Fishing on the fly

July 22, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

BEAVER CREEK - Fly fishers call theirs the "silent sport," veteran fly angler John Clatterbaugh Jr. said.

The quiet rhythm of his cast fly line whipping again and again into rippling Beaver Creek near Hagers-town on a recent summer afternoon underscored nature's melody - bird song, rustling leaves, gurgling water.

"I fish all year 'round, and I try to catch at least one fish on the fly every month," said Clatterbaugh, 74, of Hagerstown. "Sometimes I just lay the rod down and watch the birds."

The opportunity to commune with nature coupled with the challenge of casting a line with artificial flies continues to attract newcomers to the sport of fly-fishing, he said. The sport's popularity - especially among children, women and retirees - has increased nationwide, said Clatterbaugh, a member of the Federation of Fly Fishers Mid-Atlantic Council.


"You don't need a lot of expensive equipment to enjoy fly-fishing," he said. "This isn't elitist."

Clatterbaugh, who's been fly-fishing for 60 years, teaches the angling technique at Hagerstown Community College and through Elderhostel, a nonprofit organization that offers learning adventures for people ages 55 and older. He said a desire to learn, some patience, and an initial investment of about $200 are all one needs to start fly-fishing.

Learn the basics before gearing up

Clatterbaugh suggested fly-fishing fans first learn as much as they can about the sport by talking to experienced fly anglers, reading books (such as L.L. Bean's "Fly-Fishing Handbook") and taking a basic fly-fishing class to learn about the equipment, knots, fish feeding habits and techniques needed to land specific fish.

"Don't buy any equipment until you find out what's suitable," he said.

Basic freshwater fly-fishing gear for beginners might include:

  • A moderately priced 8 1/2- or 9-foot, 5- or 6-weight graphite fishing rod. Graphite is the stiffest of the three main fly rod materials, including bamboo and fiberglass. Well-made bamboo rods are prized among fly fishers, but these lightweight rods tend to be pricey. Fiberglass rods are generally the cheapest, but they are heavy for their size, according to information from the Federation of Fly Fishers at on the Web.

  • Floating line, which is used to present a fly on or near the water's surface. Fly rods are labeled to correspond to the line: If you have a 6-weight rod, you need a 6-weight line.

  • A single-action fly reel, which is basically a spool to hold line surrounded by a frame. The reel balances the rod, Clatterbaugh said.

  • A 20-pound braided nylon backing. This thick, extra line tied to the spool provides a large base to spool the fly line over so you can get it onto the reel faster when pulling in a fish.

  • Tapered leaders, which generally are composed of monofilament nylon that is tapered to a relatively small diameter tippet at the end. Leaders are the part of the system the fish is most likely to see other than the fly, according to the Federation of Fly Fishers.

  • One dozen flies. The type of fly used will depend upon the target fish. Clatterbaugh suggested starting with six dry flies, which imitate the adult stage of small insects, and six nymphs, which imitate wingless insects in their aquatic life stage. He said dry flies ape the larger mayflies preferred by bass in the Potomac River; olive-, black- and brown-hued stoneflies also tend to work well in local waterways; and wooly worms have proven the most successful fly overall. Clatterbaugh said flies must be made of synthetic fur or hair or natural materials; molded plastic flies, which are considered lures in Maryland, usually aren't allowed in designated fly-fishing areas.

  • A pair of nippers to cut fishing line cleanly so it runs smoothly through the water.

  • Forceps or long-nosed pliers to remove fish hooks.

  • Polarized sunglasses.

  • Wide-brimmed hat.

The novice fly fisher doesn't need a pair of hip waders, but the waterproof legwear does make getting into prime position more comfortable, Clatterbaugh said.

Fly-casting takes 'practice, practice, practice'

Clatterbaugh compared the basic fly-casting method to slinging paint off a long-handled brush - lift, stop, pause, sweep forward, accelerate, stop. "Off of that you can build anything you want, any kind of cast," he said. "Learn the basic physics, and the techniques will come later. Practice, practice, practice."

The trick's in the flick, Clatterbaugh said.

As the line is cast, energy from your arm is transferred through the rod to the line, to roll forward the loop that formed during the initial casting pause. Two of the most common casting mistakes are "hinging the wrist" rather than keeping the wrist and forearm in a straight line, and trying to "power the rod" rather than letting the rod do the work, Clatterbaugh said.

Casting "takes more finesse than muscle power," he said. "The fly goes along for the ride. You're trying to imitate food."

Most freshwater fish feed at dawn and dusk - the best times for fly-fishing - because fish don't function as well in bright light, Clatterbaugh said.

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