“Fly fishing is very relaxing, and it’s often something people like to do by themselves.”
I was currently at Orvis Sandanona experiencing their 1-day fly fishing school. To be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect before going, though as a solo traveling introvert it seemed like it could be a sport I’d enjoy.
Even when I’m not on the road I try to travel as much as possible around my home of NYC. Which is why I was excited when Orvis invited me to their Sandanona Fly Fishing School in Millbrook — less than two hours from NYC — to gain some skills and celebrate their 50th anniversary of fly fishing and wingshooting schools.
Side Note: They’re also allowing me to offer my readers a special discount on their fly fishing schools to continue the celebration, so continue reading for that!
From Concrete To Countryside
As I drive the urban skyline soon fades to highway lined with lush greenery and rock face, peaks poking out at certain points. While I typically find myself buzzing about Brooklyn at a rapid pace during the work week, today my morning starts with a sunny drive (only enhanced by me belting out Adele tunes).
Learning to fly fish at with Orvis at their Sandanona Fly Fishing School in New York
Orvis runs a number of fly fishing schools and trips around the USA. Their Sandanona school in particular has a rich history. In fact my father, who has been fishing for over 60 years, almost fainted with excitement when I told him I’d be going there (as did my brother, who fishes with an Orvis 4 weight rod with an Orvis Battenkill reel).
The property dates back to the early 1800s, and today features highly praised 1- and 2-day fly- fishing and wingshooting schools. Set amidst rolling hills and lush woodland, I love the stately yet rustic architecture, making me immediately feel like a city girl turned outdoors-woman.
By the way, despite a preconceived notion that fly fishing is an older man’s sport, I find a lot of girl power woven in. First of all, the other two people in the class with me are women. Moreover, fly fishing was essentially re-invented by a female nun named Dame Juliana Berners in 1496. I say re-invented because it’s actually an ancient sport enjoyed by the Romans and Macedonians, but was re-introduced to society by Sister Berners writing the first book on fly fishing titled A Treatise Of Fishing With An Angle.
I love learning about historic women who paved the way for our adventurous modern females!
Fly Fishing Vocabulary
The beginning class component, led by a cheerful fly fishing fanatic named Bob, also shows me that the sport is way more complex than I expected. So much so that before I even get into the experience there are a few fly fishing vocabulary words you need to know:
- Fly: These are what you use to attract the fish. They’re not real flies, but rather artificial insects that resemble anything from mayflies to caddis made from animal fur and feathers, beads, tinsel and other materials. You can check out what’s on the market here. Dry Flies stay above the water surface and Wet Flies go below.
- Drag: When the fly moves unnaturally on the water due to the current. This is typically — though not always — a bad thing, as the fish will think it looks odd.
- Fly Casting: How you present the fly to the fish via your Fly Rod, a lightweight pole; Fly Line, the line you fish with; and Fly Reel, a narrow spool for fly fishing.
- Leaders: Orvis suggests thinking of leader as “the invisible link between the fly line and the fly.” Leader length depends on fishing conditions, the size of the fly and the type of water being fished. All leaders have Tippet, which is the “first 20-24 inches of equal size and diameter of the leader that the fly is attached to.”
- Waders: These are like super comfortable waterproof overalls with attached boots that keep you dry when wading in the water and offer sturdy foot/ankle support.
Click here for a much more in-depth list of fly fishing vocab words.
Putting Words Into Practice
Through a mix of presentation, video and demonstration we learn the ins and outs of casting, tackle and flies, knot-tying and entomology; however, as I’m a learn-by-doing type of person what I really love is going out to practice our casting. Orvis Sandanona sits on 400 acres, so we hop in Bob’s truck and go to Potters Pond on the edge of the property to enjoy the scenery and get our muscle memory going.
While Bob warns us the water is shallow and dark with low visibility, the whimsical wooden bridge, tall grass and woodland reflections on the pond are beautiful to me. With the sun blanketing me in rays and a pole in my hand — one that I put together myself with Bob’s assistance — I set to work practicing my casting.
Now we’re not fishing yet. Fly fishing is essentially split up into two parts: the first is casting, the second is fishing. Which is why it’s imperative we get our casting technique down before actually working with flies.
The Choreography Of Casting
On the videos we saw earlier in class the narrators all looked like fly fishing ballerinas; however, it definitely isn’t as easy as it looks. Bob stands alongside me during the process providing visual tips. “Think about drinking a cup of coffee. The movement of your arm bending at the elbow when lifting the coffee is similar to the movement when making the cast.”
What really helps me is imagining casting as a choreographed dance to a “slow, speed up, stop” rhythm. Keeping my eyes on my arm to check my form, I touch my forearm to my bicep to pull the line back. Once they touch I say the word “delay” in my head, before launching the line forward toward the water and stopping short at about 30 degrees, slowly following through afterward. When I get this “dance” correct my line casts beautifully. When I do not the line falls short in sad ripples on the water, or becomes full of grass from casting too slowly behind me.
Who knew throwing a string into the water could be so complex?
The Art Of The Fly
The truth is, there’s a lot of science behind fly fishing. Before trying it for myself I never realized there were different types of lines and flies tailored to the type of water you’re fishing and what you’re trying to catch. For example, in salt water you might choose flies imitating baitfish and crustaceans, while in small streams you’d do better with terrestrial insects like ants and grasshoppers. According to Orvis up to 90% of a trout’s diet in small streams is terrestrial insects, so these rules have data to back them up.
Because of the diverse terrains and fish species in fly fishing there are many different types of flies, crafted using everything from horse hair to rabbit fur to metal beads. Flies are created to actually look like the insects they’re trying to represent in different positions.
While you can buy these flies and other tools for success, it’s ultimately up to the fly fisherman/woman to bring the fly to life. Which is why presentation in fly fishing is so important. For instance if you’re fly represents a squid you’ll need to move it quickly, as opposed to crabs and shrimp which require short strips (a fly fishing retrieval technique) with a pause in between.
Action On The Creek
After casting practice, a delicious lunch and knot tying lessons we travel to Wappingers Creek in Pleasant Valley — the next town from Millbrook — to put our practice to work and actually catch fish. The shallow creek is full of blue gills, red bass and small mouth bass waiting for us to catch (or at least, we were waiting for them). Despite not seeing many fish while wading in the water with our gear — waders and boots to keep us dry and comfortable — we have so many bite our lines.
While the other two ladies in my group — who both have fly fishing experience — catch non-stop, it takes me a bit of getting used to. Once Bob outfits me with a nymph fly, beautifully crafted from gold rib and feathers from a hare’s ear, I get nibbles; but my problem is I can’t remember to point the tip of my rod down. This means there’s too much slack in my line, so when a fish bites and I pull the rod up the line won’t go taut enough to hook the fish.
Another possible issue: dragging. As noted above, in fly fishing presentation is very important. With all the work fly crafters put into a curating making the flies, you can’t then put them in the water and have them move unnaturally. The fish will question this (yes, they’re smarter than you think!).
Fly Fishing: An Active Adventure
What’s different for me compared with fishing on my dad’s boat, where we virtually let the poles sit there until there’s a bite, is with fly fishing you’re always moving and challenging yourself. We are constantly casting and re-casting and trying to get into the psyche of the fish by moving the fly a bit to create “life” or sometimes even changing the fly itself. It’s a truly immersive nature experience.
By the end of the session I get the hang of it — I even catch three bass.
Actually let me re-phrase. I get the hang of the catching part; however, the release part proves more difficult. Despite what you see in certain photos you shouldn’t hold the fish tightly and then toss him back in. Doing this may actually cause internal damage to the fish, and even if he swims away he may die later. Moreover, you should remove hooks quickly — these should be barbless, and you may even consider keeping the fish in the water during this time — and don’t touch their very sensitive gills. These are just a few of many catch and release rules fly fishers should become familiar with.
Also keep in mind that if a fish is out of water more than two minutes there can be serious complications, so it’s important to perform resuscitation on them.
No, not mouth-to-mouth.
The procedure instead involves placing the fish in the water and moving its body upstream while holding it to get water in their gills. Do this three times — even when the fish tries to swim away — to be sure it’s okay.
Sustainability & Conservation
During the class we go over these rules, as well as stream etiquette, conservation and watershed etiquette. A few things to keep in mind when you’re on the water:
- Keep a “leave no trace” philosophy in mind. According to Bob, “tippet / leader are made of a plastic material called nylon. This material breaks down very slowly in nature. The leader takes appropriately fifty years, but this time will vary according to the thickness of the material. A six pack holder would probably take hundreds of years to biodegrade.”
- Orvis encourages catch and release fishing, practicing a “limit your kill, don’t kill your limit” philosophy. Allow fish to mature and re-produce. Despite popular belief, it’s better to release big fish that will spawn.
- Report any pollution, odors or negative impacts to conservation officials.
- Educate yourself on larger water conversation policies and issues so you can help volunteer time, resources and your own voice to helping create positive change.
- Support organizations like Trout Unlimited, the Watershed Conservancy Group, Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper.
Notes Bob, “Fly fishing is about more than catching fish. Look around you; nature abounds. The trees, flowers, birds, animals and a new and more beautiful scene occurs with each turn of the stream.”
My Future In Fly Fishing
While I don’t think I’ll be reeling in a marlin anytime soon (hey,
Rome this fly fishing woman wasn’t built in a day), I did learn a ton about a sport I had absolutely no familiarity with. Plus, I had a lot of fun in the process, and even got a certificate to commemorate my new skills.
Discount For Jessie on a Journey Readers
For those who’d like to give fly fishing a try, Orvis is offering 20% off to readers of Jessie on a Journey. To redeem please contact Orvis Schools Reservations at 866-531- 6213, and mention Jessie on a Journey for a 20% discount on their Fly Fishing School registration.
If you’d like to do some studying before gaining hands-on practice, check out Orvis’ video lesson series.