By Bill Cooper
I love to fly fish our cold, free-flowing trout streams during the winter months. I’m fortunate enough to be able to hit my favorite streams on weekdays, and thus avoid the weekend fly fishermen. I prefer dark, cold, even snowy days for my adventures. Brown trout are very sensitive to light. Dark days bring better fishing. It’s time to begin those winter time forays, and I want to become a better fly fisherman, maybe a great fly fisherman.
Attaining the distinction of being a great fly fisherman is not for the faint of heart, nor the slothful person. One must at least be a decent fly fisherman before attempting to hone skills to near perfection. It takes time and lots of practice to become truly great.
Great fly fishermen are about as rare as 20-pound rainbow trout. They do exist, but you don’t encounter them often in a lifetime. To advance from good to great in the world of fly fishing, casting abilities must be spot on. Being a decent caster won’t cut it. The difference between a decent fly caster and a great one is the ability to handle every situation that presents itself on a trout stream with an appropriate cast.
I’ve fished in the presence of numerous world class fly casters in my travels to fly fishing destinations. Cpt. Encalada, from the Yucatan, is my favorite fly fisherman. Cpt. Encalada makes casting 120 feet of line to a pod of cruising tarpon look like child’s play. He’s coached me several times along the jungle lined coasts of the Yucatan. The thrill of making a perfect cast and seeing a tarpon explode on the fly is one of grandest thrills available in the world of fly fishing.
While salmon fishing on the Thorne River on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, I learned to effectively cast and fish large streamers from the author of the popular trout fishing book, “Trout Are Stupid,” Walt Fulps. Walt is an incredible fly fisherman, with an extensive knowledge of not only casting, but how to fly fish for a wide variety of trout and salmon across the nation.
Mark VanPatten, a native son of Missouri, hosted the popular PBS show, “The Tying Bench,” for over 20 years. Mark and I have fly fished together on many occasions. I learn something from him every time we are on a stream together. He is a virtual wizard when it comes to stream ecology and aquatic life. He is a superb fly tier and a guru of matching the hatch or finding the perfect fly to imitate the aquatic insects and invertebrates on any given trout stream in the Ozarks.
Coastal snook have always fascinated me. At the invite of the Ft. Myers/Sanibel Island Tourism Commission, I traveled south a few years ago to fish with Endless Summer Charters. Cpt. Bill Hammond proved to be an exceptional salt water fly fisherman and coached me to almost perfection at casting streamers up under overhanging mangrove tangles. Hooking snook was one thing but working them out of the root wads and deadfalls was a skill all its own.
I’ve fly-fished from the Appalachians to the Rockies and from Alaska to the Yucatan. All along the way, I’ve met fly fishermen who have honed their skills to the point ion making Brad Pitt, the star of “A River Runs Through It, envious.
The most detail oriented fly fisherman I’ve ever met is Damon Spurgeon, of Rolla. Spurgeon owns Cardiac Mountain Outfitters and has built an enormous clientele base in three years. Damon’s patience is clearly exhibited in his attention to detail with every aspect of the fly fishing world. He studies a stream and scouts often to maximize his efforts on every trip. On numerous occasions I’ve watched Damon steadily catch fish while others nearby failed to acquire a single hook-up.
As much as I’ve learned over the course of 50 years of fly fishing, I’ve realized there is still much to learn and achieve, before I can ever consider myself a great fly fisherman. I may never attain that goal, but the inspiration is in the attempt.
Time on the water is as important as any facet of learning to become a better fly fisherman. With rod and line in hand fly fishers put the skills they have learned to the test. You can fish only a few days a year and be an adequate fly angler. However, to gain great stature, you’ll need at least 50 days on the water. Muscle memory and mental awareness are sharpened only through regular sessions on the water. Those who first 100 to 200 days a year stand a far better chain of reaching the startup of great fly fishers. Experience is the best teacher.
“You gotta love it,” Spurgeon said, “In order to hone your skills to the max, you need to buy the best equipment you can afford and use it often. The rewards of becoming skillful with a fly rod are self-gratifying. The virtual peace and feeling of well-being that comes with this adventure is a piece of heaven, Nirvana, or an earnest connection with nature.”
A common thread that I’ve found that transcends the greatest of fly fishermen is the extreme connection they all feel to nature and the creator. A feeling of spiritually runs deep in fly fishermen. The first pen written material about fly fishing was Dame Julianna Berners, a Catholic nun from the 1540s. He taught fly fishing to the nuns off the Abbey of England.
A great deal of literature has been written about the spiritual connections of fly fishing. I’m undergoing an extensive study of the topic now. I hope to begin teaching a course within the next two years on The Spirituality of Fly Fishing. Perhaps we together can further our journey towards our goal of becoming a great trout fisherman.