Fly fishing: It's a lot harder than it looks

PORTLAND, Ore. - In fly fishing "if your wrist hurts, you're doing it wrong," the instructor told us.

I looked down at my hand holding the fly rod and realized why yes, my wrist is hurting. I am definitely doing it wrong.

So I concentrated harder on my form - I locked my elbow in place, tried to keep my wrist from bending and focused on the rhythm. So did Nick Rillstone, another Portlander who joined me at Westmoreland Park's casting pond to learn the fine art of fly fishing.

For me, a person who is naturally awkward, uncoordinated and stiff, it was a bit of a challenge to gracefully cast the line up and over my head and make it land softly on the water's surface.

Rillstone struggled a bit as well but seemed to catch on quickly.

This is the first in a five-part series aimed at getting you to step outside your comfort zone and try something new this summer. KATU Travel & Outdoors Reporter Shannon L. Cheesman is giving several outdoor activities a whirl and will be offering tips if you think you might want to try them out as well.

"With a little more training, he could really be a good fly fisherman," I said to our instructor, Jesse Sampson of Small Stream Outfitters, while we watched Rillstone make a series of casts.

Rillstone had some added motivation that kept him quite focused. He wanted to learn how to cast correctly so he could surprise his dad, who is an avid fly fisherman, and show off his new skill.

For me, it was a little different.

For one, I had a story to write (this was a work assignment after all). But more than that - although I had grown up trout fishing, I had never actually tried to catch one with a fly rod - so this was a new experience. And then, of course, I had a somewhat romantic notion of fly fishing from the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It starring Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer and Tom Skerritt.

As it turned out, I was not a smooth caster and the idea that somehow I looked as cool as Brad Pitt quickly faded. Perhaps I should have remembered that famous quote from the movie - that art does not come easy:

KATU Travel & Outdoors Reporter Shannon L. Cheesman gets a lesson on fly fishing from Jesse Sampson with Small Stream Outfitters. Photo by Kai Hayashi/

"My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy."

But I did learn a lot during the lesson - namely that it's much tougher than I thought it was going to be.

I do have to admit that at first I felt a little smug about it all. "How hard can it be?" I thought. After all, I'd been fishing with my dad all my life - ever since I was a toddler. I know how to handle a fishing rod.

But this was quite different - there was no bail to flip, I had to get used to holding the fly rod with just one hand and instead of one quick toss to get the line out in the water, it took several fluid movements and careful coordination.

This wasn't casual fishing - this was all about skill and finesse. It was about getting the motions down and making each cast elegant and smooth.

When it was all said and done, I had a new found respect for the sport of fly fishing, and for the instructor. Sampson made it look so easy, although I learned that he had been doing it since he was a kid - about 20 years or so.

I didn't grow up fly fishing, though, so it would take a little more practice to get it down.

Recommendations for Newbies

Photo by Kai Hayashi/

Don't just go out and buy a fly fishing rod right away and expect that you'll know what to do with it.

First, take a casting class, like the one that Sampson teaches at Westmoreland Park. You'll learn the correct stance, movements and timing that are involved. You'll also learn about the gear that's used and get other helpful tips, like how to tie on a leader (that's the thinner line that's attached to the heavier fly line).

Spend some time practicing on your own or take intermediate and advanced classes to perfect the skill. And when you're ready, head out on your own or with a guide to try the real thing.

Other Places You Can Take Classes

  • Northwest Fly Fishing Outfitters
  • River City Fly Shop
  • Joel La Follette's Royal Treatment Fly Fishing - Some information is on their website, but it's best to call them at (503) 850-4397 for details on upcoming classes, clinics and events. Also, if you have a kid interested in trying fly fishing, the shop will be hosting a free Kids Fishing Day on July 20. There will be casting and fly tying lessons, as well as other activities.
  • Ron Lauzon's Fly Fishing School - the website is a little outdated, so it's best to call Ron Lauzon at (503) 622-3634 to for information on dates, locations and prices for lessons.
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