I was never a good student, right from the beginning. I went through the first grade twice, probably because my head was anywhere but school. It was outside building tree houses, it was shooting my little red fiberglass long bow at the old hay target in the yard, it was on Saturday morning cartoons and Sunday afternoon Godzilla movies. Not addition and subtraction, not learning to read, and not learning to write my letters in cursive. That last one may date me just a bit. Once we hit division in the third grade I had pretty much had enough of numbers and math, and by the fourth grade I was such a horrible student that my parents pulled me out of the Catholic school I went to and tried me in a public school. This only made me worse, and I was returned to the nuns before the end of the year and I think it was accepted, not necessarily liked, but accepted, that I wasn’t going to be an A+ student, or even just straight A’s, and probably not even B’s. By high school as far as I was concerned the only thing I needed to know was James Hetfield and Metallica ruled the tape deck and there were Largemouth Bass to be stalked in the pond next door. I took the same math class, Math 1, for three years, finally passing it with a 74 my senior year, in a class of kids who were two years behind me. For three years of French class, I made it to French 2, and the only thing I’ve ever been able to convey in French is “My name is Mark, and I don’t speak French.” I actually used that once in an elevator in Montreal. True story. Like I said, I’ve never been a good student.
Learning to fly fish might have been easier on me had I gone to someone who could have taught me, if I had the capacity to be a good student. Instead I struggled for two years, to keep the spinning rod out of my hands and to keep casting the 6wt my father had bought me. I’ve never been very good at sticking with a whole lot, I even consider myself a quitter for the most part, but that’s how I know this whole fly fishing thing is right. I stuck with it through a lot of frustration and swearing. I guess you could say the fly rod was the one teacher that actually got my attention and held it. I’ve been sitting in the front of the class room listening to the fly rod and taking notes now for five years. I’ve moved up through a few grades, but I have no idea at what point you graduate, if that ever even really happens.
Someone asked me this past year if I practice, you know, if I go out in the front yard and cast. Each new rod I’ve gotten I’ve cast once in the front yard, once, like five or six casts that one time, and then it’s all on the water from that point on. I’m pretty lucky, even though I live in suburbia hell, the two cars in the drive way and white picket fence neighborhood type place, because about a hundred and fifty yards out my back door is a creek and so when I was asked do I practice, my answer was “Yes. I fish.” It’s only my opinion, but the best practice doesn’t happen on the front lawn, even if you’re casting to a target the size of a red Solo Cup. The lawn doesn’t have a current, and most likely one of the reasons you’re casting there is you have lots of room, you’re clear of trees on your back cast to a point at least. It’s a false sense of security and accomplishment to a degree.
If you don’t have any fish filled water close by then by all means, keep casting at home and honing your skills how you can. A fly rod that never bends with the load of a looping fly line teaches nothing. And while some anglers get the basic cast down fairly quickly, others will struggle with it. But just as live fire exercises separate the men from the boys in the military, so does fishing on a river or lake compared to on the lawn. It’s the real deal. Having water so close, if I only have 30 minutes of free time, I look at that as about 26 minutes of fishing time taking away the 4 minute walk there and back. Let’s say you have a river, a creek, a pond, a lake, something, about 15 minutes away, but you only have an hour of free time. Sure, you could string up the rod and go out front and cast for an hour to a bucket on the lawn. Sure…you’re probably going to get bored too. Or, humor me here, you could figure it’s a fifteen minute drive both ways, giving you a half hour of “practice” time on actual water with real fish. Real obstacles like trees and bushes and fences and maybe the occasional Muskrat or Beaver too. And moving water, whether it be a river current or waves on the lake. Could be Bluegills, could be Trout… Does it really matter? You’ve got to be a good student to become a proficient fly caster. And you’ve got to become a proficient fly caster to get the sense of accomplishment and joy, the peace that comes with fly fishing. The cast is what everything else hinges on in fly fishing. This is what you’ve got to explain to the people you know who want to learn but you know they’ll give up quickly. They have to put the time in to reap the rewards. There is no better place to practice then in the real world, and they have to be a good pupal of the fly rod before they can be the principle of the school. Practice? Yes, simply fish.