Simon Says

by Scott Sadil

It’s an old story, but one I’m always interested in: How did you learn to fly fish?

Schooled by a dad and grandfather who took sportfishing of all kinds fairly seriously, I doubt I thought much about the question – at least until I began fishing with my now lifelong pal Peter Syka, who, it turns out, had put together his game by reading books and magazines, a strain of literature I didn’t even know at the time existed. More surprising still, Peter’s own father didn’t fish – an all but incomprehensible calculus in my understanding of families.

Even stranger, Peter knew about things, technical things, that I’d never heard of in my informal, rudimentary education.

But I did know how to fish, and I knew how to fish with a fly on the end of my line – and it wasn’t long before Peter and I put our heads together and got serious, each in his own way, about this far-fetched game.

Before phones there was fishing.

Which brings me to news last week that our friends at Far Banks, the well-known consortium that includes Sage, Reddington, Rio, and Fly Water Travel, has just released a series of instructional fly-fishing videos hosted by Simon Gawesworth, certainly one of the most affable and articulate instructors in the sport, especially familiar to those of us who have worked at mastering the subtleties of casting two-handed rods.  The first series of six videos ( will prove a big help to anyone interested in getting started in the sport, as well as anglers who may have jumped in on their own and perhaps now realize there’s more to the madness than they originally anticipated.

Teaching the curriculum, even the basics, is not, I can tell you from experience, an easy gig.  My sons?  No problem; we had all the time in the world.  But for a dozen or so years I also taught a month-long, beginning-fly-fishing class, four times a year, through Portland Parks & Rec. Though I enjoyed all of it, I worried, the way teachers do, about those students who seemed a wee bit overwhelmed, especially by the flood of new language, the innumerable words for both things and concepts that can intimidate anyone, and the surprising number of students who had never been fishing in their lives at all.

It can be daunting.  Video, of course, offers students a chance to go at their own pace, to rewind (is that even a word these days?) and watch again, to leave it all until later when they feel their eyes grow heavy.  But if we’ve learned anything the past two years of the Covid pandemic, we also know that this kind of so-called online education is woefully inadequate, that the timeless masters were all correct in pointing out, over the centuries, that doing is learning.

Never too late to learn.

I guess you can carry your phone to the water.  Instead, I used to hold a Saturday morning clinic at the Westmoreland casting pond, and a week after that we would meet at Oxbow Park, on the Sandy River, to get some idea how to address these life-like creatures we call rivers and streams, plus to stir up rocks and gather the creepy crawlers that become the pretty bugs our flies are meant to imitate to fool trout.  For many students, this morning on the water seemed as close as they might ever get to actually catching a fish with a fly rod – and yet they seemed perfectly happy just to be outdoors on the river, learning a little more about all the strange and wonderful and oftentimes useless things that fly fishing inevitably teaches us.

I had an older student one time, a guy who appeared to already know everything my class offered.  After the final Saturday outing, while I finished saying goodbye to everyone, wishing them luck, I got to talking with this old-timer, trying to figure out why he had taken the class.  He said he used to fish a lot, but he hadn’t done so for years.  Thought he’d just show up, maybe get back into it.

Then he shared an observation: “You know, I see all these folks here, some of them nearly as old as me, and I wonder if they’ve got enough time left in their lives to actually, you know, learn how to fly fish.”

“Probably not,” I agreed. “But I don’t think that’s any reason not to start.”


Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil began building his first sailboat before he learned how to sail.