'Tying Nun' casts for converts

Sister Carol Anne Corley seeks to spread the gospel of fly-fishing to the masses

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2001

SALT LAKE CITY - Sister Carol Anne Corley, the Tying Nun, is a fly-fishing whiz looking to teach children a great lifelong habit.

She's a conservation crusader for holy waters (defined: wherever you can fish), casting out a message to the masses - you don't have to be well-heeled to fly-fish.

"Fly-fishing is something you cannot do in an ugly place or with an ugly spirit," she said. "Like Lefty (Kreh) says, 'Power kills a cast."'

Sister Corley and fly-fishing great Kreh were in Salt Lake City with the Fly-Fishing Retailer show in early September, along with 3,000-plus other industry insiders.

"God gave us dominion over the earth to respect and steward it, and people have lost that vision," she said. "Only when people can be in nature, do they begin to appreciate it and feel responsible for it."

Sister Corley led an aquatic childhood, swimming and fishing with her family and twin sister Suzanne, until Carol Anne became a Catholic nun after learning that "nuns are normal people with an abnormal love for God," she said.

In 1986, she moved to Fort Smith City, Ark., and with a big, cheap, Daiwa 7- weight fiberglass fly rod, proceeded to hook fish for eight years at a pond near the convent, wreaking havoc on the sunfish, bass, bluegill and crappie.

Teaching kids came naturally.

"Kids would always come up asking 'What are you doing lady?' because I would outfish everyone who was using bait," she said. She had a two-fly rule back then, buying two of the cheapest flies possible and stopping when she lost them. Or the kids did.

"I very quickly learned to fish with yarn flies for the students," she said. Still, it was just a hobby to augment her medical work as a nun.

She wasn't tying yet, relying instead on her older brother John's patterns. Sister Corley joined a fly-fishing club and went to the White River, a famous fishery where she plucked a hundred trout from the river in a few hours, and put them all back. Standing in one spot, with one fly. She picked up lots of bad habits teaching herself to cast over the years, just as a self-taught skier or golfer would.

"You have absolutely the ugliest cast I've ever seen," a guide told her that day. "But I've never seen anyone catch fish like that."

Until then, the future Tying Nun was tying none. In 1994, after her brother died from kidney cancer, she inherited his fly-tying equipment and put it to work.

Fly materials are expensive and she had taken a vow of poverty, so she improvised with household items. "You ever tie a shower-shoe popper?" she said.

"Fly tying on a shoestring" is now part of her teachings with children. She teaches kids how to drop yarn chunks in a coffee grinder to create instant fuzz-dubbing (fly body-wrap to wind on a hook), tie flies from newspaper sacks and candy bar wrappers (they catch fish) and the beauty of her Resurrection Fly - tied, of course, with plastic Easter basket grass.

Sister Corley is perhaps the world's biggest promoter of the Black Woolly Bugger fly pattern, the big ugly catch-all fish killer that "fishes all water, catches all fish."

She pirates road-killed squirrels, taking their tails for tying material, teaching kids that beauty is what the world needs, not perfection. She dreams of taking her awful cast to the West someday. For now it's too expensive. Show sponsors fly her around to tie flies, but not to fish.

"I'm glad I have an ugly cast," she said. "It teaches kids it's not something you must do perfectly to succeed, unlike basketball, baseball. It doesn't take an athlete, great for kids that don't want to be in the combat zone. The gentle sports are what we should teach in school."

She doesn't agree fly-fishing is an elitist, expensive, frustrating sport.

"If a nun with a vow of poverty can do it, anyone can afford it," she said. "It's not kids that get impatient, it's the teachers. Kids love and want to learn this sport once introduced."

Sister Corley banded with fly fishers Barry Borger, Pete Parker and Terry Looper to build an organization to promote youth fly-fishing and tying, based on the belief that kids can grow socially, spiritually and academically through art, science and the sport of fly-fishing.

There's no telling how far she'll go. Kreh worked on her cast at the recent show at the Salt Palace. Sister Corley was a quick study. Kreh, the fly rod Zorro, made smooth precise movements holding her until she could take over and do it alone.

"She made three in a row, so it ain't luck," Kreh said, satisfied with her new, not-so-ugly cast.

People gathered to see the famous fly-caster teach the soft-spoken sister to fish. Everyone wanted to speak to her. Sister Corley found a brother at the show, bumping into Park City pastor Berris "Bear" Samples, a Sage rod company pro caster.

"People forget fly-fishing has religious roots," he shared with her eagerly. "It's pastoral at heart."

"Yes, it makes you understand that you are one piece of God's creation and all things meld together," she said. "It connects people with the earth."

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