Fly Fishing In A Stream: Part Ecology Lesson, Part Exercise In Mindfulness, Part Good Old Fun

Aug 27, 2018

For those who don’t fly fish, people standing perfectly still in the middle of a stream may seem perplexing. 

But if you scramble down the bank and into the river to talk to a fly fishing enthusiast, you may find they are doing more than "just" fishing. They are also applying insect and fish ecology lessons, and — for some — practicing a kind of mindfulness.

John Conrad drives me to a parking place near his employer’s store, The Fly Rod Shop in Stowe. He closes the door to his Suburu, picks up his rod and tells me to follow him.

“What’s the river that we’re going to here?” I ask.

“You know, if I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he says, with just a hint of a smirk. "Let's just say it's a nice stream that's coming off the eastern slope of the Green Mountains."

Fly fishing can seem like a bizarre enterprise. One first takes materials like thread, beads, the facial hair of rabbits and the rump-feathers of a duck, and sews them onto a hook in roughly the shape of an insect.

Then, one must fling this concoction through the air and onto water, letting it drift in such a way as to convince a fish it is an insect.

“We’re gonna be brook trout fishing, and these are all native wild Vermont brook trout,” Conrad says, gesturing to the stream, which is running pretty low.

Conrad has two flies on his line. One is supposed to look like a bug larva floating under the water — it’s made from a metal bead and thread. Another, with a foam body and rubber legs, is roughly the shape of a grasshopper.

“I’m trying to double my chances,” he says.

Fly fishing is about tricking fish into thinking your “fly” is an actual fly. And to do that, you have to know how fish think.

“They like to be under a canopy," Conrad says. "So we have a great canopy here. And they hide in the substrate."

The fish want food and oxygen flowing past them, without having to swim against a current, “so they’re under rocks, a lot of times,” he says. "And they come out of nowhere, which is kind of pretty cool. So you have to ... kind of be pretty quick on the draw."

"That's why I like brook trout fishing, 'cause it's silly. You get what you can get. It's just being here. You know, and some folks take fishing — especially fly fishing — too doggone seriously. It’s fun!" — John Conrad, fly fishing guide

Now, try not to picture Conrad out in the middle of a river, casting a big curling line through the air. Despite our full-length waders, the water hardly hits our ankles: this is a tiny stream.

Instead, Conrad pulls the fly toward him in his hand, bending the rod back like a slingshot. Then, he gently snaps just a few feet of line over the water. He says it is called a “bow-and-arrow” cast.

A few times, as we talk, Conrad gets a fish on his hook and halfway in before it leaps free. He says it used to matter more to him whether he got a lot of fish or big fish, and whether he got them all the way into a net. The more he fishes, he says, the less he worries.

“That’s why I like brook trout fishing, 'cause it's silly. You get what you can get. It’s just being here," Conrad says. "You know, and some folks take fishing — especially fly fishing — too doggone seriously. It’s fun!”

Of course, to be good at casting and hooking a fish is a serious skill, too. And, for Conrad at least, it takes a kind of mindfulness.

“It’s like a Tai Chi or yoga,” he says, “where you have to learn to relax to pull that stuff off. You know, or a martial art. I mean, they don’t generate power from being tense.”

Conrad says he has been practicing Tai Chi for many years: "There are a lot of similarities — maintaining focus, you know, putting your idea somewhere."

At one point, amid that focus, Conrad's rod bends at the tip.

“Oh there we go!” he says. A 3-inch brookie wriggles on his line.

“Oh my God, it’s a monster!” Conrad yells, tipping his rod up so the fish will swing in toward him.

A moment later, it pops off the hook and swims free.

Many of us share a connection with a river, lake, stream or pond. Throughout the summer, listen to VPR to hear personal stories from Vermonters about how bodies of water around the state affect their lives, and how they've seen them change over time. Tweet @vprnet to share your favorite bodies of water in Vermont.