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Flying High

Fly Fish Texas is a family reunion, a fly-fishing school, a tackle show and a fishing trip all rolled into one.

By Larry D. Hodge

Mighty oaks grow from little acorns, and Fly Fish Texas grew out of a chance encounter between a fly-fisher teaching his grandkids to cast and a Texas Parks and Wildlife employee who thought it looked like fun. Allen Crise was teaching his grandchildren to cast at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center casting pond when former TPWD employee Jinger Knight happened by. One thing led to another, and soon Walter McLendon and other members of the Pineywoods Fly Fishers committed to organizing the first Fly Fish Texas, held in 2000. The event has since introduced thousands of people to fly-fishing, many of whom shared two common misconceptions: one, that Texas is not a fly-fishing state, and two, they could not learn to fly-fish.

Neither misconception could be further from the truth, say the seasoned fly-anglers who volunteer each year to teach everything from knot-tying to two-handing casting. "I had a television impression of Texas when I lived in Michigan - hot and dry," says Allen Crise of Glen Rose, who chairs the casting classes at Fly Fish Texas with Steven Hollensed. "Then I moved to Glen Rose and took a canoe out on the Paluxy River, and that was a turning point for me. Texas has almost 200,000 miles of rivers and streams and more lakes to fish than most states. Fishing is varied and year-round. Within a morning's drive I can fish for trout, bass, bluegills, chain pickerel and striped bass, and just a little more driving can put me in saltwater fishing for redfish, spotted seatrout or any number of deepwater fish."

"Casting a fly is not hard to learn - that's a big misconception," adds Hollensed. "The difference in fly-casting and conventional fishing is that in fly-fishing you are casting the weight of the line as opposed to the weight of the lure or bait. You have to learn to throw the line backwards, and that goes against what people have learned in the past. But I've seen this happen a lot at Fly Fish Texas: People take a casting lesson for the first time and start forming a loop, and you can almost see the light come on in their heads. They suddenly realize they can cast a fly, they can fly-fish, and they are smiling really big. That's the best thing I can think of, and that's why I feel good about Fly Fish Texas."

"Fly Fish Texas is a great show and the only event of its kind," says McLendon. "Other shows cater to people who are already fly-fishers, but we try to introduce fly-fishing to the public, and that is better."

About a thousand people attend Fly Fish Texas each year, and it takes only a few hours for them to advance from rank amateur to, well, not-so-rank amateur. Colby ("Pops") Sorrells is a fly-casting and fly-tying instructor, and he's seen the magic at work. "The best thing about Fly Fish Texas is that it is made for the person who is just starting out," he says. "Once you walk in the gate, you will be immersed in the fly-fishing community. Fly Fish Texas gives the person who's been thinking about fly-fishing but never done it the opportunity to learn all about it."

"What they will find is we take them from 'This is a fly' to 'This is a fish - you've caught one,'" explains Crise. "What amazes me is it all comes together with volunteers, instructors who know every kind of fishing in Texas, from Lake Texoma to the coast."

Volunteers at Fly Fish Texas come from all walks of life, and while some prefer fly-tying or rod-building to actual fishing, all agree on the rewards of teaching others about their passion - rewards that go far beyond landing a fish using a fly you tied yourself. "I used to teach fly-tying at the Bass Pro Shop in Grapevine," says Sorrells. "I had a man and his son attend from the time the boy was about 11 until he was 14. At the last class, the father told me, 'You could not believe the impact you've had on this kid. He was just about to get into trouble, but once we started attending the fly-tying class, all that went away.' Instead of going down a bad path, that kid went down a good path. Any time you are sharing your information and knowledge and doing something positive with them, that's the reward, and you especially see that with kids. If you take them fishing, you won't have to fish them out of trouble."

For many people, fly-fishing morphs from a way of fishing into a way of living. "We've had a lot of people who started out at Fly Fish Texas tying and went on to become well-known tiers or instructors," says Crise. "When I started there, I was just a caster, and I've now gone all the way through to becoming a master instructor - one of only three in Texas - certified by the Federation of Fly Fishers. Fly Fish Texas had a big part in that. Fly-fishing has taken over my life. I had to retire so I could take up teaching fly-fishing."

Crise's life is not all work and no play, however. "What I get out of fly-fishing is oneness with nature," he says. "Fly-fishing is very peaceful, very quiet. I worked in a nuclear power plant, and fishing was my pressure relief, my time to relax. Plus fish don't live in ugly waters."

Beauty is important to fly-fishers, from the tiny barbed imitations of fish food they create from feathers, hair and assorted yarns and thread to the action of fishing itself. "A couple of things influenced me to take up fly-fishing," muses Hollensed. "When I watched a good fly-caster the first time, it really struck a chord with me, because it was a beautiful thing to watch. I instantly wanted to be able to cast like that. I love to teach fly-casting. A good casting instructor can have you casting fast, and that is the point of our instruction at Fly Fish Texas. By the time beginners are through with the class, they should be able to form a loop, make a cast and retrieve line as well as know how to fight a fish on a fly rod."

Fly Fish Texas focuses on helping people master the set of skills required for fly-fishing. "Many Scout groups use the event as part of their merit badge quest," Sorrells points out. "Instructors hold classes throughout the day on everything from fly-casting to fly-tying to knot tying. This is a hands-on event, and visitors are expected to participate. True beginners can join one of the casting classes where rods and reels are provided. Classes are offered on particular casting problems, how to set up tackle, fly selection and more. Seminars give information on subjects ranging from how to fish specific bodies of water to tips and techniques for fishing for different species. Skilled fly-tiers make flies all day long. Anyone wanting to learn how can give it a try themselves or simply watch."

One of the things that makes Fly Fish Texas so popular with beginners and experts alike is that the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center has several ponds and streams stocked with rainbow trout, largemouth bass, sunfish and channel catfish, and you can tie a fly, walk 50 steps and catch a fish with it. "Since Texas has very little trout water, this is often the only opportunity many anglers have to fish for them," Sorrells says. "The trout are eager to feed, and most are taken on bead-head nymphs. Fly Fish Texas provides a little fix for the trout-fishing addict."

Fly-fishing isn't just for trout anymore, Crise says. "Fly-fishing has come to be any water, any fish, not just trout," he says. "We can fly-fish year-round in Texas, in three or four different kinds of water. Texas pond bass are my favorite. They grow big, are aggressive and are fun on a fly rod. My second choice is Texas spotted bass in rivers. I go down on the Llano River quite often for Guadalupe bass and Rio Grande perch, and I also fish for striped bass on Lake Texoma."

The tourism campaign that labels Texas "A Whole Other Country" falls short when it comes to fly-fishing - Texas is like a whole bunch of other countries. Once you've mastered the basics of fly-fishing, a world of new experiences awaits. "One of the most fulfilling things you can do is catch a fish on a fly you have tied," says Hollensed. "Tying a fly produces a fish. Casting produces a fish. Fly-fishing removes a lot of the high-tech aids in catching fish. There is more of a direct connection between the fish and the angler."

When it comes to the outdoors, connection is a powerful word. The connection Hollensed speaks of is not tethered by the fly line but is instead the invisible bond formed when human and animal lives intersect, even if only long enough for a living, breathing water-dweller to be brought to hand, admired and returned to the depths. It is that connection to wild things and wild places we seek when we fish, rather than the fish itself.

Human connection to the outdoors involves conscious conservation as well as conscientious consumption, principles unique to our species. In that sense, fly-fishing may be one of the purest expressions of what it means to be human.

Details

Fly Fish Texas 2008 will be held at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center on March 8, 2008. For an event program, vendor information and directions to TFFC, go to <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/visitorcenters/tffc/> and click on the "Fly Fish Texas" link. To explore fly-fishing opportunities in Texas, visit the TPWD Angler Education pages at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/learning/angler_education/learnfish.phtml>.
Other helpful sites and fly-fishing clubs:

  • www.fedflyfishers.org
  • www.texasflyfishing.com
  • www.dallas-flyfishers.org
  • www.pwff.org
  • groups.msn.com/TheFlyFishingBug
  • www.rrff.org
  • www.fortworthflyfishers.com
  • www.bvffonline.org
  • grtu.org
  • www.alamoflyfishers.org
  • www.ctff.org
  • www.texasflyreport.com
  • www.texasoutside.com/HoustonFlyFishers.htm
  • www.easttexasflyfishers.org
  • groups.msn.com/montgomerycountyflyrodders /_homepage.msnw?pgmarket=en-us
  • www.totalflyfishing.com/index.php/fly-fishing-destinations/texas

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