Take Ethan ultralightin' for 'gills!
article and photos by Bill Byrd, Jr.

A few years back while fly fishing one of my favorite lakes, I experienced something troubling. The experience still haunts me today. Fly fishing is a tremendous sport to me, but it has become much more than just a sport for me. Naturally when I see an opportunity, I want to share my love and enthusiasm for the sport with someone who has never experienced fly fishing.

I was fishing mid-day on one of my favorite north Georgia lakes, one with sections of campgrounds surrounding it. In one cove, there were campers on one side, and the shore opposite them was calm. I approached the calm side with my 2 weight rod rigged with 12 foot leader ending in 4 pound tippet and a #14 black sponge spider. I dropped my fly just under the overhanging branches, and SMACK! it disappeared time after time in a fat bluegill's mouth.

Behind me were the voices of several children playing on the opposite shoreline. They were throwing rocks, wading, creating every kind of disturbance, so I looked over my shoulder and saw one young boy watching me. I fished along the bank opposite where he stood, then fished across the back of the cove in a tree (above left), and started fishing in his direction.

"Hey mister what are you using to catch all those fish?" he asked. I made eye contact with him and saw a nine year old boy in ragged cutoff jeans and dirty t-shirt. He had massive freckles, red hair, and a big white grin. He was the image of a Norman Rockwell country kid at Campbell's soup time. "Here, I'll show you", I replied. I turned on my trolling motor and slipped quietly to the bank where he stood impatiently.

I loosened my line and showed him the tiny water spider, explained that the fish were feeding on small insects, and that was why I fished the little fly. "But how to do you cast that little bitty fly?" he continued.

After a series of why questions and answers his curiosity seemed satisfied for the moment. Then I thought, why not! "Son, what's your name?" He stood up straight and said "Ethan". I asked if his parents were there, and he said his mother was. He intimated that his father was out of work looking for a job, and they were living at this campground while he hunted work. I asked him to get his mother to come see me and waited. His mother showed, I introduced myself, and explained his interest in how I was catching all those fish. I gave her my business card, and suggested that if it were OK with her, I would come back the next morning at 10:00 and teach Ethan how to fly fish right there in that cove where she could monitor the activity. When she asked me why I would do such a thing, I replied "so many people have been kind enough to help me over the years, I am happy to be able to do the same thing." She seemed satisfied, Ethan was jumping up and down at the prospect, and I looked forward to giving this young boy a glimpse of the fun of fly fishing.

Next morning, I rose early, made preparations, and drove to the lake campground. At 10AM, I pulled up along the shoreline where the plans had been made the day before. There were the other kids playing in the campground, but no sign of Ethan and his mother.

I tied my boat to a nearby tree, and walked up into the campground. They were gone. Their camping space was empty. I experienced a moment of profound sadness, not for me, but for Ethan. He was obviously eager to learn how to catch fish on the fly, but it wasn't to be. We go through life never even realizing that there are people living like Ethan's family, in an old van, waiting to rebuild their lives. I was so disappointed that I just left the lake and returned home that morning.

Hopefully, at some point in his life Ethan will have the opportunity to enjoy this sport.

NOW a happier ending! Very soon after the Ethan experience, I had the opportunity to take my great nephew to the same lake and teach him how to fly fish. At the end of the day, I don't know who was happier, but it didn't matter. I started Josh off with a casting lesson in my front yard. When he could make enough of a cast to get the fly out, we headed to the lake. In the middle of the lake, I had him practice cast the 7 foot 3-weight until he was comfortable and could generally hit a spot. Then we moved to shore to fish.

It is hard for a youngster to remember to "cast, lower the rod, set the line over your finger, get up the slack line, press your stripping finger on the line, and just raise the rod when the fish strikes." Even adults have trouble with that litany of instructions at first. Josh made his first cast, the little water spider plopped down 2 feet from shore, a fat bluegill inhaled the spider instantly. While Josh was lowering his rod, getting up the slack, laying the line over his stripping finger -- the fish spit out the fly and Josh watched with his mouth wide open. "They hit so quick!" he yelled.

I said "this time, just do everything faster if you can." HE DID, and he caught his first fat bluegill on a fly! Decidedly, it wasn't pretty, but it was a giant step in fly fishing for Josh! As with everyone, practice makes it all happen smoothly and quickly, and before the day ended, he was an old pro at this fly fishing game.

Even at lunch, (left) he couldn't quit fishing. He had to check the leader/tippet for abrasions and be sure the fly was ready to fish some more. All the work paid off for him.

After a shore lunch, (right) we continued to explore fish holding spots all over the lake. Lots of fat bluegills met Josh, and he seemed happy to meet every one of them. He caught over 45 bluegills with the little rod and water spiders on his best day of fishing to date. I believe he enjoyed it! The fat bluegill (lower right) enjoyed being released to get bigger!

Every week it seems, I run into people interested in learning about fly fishing. For old and young alike, fly fishing can be a good thing. When you get a chance, act as a personal guide and take Ethan, or Josh, Jane or grandpa fly fishing. The sport needs new fly fishers to learn, keep up the traditions, and to challenge and redefine the sport. Anyway you'll remember those big smiles for a long time!