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Fly Fishing at Fourteen

I began fly fishing at the age of fourteen. When I turned 30 a few years back it struck me that not only had I been involved in the sport in one way or another for over half my life, but that I’d been fly fishing for longer than I’d known my wife or lived in any one place.

There were a number of pros and cons to being a flourishing angler as an early teenager. There were a lot of trade-offs. I couldn’t drive myself anywhere, but I could also fish without buying a license for those first years. Living in northern Virginia, that meant that I could fish in-state as well as nearby Maryland, DC, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania for free. Today, buying a license in all of those states would cost $221.70 – just for freshwater. Which would have been a problem, as I didn’t make a whole lot of money. But what I did make was completely unspoken for and able to be spent on gear.

Disposable cameras and malnourished fish.

My first job involved setting up chairs for my church’s Sunday service, and then tearing them down afterwards. It was a quick hundred bucks a weekend, which made for easy math. I’d figure, in my head as I unstacked and stacked chairs, what I could buy and when. I can still clearly remember a month of looking forward to the 7-foot, 3-weight St. Croix Avid, Orvis Clearwater 3/4, and Cortland Spring Creek line. It totaled to just less than $300, which, as you may have surmised, would take me three weeks to earn. Most teenagers can think about their budget like that. I didn’t want to party, I didn’t want the latest and greatest shoes – I wanted more gear.

There were still flies stuck in the trunk upholstery when I sold it.
There were still flies stuck in the trunk upholstery when I sold it.

Although it meant that I had to buy licenses, turning sixteen also meant freedom (I’d settle on just VA, MD, and PA). That Saturn SC1 was plastic, fuel efficient, and just wide enough to fit a 2-piece fly rod in the back. It got me down to Florida to fish the gulf, up to Erie to chase steelhead, and to my local creeks at a moment’s notice. I’d eat off the McDonald’s Dollar Menu and sleep in my car (things that have just changed in the last few years). The high school got a new football coach my junior year who had a fondness for Saturday practice. That didn’t jive with my weekend appointments in the mountains, so I capitalized on a knee tweak and “retired.”

Fly fishing is so simple at its core, but has such complexity and depth when you wade a little deeper. Neurologists and psychologists speak of the propensity for adolescent brains to absorb information, and all things fishing got to jump to the front of my mind’s queue. Books, videos, seminars, fly shops – all of it. The capstone experience of my teenage years was the Pennsylvania Rivers Conservation and Fly Fishing Youth Camp. Learning under accomplished anglers left me a little star struck. Meeting peers that shared my passion, many who were much more accomplished, shifted my tiny angling paradigm.

I also had parents that encouraged my growing interest/hobby/obsession. I suppose that having your kid be into fly fishing rather than all of the typical teen goings-on is a pretty easy pill to swallow. My mom allowed me to drive into the woods and spend the whole day on the water. My dad lived in places with diverse fishing opportunities, and my visits always included a few days for me to explore.

I feel like I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that cultivating interested young fly fishers is very important. Young, malleable minds are just that – young and malleable. Teenagers have great potential. I’m always blown away at some of the flies, videos, and fish young people put online. Just like there are prodigies in academics and the arts, there are inevitably gifted child anglers. The big difference is that there aren’t state-sponsored magnet programs. That puts the impetus on friends and family who fish, local organizations that these kids reach out to, and even people like fly shop staff.

I remember that there were folks  willing to spend time with me as a teenager and those that weren’t. I wasn’t going to buy the $800 rod or bid big money at the banquet. But what if I would one day? Not that we nurture young anglers for what we might get out of them one day, but finite resources do need to be handed off into capable hands. It is a constant challenge for TU chapters, anglers’ associations, and other groups: How do we get kids involved?

I didn’t give a lick about conservation when I started fishing. I didn’t chuck used worm cups into the woods or kill everything I caught, but I wasn’t aware of everything that protecting the fish and their ecosystems entails. The Pennsylvania camp and the Northern Virginia chapter of Trout Unlimited helped with my fishing, but also helped me see the “other side” of taking from the resource. They didn’t hammer me with who I should vote for, what companies I should patronize, or how many hours I should volunteer cleaning up stream banks. They knew that I wanted to learn how to fish and to actually fish, so they integrated the conservation ethic into the angling seamlessly.

It might mean spending time with a kid who has a foam-gripped fly rod, earbuds, and a *shudder* flat-brimmed hat. I’m sure we all looked and acted completely ridiculous when we were sixteen, too. Win them over. Give them flies. Let them fish where you know fish will be, and then tell them about more of those places. Take them to a fly shop. Introduce them to other fly fishers you know. Pay for their TU membership (now with a cell phone dry bag!). Hand down old fishing magazines… and explain that they are like apps that don’t require batteries. Treat them like they aren’t an idiot, a nuisance, or the criminal element. It might work.

It could just be run of the mill nostalgia, but I think it could be legitimate. I look back on my first years of fly fishing as some of my most memorable. I couldn’t cast, was preoccupied with catching lots of fish, and probably incessantly talked about fishing to the annoyance of friends and family; but those were the days. Waters were still new, I was seeing things in nature at a high-speed pace, and every trip out meant experiencing something.

The reel has been updated, but the rod is still in my rotation.
The reel has been updated, but the rod is still in my rotation.

Eighteen years in and the experience has aged well. Now I have the opportunity/responsibility of passing it all on. I’m doing it piecemeal with my own little guys, but there are other young people that can be reached. One of the most dangerous things for us is to forget what it was like to be young. Once we do that we lose so much of what makes fly fishing, and life in general, so wonderful: the mystery, the spontaneity, the fun.

2 comments

  1. Austin says:

    I read through this whole thing and it feels as if your writing a story about my life. I’m 17 I started flyfishing when I was 13, i live in Pennsylvania I went to the same conservation camp 3 years ago. I worked hard to get my truck that takes me all over PA to fish some of the best waters I know I spend most of all my money on fishing equipment. Just thought I’d tell you this so you know fly fishing will never die and someone somewhere has the same story

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