People sometimes struggle with learning a new skill, and the ones with good memories clearly recall the discouragement years, even decades later. Folks from the latter group make compassionate instructors.

Recently on a central Maine river, I pondered this theory about empathic teachers while feeling sorry for Heather, my oldest daughter. She was dead-drifting a floating fly in a full-blown, blue-winged olive hatch and missing strike after strike. (“Dead-drifting” means floating naturally on the surface film or in the current with a slightly slack line.)

When dead-drifting emergers or dry flies in my early teens, I faced the same maddening challenge and distinctly remember the frustration with hook setting. I have also taught fly-fishing seminars since 1974 and watched myriad newbies confronting the same dilemma.

Here’s the problem: When fish rise to a free-floating fly, they sip the imitation and spit it out quicker than the caster can say, “Oh, poop!”

The technique for coping with a quick take and rejection follows: With the non-rod hand, lightly pinch the fly line between the index finger and thumb just in front of the rod handle. Make sure to hold it with the line going straight up from the finger and thumb to the first stripping guide. The line must be tight between those two points and all the way to the tip guide.

When fish take a fly, the hand holding the line pulls down and away while the rod hand crisply lifts the rod tip up and back. That tactic tightens the line and sets the hook — hopefully without breaking the thin tippet.

Which gets back to the finger-and-thumb hold. When a heavier fish strikes with the finger and thumb on the fly line — so goes the theory — the resistance pulls the line away before the tippet breaks. If the caster uses four fingers and thumb with a death grip, it’s easy to snap the delicate tippet.

On that recent day with Heather, salmonids rose with reckless abandon for dead-drifting mayfly duns and emergers on the surface. As multiple missed strikes piled up, her face started to look plenty long.

I understood her disappointment after going through it myself and teaching fly-fishing seminars, where I’d tell participants they’d miss 20 strikes in a row with floating flies before starting to get the hang of it.

Heather casts superbly and plays fish well, and through the years, she has fished nymphs or baitfish imitations after quartering across and downstream. When fish hit, they hook themselves because the line hangs tightly in the current. That day, though, she was mastering a new skill. Also, she was confronting three other roadblocks:

To complicate the common difficulty of setting the hook with a floating fly, fish were targeting a size 24 mayfly imitated by a blue-winged olive dry fly or emerger — insects as small as a mosquito. Such a miniscule fly makes it 10 times more difficult to drive the hook’s point home.

Also, the tiny fly dictated a 6x or 7x tippet with a diameter as fine as a spider web — easily breakable when setting the hook or playing a fish.

With micro patterns, aggressively setting the hook can whisk the fly from the salmonid’s maw.

Small fish have a cavernous mouth in comparison to a tiny fly. If a caster pulls on the line and rod too quickly, even with a proper strike and great reflexes, then the fly may slide out without snagging cartilage.

To set the hook with a size 24 fly, the hook must be ultra-sharp and the strike paradoxically crisp but ever so gentle — a tactic best described by an image. Fly rodders pretend the hook has snagged onto a spider-web strand, and they want to tighten the line quickly without breaking the web.

When missing strikes had disheartened Heather to the core, we went to a bass pool to cast a baitfish imitation, quartering across and downstream.

Before she cast, I explained how to cast a heavier fly on a light leader:

Make a softer casting stroke so the leader doesn’t kink up.

Wait two or three seconds longer for the back-cast to straighten out.

A 15-inch smallmouth grabbed the streamer and broke the 6x tippet in a wink, prompting me to change to a heavier diameter. I should have done that anyway before the cast.

Finally, though, Heather landed a smallmouth about the same size as the lost one, and the day started looking up.

Eventually, we went back to the salmonid pool and continued the lesson on setting the hook on tiny, floating flies, but as I said, newbies must miss 20 to learn the difficult skill, enough to make a saint swear.

Heather remained clean-mouthed but was in a world of bother.

I hoped she would remember the difficult lesson years later when teaching others to fish dead-drifted flies on a somewhat slack line — a lesson in adroitness as well as in patience.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

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