Fishing Club.
“It’s a chance for likeminded ladies of all ages and experience to come together and celebrate the sport of fly-fishing,” she said. “I saw all ages of women, with all kinds of backgrounds, come together to share their stories of how they got into the sport and plan some fun outings together.
“Orvis is committed to supporting women in the sport of fly-fishing, which is why they’re opening up some of their resources to become a platform for these fly ladies to get together and find one another,” said Harkness. “It’s growing, and I’m sure more ladies will follow. Ladies now have their own well-fitted waders, boots, casting shirts and gear. Before, it was jerry-rigging men’s boots and waders to your body. Do that for a few days, and you’ll understand why it’s good to have the right fit.”
Furthermore, fly-fishing knows no age boundaries. So anglers from age 8 to 80 (and even older) can join in the fun.
“One thing that is really exciting,” McEnaney said, “is that we are seeing more and more families entering the sport, folks who are learning along with their children and use fly-fishing as a catalyst for getting everyone in the house outside and into the natural world. This is an awesome shift in the sport.”
Still, like skiing, fly-fishing can seem a bit intimidating at first. Like an expert skier, a veteran angler can make the sport seem almost effortless. That image — that misconception — is typically shattered the moment that a neophyte tries his or her first practice cast. The sport takes patience, practice and a guiding hand. But help is readily available. To dispel the notion that fly-fishing is on par with nuclear physics, Orvis has introduced a series of classes, including an introductory fly-fishing program that is absolutely free for first-timers.
“The beautiful thing about fly-fishing is that it can also be incredibly simple and welcoming for people,” said McEnaney. “I think it’s sometimes made out to be more difficult than it needs to be.
“That’s where the Orvis Educational programs — Fly Fishing 101 and our schools — have done so well,” he said. “We break the sport down into smaller segments that customers can use as a foundation for what will be a lifetime of learning and a desire to perfect the craft.”
In New England, the free Orvis Fly Fishing 101 classes, designed to introduce beginners to the fishing basics of flies, gear, knots and casting, are held at Orvis headquarters in Manchester, Vt., just outside of Boston at the Orvis store in Dedham, and at the Orvis store in Avon, Conn. The Fly Fishing 201 course allows participants to join a certified instructor for a short outing, and a chance to actually land a fish.
“We’ve been teaching people to fly-fish for over 50 years,” said McEnaney. “It connects people to the outdoors and to the brand in meaningful ways, which is amazing.
“We started the free FF101 for customers because we wanted to lower the barrier of entry for people looking to enter the sport,” he said. “In these classes we give people the basic information, let them cast a bit, show them essential notes, do a quick review of equipment and let them know the other things we offer — and they can do — to continue their journey in the sport with Orvis.”
Many participants, said McEnaney, progress from the free class to one- and two-day classes, to guided fishing days, to traveling to Orvis-endorsed lodges or guide services on school experiences (more than 20 in New England alone, from Lopstick Lodge in northern New Hampshire to Libby Camps in Maine to the Orvis Fly Fishing School at The Saltwater Edge in Middletown, Rhode Island), or fly-fishing trips all over the world.
“We have all types in our schools,” said McEnaney. “One of the strengths of our program is that we can help a person who has never held a fly rod before, and a person who has fished their entire life and might just want to hone a skill. We pick up on a person’s ability very quickly and tailor the instruction for that person with ease.”
For a list of Orvis stores and participating retailers, visit Orvis.com/flyfishing101. For a list of Orvis-endorsed lodges and guide services, visit Orvis.com/endorsed. For details on Fearless Fly Fishing, visit FearlessFlyFishing.com.