Something Old, Something New: A First-time Fly Fishing Experience

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Something Old, Something New: A First-time Fly Fishing Experience

Photo credit: Jared Serigne

     “That stuff is for the birds, man,” Jerry Alfonso said to me when I first mentioned the idea of fly fishing a few years ago. Jerry is one of the old-timers from Delacroix Island that taught me how to catch redfish. For Jerry, the idea of casting a bundle of feathers back and forth was somehow ludicrous enough to be left only for men in fancy vests and silly hats. Even worse was the idea that they didn’t keep the fish they caught, as most fly fisherman practice catch and release.

     Jerry grew up on the bayou and could tell a good fishing spot by simply glancing it over. His method for catching the fish was foolproof: Put a fresh shrimp on a hook and suspend it under a cork. When the fish strikes, the cork slams under the water and you set the hook. Then you’d better hold on tight because redfish are prolific fighters. “And you always keep what you catch and take it home,” he would tell me. So without protest I adapted Jerry’s method of fishing, and much to my benefit hundreds of redfish have since been caught and cooked into a variety of dishes in my cast iron pot.

     Then I met Captain John Iverson.

     John is originally from North Louisiana and works as a fly fishing guide for a New Orleans-based outfitter. We took a liking to each other over our shared love of fishing, cooking, and drinking cold beer. The only thing I didn’t like about him was that he was a fly fisherman. The better way to catch redfish would the point of debate in plenty of our booze-fueled discussions. He tried to convince me to try fly fishing, but I told him “that stuff is for the birds, man.”

     On a recent morning I got a call from John that woke me out of a dead sleep. I had half a mind to tell him to shove his fly rod up his you-know-what. “My client just canceled for today so I have an open spot if you want to go fishing. I’m seeing hundreds of redfish right now and I want to do some fishing of my own.” As often as guides get out on the water, they rarely get a chance to fish for themselves. I figured I could go along and prove to him once and for all that my bait shrimp technique was the best.

Photo credit: Jared Serigne

     I met John at a boat ramp in Reggio, Louisiana. I loaded my gear into his boat and we set off into the marsh. As we came to our first pond, I took a shrimp out of the ice chest and set it on my hook. I made a deep cast toward the back of the pond just like Jerry Alfonso would have. I looked back to the stern where John was standing on a raised platform above his outboard motor. He held onto his fly rod and stared out over the water.

     “What are you waiting for?” I asked him.

     “I’m looking for a fish.”

     “That’s ridiculous,” I told him. I shook my head in disgust and focused my attention back to my cork. I was certain that any moment, a hungry fish would send my cork thumping under the water.

Photo credit: Jared Serigne

     “There’s a fish. He’s coming right at us.” John said as he stripped the line out of his fly reel. He worked the rod back and forth until the fly was well over 30 yards out over the water. I was amazed at the ease of his motions and how well the fly traveled through the air. With a flick of his wrist, he dropped the fly in the water. Because of its small size and lightness, the fly moved right through the underwater grass and directly towards the fish. As the fly came in striking distance, the fish made a hard turn and the fly went right past his tail. I expected John to reel the fly all the way in for another shot, but he swung the rod back and the fly came shooting out of the water. He whipped the rod towards the fish and the fly landed right in front of its mouth. The fish gulped the fly in an instant. The line on the fly rod went screaming out and for the next seven minutes John would play the fish out until it was ready to land. He gently picked the fish out of the water and to my surprise he opened the ice chest that our drinks and lunch were sitting in and flopped the fish down into it.

     “You’re not going to release it?” I asked.

     “Nope. I’m gonna grill this one on the barbecue pit.” Those words put to rest my idea that all fly fishermen practiced catch and release. It was a good moment.

     Then he looked up at me with a grin. “Now it’s your turn to get one.”

     As I reeled my line back in I realized that the underwater grass was so thick that my bait was getting wrapped up in it. The spoon fly John was throwing was perfect for these conditions, but it could only be cast on a fly rod. I swallowed hard on a thick chunk of pride and I said to him, “I never thought I would say this, but can I try out that fly rod?”

     John gently push-poled our boat into a pond where we heard baitfish splashing around. Over the water’s surface I saw a series of fluid motions that could only be one thing -- redfish wakes. I looked down at the fly rod in my hand and hoped I would be able to use it well enough.

     We crept into the pond until the redfish became visible from the boat. The first fish I casted to was a failure. I forcefully tried to throw the line like I would with my shrimp. I barely got the fly 10 feet from the boat and nowhere near the fish.

     Each time I missed a fish, John would give me a bit of coaching and position the boat on another fish so I could try again. With each new attempt I tried clumsily to add more finesse to my casts. It became clear that fly fishing actually required a degree of skill that I begrudgingly didn’t have.

Photo credit: Jared Serigne

     As we moved across the pond towards the mouth of a bayou I saw a beautiful big redfish swimming perpendicular to the bow of the boat. I took a deep breath and began working the rod back and forth. The motions became rhythmic and as the fish came closer I dropped the fly but it landed too far away. “Pick it up and throw again,” John encouraged me. I drew back on the rod and the fly came darting out of the water. I liked hearing the sound of the line sweeping behind me. I worked the rod back forward and the fly was back in the water. This time I hit my mark and stripped the line so the fly came right in front of the fish. At the sight of the bright sparkly fly, the fish dashed forward and ate it. I gripped and pulled on the rod as the fish swam around the pond in a bronze blaze of fury. John yelled commands from the back of the boat for me to manage the fly line. With a heap of effort I eventually coaxed the fish up to the boat. John lifted the fish out the water, and as I looked down at it I felt something unfamiliar: There was something about the simplicity of the fly rod’s composition that made it feel pure and primitive.

     On the boat ride home I thought about how to cook my fish with all the fresh shrimp I’d brought along as bait. I also thought about my new experience. What I realized after trying it was that fly fishing deserves to be de-mystified. It was easy to think about it as an elitist sport that belongs to a private club of anglers who look like they should be in an Orvis catalogue. But the truth is that anyone with a will to learn can do it. It can become a skill to build and an effective tool for catching fish in a variety of conditions. I won’t ever give up fishing with shrimp, but I sure will have a go at fly fishing as well. Wait till I tell Jerry Alfonso.

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