A College Course on Fly Fishing by Willard Greenwood
Since 2009, I have taught a course on fly fishing at Hiram College in Ohio that has involved over a 125 students, hundreds of essays, nail knots, blood knots, emergency spider hitches, one giant grass carp and two steelhead.
I have taught all manner of students—trout bums in training, future fishing guides, dental students going into the Navy, veterans, accountants, biologists, English majors, physics majors from Japan and many students from beautiful Ohio. You get the idea.
Besides the mechanics, I introduce them to the culture and history of fly fishing, its ethos—the guiding beliefs and principles of our community and subculture.
Whether or not they continue fly fishing, they will have an appreciation for the art, and they will understand how it connects humans to the beauty of nature.
The Bamford Effect
The fly fishing course is team-taught with my colleague, Chris Bamford, an industrial psychologist who loves bugs. Complementing my lectures on the dry versus wet fly debate and the importance of imitating aquatic insects, Chris discourses on the origins of our sport by teaching the life cycle of the mayfly, relevant patterns as well as fish habits related to the mayfly.
Chris works in the field of industrial psychology and also makes his own fishing videos, which he describes as “his only creative outlet.” The flaws of Facebook are well known to my students, but he gets them to re-purpose that platform as the ultimate fly fishing forum.
So, when Chris is not fishing for giant trevally in the Seychelles or not taking bluegill from Geauga County metro ponds or not travelling to China, he is showing one of his many videos to slightly surprised college students. In particular he has some footage of the run-up to Jurassic Lake in Argentina set to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” that was actually used by a lodge in Argentina to promote its expeditions.
Although I love Pink Floyd, my favorite video shows Chris catching a blue shark set to the heavy metal music of White Zombie.
Some Stories Behind the Numbers
Because we require students to supply their own fly rods, the first day of the course is in itself a great fish story. We see old mass produced bamboo fly rods scavenged from a relative’s attic, twenty dollar start-up kits purchased off Amazon, borrowed gear, a spinning rod or two has made an appearance and vintage fiberglass rods that are now back in style.
We encourage students to include personal histories into their essays. Field trips to trout clubs provide a lot of material as well.
Let me give you an example. Lisa had a starter rig from Cabela’s that was barely a week old and had not been fished, except for our class casting practices on the campus green. She was a dedicated and earnest angler, who learned to tie flies, knots, rig her own gear, etc. She wanted to fly fish with her father. Her beginner’s luck story involved a broken rod and a large fish that she described in one of her essays.
During the first hour at a trout club, she hooked a brood stock or a very large holdover. “Holdover” is a romantic way of thinking about a fish that has survived in a place like Sunnybrook Trout Club. I’d like to think that the trout that blew up my student’s five weight might have been one of those wild fish. Of course, her father was impressed, and they had a great fish story to share.
The trout club field trip supplies lots of good material for these personal essays. It never ceases to amaze me that the act of fly fishing prompts serious and interesting reflection. I also try to give them some anecdotes to guide them.
After discussing Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It, I tell them about a rabbi from Brooklyn who, inspired by the movie, went to Montana not only to fly fish but to go to the actual church where Norman’s father preached. The rabbi wanted to meet the current pastor of the church. Stories like that inspire students to think and to write about their own lives and families in relation to fly fishing.
One of my Japanese students, who was a physics major, wrote about how his family bonded over cooking a traditional fish recipe in Niigata. I’ve sent Ohio students out into the world armed with a fly rod. This past summer, I received some photos from a student who may be on his way to being a trout bum. He had driven all the way to Alaska for a summer job and had fallen in with some people who put him onto king and sockeye runs. He is now working for the Sierra Club.
Another student of mine, a massive football player, who knew virtually nothing about fly fishing, got his first job partially because of this course. He was in an interview with the head of a local HVAC company and noticed that the man had a picture of himself with an Atlantic salmon that he caught with a fly rod.
My student could identify the species and asked some informed questions about fly fishing. He mentioned the course and a conversation ensued that had nothing to do with work but landed him a job. I saw him at an alumni event recently, and he told me that his father has also taken up fly fishing.
Guiding an entire class, which is usually between 15 and 17 students, tests our abilities, patience and responsibility. One year the trip began in a thunderstorm. Chris and I fished in the thunder and lightning, while most of the class stayed indoors. Was that bad judgment on our part? No question. Did students ignore our advice about dressing for bad weather? Some did. It can be challenging to guide a good-sized group of novices, but it’s always memorable.
On these trips, students bring flies that they have tied. I have helped students tie on flies, get flies out of trees, unhook fish, get hooks out of hats, replace entire leaders and, of course, given lots of casting advice. On occasion, near the end of the trip, Chris will take inventory and seek out the most disappointed fishless angler among the group, take their rod, cast, hook a fish, hand them the rod and then stroll away as if he was never there.
The input on these trips can test the limits of me and my forceps—yet, students do endeavor to unhook their own fish, which can be a celebration when it’s their first fish caught on a fly rod.
Students get a participation grade for the course.
Chris and I are always available to help, but we encourage independence. Consequently, students repair their own leaders, rely on and enjoy each other’s company. We also encourage students to embrace whatever aspect of the ethos of the course that appeals to them, whether it’s keeping fish to cook and eat or trying to identify brook, brown, and cutthroat trout. I have also witnessed disappointment when students inquire about the price of membership at Sunnybrook or Rockwell Springs Trout Club.
A trout club is a kind of hyper-reality that has no analog in the real world. In short, I tell them that you wouldn’t want to go to Disneyland every week and that, in theory, you might not even want to go at all.
So in addition to these elite trout clubs, we take students to local rivers (Chagrin, Conneaut and the Grand) and a fantastic farm pond that is very close to the college. In fact, it is owned by an alumnus, who generously lets us torment its bluegill, crappie and largemouth bass. This pond also has three enormous resident grass carp. Chris and I have been offering an automatic “A” to anyone who can hook and land one of the grass carp.
After seven years one of our students did hook one, but he did not get an “A” because he needed two friends to help him land it. Three students plus one grass carp equals an “A-.” Some might consider this grade inflation.
Only two steelhead have ever been hooked on our field trips. The first one was caught by Daren Niemi, a student who was already a very accomplished fly fisherman and guide and is working on a novel about steelhead fishing. Daren called out, “Willard!” and he had indeed hooked a fabulous steelhead on the fabulous Conneaut. The fish was, as they say, too big to fail.
The second steelhead came about eight years later. Through a series of fortunate events, I was able to take my class to a private section of the Chagrin River. One of my students was a senior and a trout bum in training. Kyle read everything, wrote great essays, and tied good flies. He and a friend split off from the group and went upstream and around the bend where he not only hooked the second steelhead of the course, but landed the first one. This was the first fish he had ever caught on a fly rod. His friend took some jumpy footage with predictably loud and obscene audio.
Requiring students to bring their own fly rods is key to the course. It’s their textbook and how they guide themselves. Many students have connected with parents and grandparents over an unused fly rod. One student showed up with a gorgeous bamboo fly rod—it was not a collectible, but still a great rod.
He pierced his Cleveland Browns hat with a back cast before he caught a 3-pound lake-run smallmouth in the Conneaut River, which, by the way, was the first fish he caught on a fly rod.
I Don’t Need To Know Everything
I have also had the opportunity to teach several veterans. Some of my family members have served, and I have done a few Wounded Warrior outings. The last time I taught this course, two guys, who had been in combat but had not met each other before the course, saw each other catch their first trout on a fly rod.
One guy was so excited at hooking a fish that he just walked backwards until the trout was on land. These two veterans (there were five total in this course) stayed in the same spot fishing and talking for most of the day. When they aren’t taking classes, it looks like they spend their free time lifting the entire gym.
After this course, I saw another one of the students, a Marine, with his young son at Cedar Point, the roller coaster capital of America. My wife and I were there with our sons as well. I immediately recognized him due to the tattoos, which I had seen in person and in a few memorable YouTube videos that he uploaded for class.
In one video, his son said “Everyone else knows how to fly fish, why don’t you?”
The father found this comment funny as did several other students who posted about the video. That afternoon we spoke briefly. He had recently bought a farm with a pond, and he was teaching his son how to fly fish. I wanted to ask about his son’s mother, but I don’t need to know everything.
Final Notes on Natural History of Trout Clubs
The trout clubs that we fish are located in Ohio’s famous Cold Creek region.
The natural history of these creeks is quite unique. They resemble an English chalk stream, though the water in some of these creeks is anoxic. The water pours out of an underground aquifer and feeds Sandusky Bay several million gallons of water per day. Consequently, the temperature is stable, but the water has to be artificially oxygenated. Stocked fish, if they are lucky enough not to get caught, can survive the winter.
On a brisk spring day in April, I drove an hour and thirty-six minutes to the Sunnybrook Trout Club in Sandusky for an outing sponsored by Trout Unlimited.
It was great steelhead weather—overcast, rain and drizzle with the occasional snowflake. Despite a lifetime of fishing, I’m not sure if my hands had ever been this cold. When I heard the club’s lunch bell, I realized that I had been in that fabled state of flow where time disappears, or more accurately, speeds up perceptibly. The burger that I ate at lunch served as a lovely hand warmer. After the day was over, I struck up a conversation with the club’s owner and told him a bit about myself and the course while getting his story. Consequently, I managed to parlay this visit into glorious field trips for my students.
We have been fortunate enough to connect with a Hiram College trustee, Don Kaatz, who supports the course and is himself an excellent fly fisherman. He has provided for multiple field trips to Rockwell Springs Trout Club in Clyde, Ohio. Students get to fish for free, have lunch and even have the fish they catch filleted and packaged, all due to Don’s generosity.
At Rockwell Springs, students have a chance to cast a dry fly upstream to a rising trout in a way that approximates the tradition of the sport’s founding. A particularly good day of fishing inspired a student essay entitled, “My Dry Fly Life.”
For some students this outing caps their senior year of college, and for others it initiates them into the mysteries of the trout bum universe. We all know that fly fishing can provide quite an education.
So why shouldn’t a college education provide some fly fishing.
- written by Willard Greenwood