Learning to fly

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2008

What is it about fly-fishing that holds such a mystique?

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Michael Penn /Juneau Empire
Michael Penn /Juneau Empire

Or, put another way, if Brad Pitt hadn't made a movie about fly-fishing, would it be such a popular sport?

That was one of many questions I had Thursday night as I headed out to Twin Lakes to give fly-fishing a try. For the past few years, local fly-fishing enthusiasts have thrown a "casting night" that's part barbecue and part free lessons on the basics of fly-fishing for newbies such as myself .

"It's wonderful, wait until you try it," said Suzanne Forsling. It was her second time out learning how to cast. She said her family moved to Juneau two years ago, and "figured we're in Alaska now, we need to know how to do these things."

Forsling stood next to me for a while as we practiced casting lure-less lines in the lake.

Brad Elfers, owner of Alaska Fly Fishing Goods, taught us how to "roll cast." It's a pretty basic cast you would do out in the real world when there's no room behind you.

You start by holding the rod up, slightly tilted behind your head and do a karate-chop motion toward the water. Done correctly, your line should do a nice graceful roll out in the water.

I'm also new to Alaska and want to take advantage of all this state has to offer, including pulling a fresh wild fish out of the river and plopping it down on my dinner plate a few hours later.

But the state Department of Fish and Game has different ideas. It wants me to fork over $20 a day, or buy a $145 season fishing license at out-of-state rates. Under their rules, you aren't a resident unless you've already lived here a year.

With that in mind, I took Elfers' instruction seriously. If I'm going to plunk down big bucks to buy a rod, reel, tackle, waders, and out-of-state fishing license, it had better be for something I'm good at.

I asked Tony Soltys, president of Rain Country Fly Fishers, what it takes to be an expert. Soltys said he's been fly-fishing for 50 years and still doesn't know.

"I haven't gotten there yet," he said.

Soltys said there's a lot to master in the art of fly-flying, from perfecting your cast to tying flies to reeling in your line in just such a way to get the fish to bite.

But, he added, "if you enjoy it, then you're already an expert."

I went back to practicing my casting. This time I was rearing back the line out of the water behind my head and then sending it forward again back into the water.

As I jerked the rod back and forth and sent the fishing line soaring behind my head and then back to the water I heard a satisfying "snap."

For some reason, I equated the snapping sound with good technique and reveled momentarily in the fact that I'm likely a natural at fly-fishing.

Then Elfers showed back up and told me the snapping sound was bad, and meant that any lure that might have been on my line would have gone sailing off.

Nice and easy, Elfers said.

A few more practice casts and I felt like I was starting to get the hang of it. Elfers gave me more instruction about how to let the line out when casting. I asked him if I had the potential to be an expert fly fisherman one day.

"Definitely," he said, "everybody's got the potential."

Elfers makes a living off of helping people fly-fishing, including getting people like me hooked on it. Besides owning his shop, he's taught classes, been a guide, and put up a new Web site that's sort of information clearinghouse for all things fly-fishing in Alaska.

One of the great things about fly-fishing in Alaska, Elfers said, is that there are so many different types of fish to try and catch while fly-fishing here, including bottom-dwelling salt-water fish like Halibut.

And as for becoming an expert? When I asked Elfers, who said he's been fly-fishing for 20 years, if he considers himself an expert, he frowns and thinks for a second before saying, "maybe in a few parts."

"It's one of those sports where becoming an expert is an ongoing thing," Elfers said. "You're never there."

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.

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