Learning Curves

Thomas Clancy helps his partner Bec take the next steps into fly fishing

Tucked away somewhere in the family home exists an ageing collection of photo albums. Inside one is a faded image, some two decades old, of my father and me playing with a fishfinder in our bathtub. The sounder was my mother’s birthday present from Dad, and we were giving it a test run. Unsurprisingly, Mum wasn’t terribly impressed with the gift at the time, which is probably why she wasn’t in the bath with us. Nowadays though, whenever I bring it up, she smiles. That’s because my father’s present was just one of many, many ploys he pursued unabashed to encourage my mother to become as interested in fishing as he was. She eventually succumbed (how could you not love fishing?), and to this day can still be found standing next to Dad on the bank of a river, with a rod in her hands and a smile on her face. Luckily for me, ploys and schemes were not needed for my partner, Bec, to become interested in fishing. Instead, it was plain old curiosity that was her undoing in the end. It was a Saturday morning and I was by the espresso machine, organising our first caffeine hit for the day. Bec had made breakfast and was sitting in the sunroom waiting patiently. Next to her on the coffee table sat my collection of FlyLife magazines and, despite never having shown any prior interest, she had one open in her lap as I emerged from the kitchen to join her. “I want to catch a trout”, she suddenly announced, as I handed her a steaming mug of coffee. “Can you please teach me to fly fish?” First steps I learnt to cast a fly rod over a decade ago. It was in my back yard, under my father’s guidance, with a clunky fibreglass 10-weight that, as he put it, gave you blisters and a buggered shoulder whenever you used it. Suffice to say it was a steep learning curve and is not an overly fond fly-fishing memory of mine. But the misery-inducing broomstick aside, learning to cast over grass in the way Dad had taught me was very effective. Least of all because it took challenges like line mending and overhanging trees out of the equation. New to the whole ‘teaching fly fishing’ thing, I decided to default to what I knew best, and taught Bec the basics of casting over the red and yellow melange of fallen autumn leaves at our local park. A dozen or so after-work lessons later, Bec felt she was ready to try her hand at the real thing. Either that, or she was sick-to-death of politely laughing at the are-the-fish-biting one-liners coming from the other park goers. The piece of water I’d chosen for Bec’s inaugural trip was perfect for first timers. The runs lent themselves to short casts and dry flies, and alternated between crystal clear shallow riffles and short, boulder-strewn pools. The quaint little stream was enclosed in lush forest of a thousand different shades of green, which made even just being there pleasurable enough. Now, getting up before dawn is a struggle for even the most committed of us, let alone someone new to the game. But after a few harsh words thrown my way from under a pillow, Bec finally roused to the smell of freshly pulled espresso. Each with a coffee in hand, we loaded the ute with our rods and packs and headed east towards the Blue Mountains. It was a shallow, bubbly run in which Bec first saw her Royal Wulff disappear at the metaphorical hands of a trout. After systematically making her way up a fishy-looking stretch of water with no response, the sprightly rainbow gave Bec an almighty surprise when it swiped at her fly. In a kneejerk reaction, she whipped the rod into the air, launching what was probably the smallest trout I have ever seen, clear out of the water. After finding her catch in the foliage behind us, she gently held the gorgeously marked little trout in the cool mountain water, sporting a grin from ear to ear. She paused for a moment to admire the little fish, before letting it slip through her fingers and back to where it came from. It was a very special moment. Next Steps If she wasn’t already enthusiatic enough before landing her first fish, Bec was now. Packages from fly shops were ending up on our doorstep addressed to her, not to me, and her YouTube recommendations list was soon full of fly fishing vlogs and how-to’s. Knowing that Aussie Flyfisher ran lessons for beginners of all levels, I contacted Josh Hutchins about enrolling Bec in one of his courses. Josh was more than happy to help, and suggested we look at his Next Steps program that was due to kick off in a few weeks. It only took a quick glance at the comprehensive two-day itinerary to make up my mind and book us in. The program was based in the Snowy Mountains and due to fall in the final weeks of the NSW trout season, which meant big, angry brown trout were a real possibility. Given the weight of the flies we’d be casting and the fish we’d be fighting, I figured a 6-weight outfit would be an ideal set-up for Bec. Wanting her to have the best experience possible over the weekend ahead, I decided it was time she had a rod to call her own. As the satisfied owner of a handful of Loop Q rods and reels, ordering Bec a 6-weight from the same range was an easy decision to make: they cast well at all skill-levels, look the business and are extremely affordable. The day before Next Steps was due to start, we packed the truck and left the early morning chill of Orange behind us and headed south, to the comparable afternoon chill of Adaminaby. Josh had booked out a small village of cabins on the outskirts of town which served as base camp for the weekend ahead. Here we would enjoy two nights of warm comfort, excellent catering and genuine camaraderie. Five guides and 14 other ‘Next Steppers’ made up our group for the weekend. The skill-level of the group was varied, with as many old hands at the sport as there were complete beginners, and everything in between. With five guides on the scene though, there was more than enough expertise and guidance to cater for everyone’s capabilities. After a hearty pub meal at the nearby Snowgoose Hotel, the group headed back to the cabins to prepare for the first morning’s fishing. After ensuring everybody that needed waders and boots had them, Josh set about organising where we all would be fishing come dawn. Next morning, five carloads of excited fly fishermen (and women) left the village at first light for the Eucumbene River. Josh had offered us his expertise for the first day of guiding and decided to take Bec to Providence Portal to short line nymph some runs he had found fish in a few days before. Bec got the swing of the technique in record time, which was a testament to both Josh’s teaching style and Bec’s natural skill. No time at all had passed when Bec reactively lifted her rod into a deep bend. With nothing much happening on the business end of the line, Josh motioned for her to hand him the rod. “I think you’re snagged, Bec,” he offered. Right on cue, the rod tip started slowly bouncing, sending a rhythmic thump down into the cork. Bec worryingly looked up at Josh for reassurance, but instead found a new seriousness to his face. “That’s a really big fish, Bec.” With her only fish-fighting experience involving hauling a fingerling into the bushes behind her, panic was understandably starting to set in. Things reached a crescendo when the fish, resplendent in buttery golden hues, leapt clear of the water to show off its immense bulk. Listening to Josh’s instruction, Bec was able to follow the fish downstream and persuade it into some calmer water. Josh was ready with the net and by all accounts the fight looked like a done deal. Devastatingly, in a final act of defiance, the brute gave one last barrel roll and popped the tippet. Although it wasn’t the ‘first’ that she had wanted, she did get her first ‘one that got away’ story. Welcome to fly fishing! After a few words of comfort from Josh, and a few words to the opposite effect for laughs, Bec was back into the action. Unfortunately, the following few hours of fishing didn’t give us any further chances. Back at the cabins, the morning’s reports from each group were discussed over a piping hot bacon-and-egg roll and coffee. Other groups had fared quite well, with fish coming from all stretches of the river. There were even a few ‘firsts’ for some of the beginners in the group, which was great to see. By the time breakfast was over, the sun was shining brightly through a cloudless sky. Fishing was then put on hold until the evening, to make way for a few hours of educational and instructional classes. These ranged from casting tuition to rivercraft and lakecraft demonstrations and even entomology lessons. They covered everything you could possibly want to know about where to find trout and how to catch them. With all the talk on how to catch trout, the group was starting to get understandably restless. Thankfully, the cooling air and fading light meant it was time to put the waders on again and head back to the river for the afternoon bite. After Bec’s morning tragedy, Josh took it upon himself to make sure she was on the board before the day was through. This time, they fished above the tree line, upstream of Dennison, and while spotting the fish wasn’t terribly hard, fooling them after an entire Saturday’s worth of pressure was. With the afternoon getting away from us, Josh confidently pointed Bec to a run he was sure would hold some willing fish. On her second or third cast, the revealing white flash of a trout’s open mouth signified she’d had a take. With words of encouragement excitedly shouted from Josh, Bec raised the rod and struck into a solid little fish of a pound and a half. No chances were taken with the net job this time and, after a spirited fight, Bec was kneeling alongside Josh in the water, proudly admiring her catch. Spirits around the campfire were high that night, with tales of fish caught and lost, fuelling the good times. Soon enough, the dying embers and empty wine bottles signified it was time for bed, and with most of the group in a comatose state after a first-class feed, there were few objections. The rest of the weekend was spent in similar fashion: good food, good fishing and good company. As much as we wished it would never end, it was soon time to say goodbye to our new friends and the fantastic fishing we’d experienced, and begrudgingly head back to reality. Future steps Bec’s transformation from complete novice to competent fly fisher in just a few short months has been a monumental achievement. Watching someone you care about grow to be as passionate about something as you are, is an indescribable feeling and one I recommend everyone should experience. Sharing fly fishing with Bec has brought about a whole new level of appreciation for the sport, and I can now see why to this day, some 20 years after that infamous fishy birthday present, Mum and Dad still stand side-by-side on the beach together, rods in hand.

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