Last weekend I traveled to Roscoe, NY, to do something I’ve needed to do for a long time: take a fly-casting lesson. After twenty-plus years of fly-fishing, you’d think I would have found time to take a lesson, but there you are. If you can catch fish, I thought, why take a lesson? Like, if you can swim freestyle, why take a swim lesson?
It’s a funny thing, this putting yourself in the position of being a student. In my role as a swim teacher and coach, it’s sometimes easy to forget what a leap it is to open yourself to scrutiny and the possibility of failure and humiliation as you struggle to learn a new skill. I’m not a bad fisherman, but I felt increasingly vulnerable and fragile as I got off at the Roscoe exit and headed into the Catskill region that is the cradle of fly-fishing in America. As I drove along the fabled Beaverkill toward the home of Floyd Franke, my instructor for the weekend, I was gaining even more admiration for the swimmers and non-swimmers who come to me and to Go Swim for lessons.
I’d been in awe of Floyd Franke when I met him at a fishing show, and now, as I pulled into his driveway, I was feeling totally intimidated. The guy is a Certified Master Casting Instructor; in fact, he chairs the committee that determines which casting instructors will get certified by the Federation of Fly Fishers, and he helps determine the tests they will take. Floyd’s idea of a good time is to suspend a hoola hoop 5 feet in the air, stand back 35 feet, and then cast a fly through the hoop. Floyd is also being groomed to take over as head of the prestigious Joan Wulff School of Fly Fishing, when that wonderful and famed lady retires. My secret hope was that I wouldn’t have to cast too much in front of Floyd. He’d teach me some simple move that would immediately double my casting distance and accuracy. As a swim instructor, I should have known better.
When I arrived at Floyd’s home, he and my husband (who’d arrived a day earlier) were in the living room false-casting something that looked like the world’s best cat toy. It was kind of a sawed-off fly rod, with a foam grip, and the fly line was a 6-foot length of thick, day-glow yarn. They were trying to make the tip of the "rod" travel in a straight line along one wall, right up near the ceiling.
"It’s all about getting the rod tip to travel in a straight line," said Floyd. "When you can get that, the fly line does all the work." I didn’t realize it at the time, but THIS was the simple move that would immediately double my casting distance and accuracy. It seemed so simple, and Floyd made it look so easy. With quick, short flicks of his hand, he got that piece of day-glow yard to travel right along the edge of the ceiling, from one end of the room to the other. When he handed me the cat toy, I proceeded to lasso a lampshade on my first back cast, and then sent the yarn into a limp heap on the sofa. I had a LONG weekend ahead of me.
It was weird. I could understand all the concepts Floyd was explaining. They were uncannily similar to swimming concepts. For example, the thing about the rod tip traveling along a straight line is akin to learning how to balance your body in the water. Once you master balance, the water does most of the work of holding you up and you can focus on propulsion and speed. The key concepts of swimming and fly-casting are easy to grasp, mentally, but it’s another story to make them happen, physically. In fly-casting as in swimming, it takes thousands of correct repetitions and a lot of thought to make things happen correctly and automatically.
I struggled all weekend with the rod-tip thing…with balance. And all weekend I was aware that the biggest hurdle to my mastering the basics was learning to RELAX, especially when I was under Floyd’s close scrutiny. It was clear that all Floyd wanted to do was help me get it right, but I nevertheless found it unnerving to be under his eye. It was hard to relax enough to LEARN. Do all my swimmers and students go through this, I wondered? I vowed to be more understanding next time I went to the pool.
After our indoor, yarn-casting session, we went outdoors…but still not to the water. (Fly-casting is totally like swimming in that you need to do lots of drills before you start to put things together.) On his huge front lawn, Floyd had strung a 100-foot piece of yellow rope, anchored with a tent stake at either end. He positioned me near the middle of the rope, and had me hold my fly rod so that the tip was right on the rope. The drill was to cast the rod so that its tip traveled right along the rope. If the tip moved too much into my side of the "court," it meant I was using my wrist too much. It also meant the fly line wasn’t working as it should, and, sure enough, it always meant my "fly" (a piece of day-glow yarn) wasn’t landing where it should. I was having to relearn EVERYTHING about how I cast — body position, grip, wrist and arm movement, even eye movement. There was SO MUCH to learn. Floyd was a good teacher in that he was giving me just one thing to think about at a time, but by mid morning he had given me so many "one things" that they were getting jumbled in my head and I went into overload. "Get a grip here, B," I told myself. "Pretend you’re swimming…just pick one thing and FOCUS. "
Finally, I started to get it. I relaxed. I focused on just the rod tip. Things were coming together. Then Joan Wulff happened to drive by and stopped to see what her top instructor was doing. In swimming terms, this is a like being in the middle of a body-dolphin lesson with Glenn and having a mermaid show up. Kermit happened to be the student when she arrived, and he later said his legs felt like jelly when Joan started to help him. I felt intimidated, just being on the sidelines. But as I watched her take hold of Kermit’s casting hand and guide it through the correct arc, and watched her start to sway in rhythm, almost WILLING him to get the correct rhythm, too, it was a lesson for me in how to take a lesson. Good teachers want only that you should learn. They don’t care that you might be less accomplished than they are. They have a passion and want only to share it with you. To be a good student, you have to open yourself to review and change and suggestion. You have to approach the lesson with an open mind. Even if you think you already know how to do something, you have to be prepared to reevaluate and relearn all that you know. And you have to learn to relax.
After our lesson on Floyd’s lawn, we fished for about an hour in the famous Junction Pool, where the Beaverkill joins the Willowemoc. We didn’t catch anything, and I immediately reverted to my old bad casting habits. But at least now I know what I’m doing wrong and what I need to do to fix it. And I’m committed to the 10,000 casts it will take to get it right. When we got home, Kermit and I purchased one of the day-glow, indoor casting rigs, and strung a 100-foot piece of yellow cord in the backyard. We’ve been drilling every day, and can’t wait to GO FISH.