Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

Of course, he’s likely to hook more trees than trout during the first lesson.

I managed to catch several evergreens — among other things — during my first fly- fishing excursion last week.

But before I found myself at the side of a tree-clustered river with a fly rod in hand (and a length of line leading up into the overhead foliage), I learned the fly-casting basics in the grass at Payson Park in Portland, with the help of good-humored Greg Bostater of Maine River Guides.

It can be correctly assumed that there aren’t a great deal of fish in the grass there. Although that morning the cold rain would have made an out-of-water fish feel right at home. But Bostater noted that, when you’re first learning, it’s a good idea to practice without the distraction of actual fish, keeping your focus on the cast rather than the scaled creatures flicking their tails in the water before you.

In the grass before me were two fly-fishing rods and a pair of hula hoops set 40 yards off. And to prevent an accidental hook injury during the learning process, the fishing line ended with a piece of hot pink yarn rather than a fly.

But before any haphazard rod wielding, Bostater needed to walk me through a cast step by step, the same way a golf instructor might teach you a proper swing before letting you loose with a club.

He showed me how to bend my arm, keeping my elbow close to my body. He showed me how to bring my hand up close to my ear during the back cast. He showed me how the movement starts slow, accelerates back, pauses, then accelerates forward and slows again — a multi-step movement I had trouble mimicking.

My arm felt like a rusted, staggering machine, void of the fluid back and forth I’d seen from experienced fly fishermen. But then my “fishing” experience was mostly limited to catching bluegill as a child, knee deep in muddy pond water and armed with only an empty Slurpee cup with holes poked into the bottom.

Luckily Bostater teaches fly-fishing at L.L. Bean, in addition to his guiding services, so he’s used to casting-challenged novices. He’s also used to using a few tricks of the teaching trade for folks like me who need a little extra help wrapping their brain — and arm — around the technique of this sport.

One of the tricks: the “Hello? It’s for you” cast.

Imagine how you answer a phone, he said, bringing an empty hand to his ear. You ask “Hello?” then hand it off, “It’s for you.”

“You talk on the phone, right?” he asked. Yes, I said. I’d been known to chat an ear off.

The movement, Bostater explained, was similar to fly-casting. And one most folks could relate to.

So I practiced it a few times, chanting in my head, “Hello? It’s for you. Hello? It’s for you.”

With the fictional phone call established, it was time to handle the fishing rod. Bostater explained how rods are described by different weights, much like golf clubs. The weight corresponds to the fishing line a specific rod is best suited to cast, rather than the rod itself. Unlike the light, thin line used in conventional fishing, fly-fishing line is heavy. It’s the weight of the line, I learned, that helps propel the fly.

With the rod in hand, my thumb extended forward as though I were changing the channels on a very thin remote control, I readied for my first grass cast.

My arm lifted quickly toward my ear. A pause.

Hello?

Down my arm came with a snap, like flicking paint onto a wall.

It’s for you.

The fishing line came down, puddling in spots, and the yarn fly nestled onto the wet grass halfway between me and the intended hula hoop target. My first pick up and lie down cast.

“Try it again,” Bostater said, and I did. With each attempt he suggested a longer pause on the back cast, or a tweak in the bend of my elbow or reminded me to bring my hand all the way up near my ear. He also tucked the pole handle into the sleeve of my coat to prevent me from bending my wrist. My timing was good though, he said.

We also practiced false casting — the art of casting more than once but not allowing the fly to touch the water. It’s typically used to dry the fly or to reposition a cast. It’s also used, I learned, when a fly fisherman has more interest in casting than catching a fish.

With my cast in solid novice condition, Bostater explained how to strip the line once a fly had been cast by pulling the line in quick short jerks. “So if you hear me say, ‘Strip, strip, strip,’ start pulling the line in,” he said. I said it was a good thing he explained it before we got out onto the water.

And finally to the water we went, to the banks of a small stream just off Route 302 near Windham. I pulled on a borrowed pair of boots and waders — the fisherman’s uniform — knowing the fish would still spot me as a novice under all that nylon.

Bostater’s trained eye spotted movement under the water’s surface. I couldn’t discern the difference between the movement of fish and the rippling current or the pelting rain. I borrowed his polarized sunglasses, which minimize the glint off the water. Still I had trouble.

Bostater directed me to cast into the water, near where a large branch had dropped in and submerged itself.

Only one problem: Trees were crowded behind me. Like excited observers, they seemed to bend over my shoulders for a closer look. A back cast was impossible. Instead, Bostater showed me a roll cast, drawing the pole up slowly as though frozen in the middle of a back cast. I followed suit, looking back up at my pole to ensure it wasn’t tangling with the leaves overhead.

And then I flicked my arm forward (it’s for you!), sending the fly catapulting into the arm of my jacket. I was suddenly appreciative of the rain. Were it warmer, I might be in short sleeves. With a hook in my tricep.

After another attempt, the fly made it to the water.

We cast our lines, moving down the stream when it seemed the fish upstream were unimpressed by our efforts. I snagged a few more trees, Bostater giving me tips on how to disengage the hook without yanking it. That’s the sort of maneuver that can send a hook slingshotting into your eye. It’s also another reason to be wearing sunglasses, even when the sun is on hiatus for the day.

With little action in the river, aside from my own unsteady wading, Bostater and I moved our rods to the pond at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. The trees gave me more breathing room here, though the pond grass grew increasingly clingy. I cast into the water, stripping the line in short starts until the slack piled at my feet.

A few shakes of the rod drew the weighted line back out and again I sent the line flying — a happy rhythm, but a fishless one.

I began to resign myself to a harsh fishing reality: I wasn’t catching anything. Beginner’s luck, it seemed, had no interest in me and was probably out on Sebago Lake helping an 8-year-old hook his first smallmouth bass.

Then my hand felt a tug. My fingers clenched, holding the line as I lifted the rod, it’s tip bowing down toward the water. I kept the line taut, as Bostater instructed, and started reeling. I reeled up the slack, then the line in the water until the slick brown body of a brook trout splash at the water’s surface.

I’d caught a fish.

And I’d come a long way from catching bluegill with a Slurpee cup.

 

Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 822-4056 or:

[email protected]