School Matters

School Matters

Getting students hooked on fly-fishing

  • By: Kathy Scott
  • Photography by: Kathy Scott
Lawrence High Fly-fishing Club

FLY FISHERS ALWAYS HAVE THE same reaction. When I say, “We offer fly-fishing to all 8th graders in phys-ed classes. And I’m the co-advisor of the Varsity Fly Fishing Club at the high school,” that news sinks in for a minute. Then they always say, “Wow, I wish I’d gone to your school!”

Though we can’t re-enroll in high school, the time is right for our kids and communities to learn about our sport. With a little persistence, a little luck and the right cooperation, fly-fishing and fisheries conservation can be a part of any school.

We came into fly-fishing at our middle school in Maine through the best possible route. A student walked up to my desk and demanded to know why we didn’t have it. That’s a good question, I thought. Even before the present rise to consciousness brought about by the Last Child in the Woods (a book you should read if you haven’t) movement, lifelong activities were encouraged as part of the co-curricular offerings and as integrated enrichment during the middle-school day. The general alarms over the state of physical fitness of today’s youth and the degrading state of the environment served as reinforcements. I had these facts in my left hand as I attempted to resolve the student’s question. What I needed was some support on my right. It came from the local Trout Unlimited chapter. One night at a monthly meeting, I let it be known that I was introducing fly -fishing at the middle school and asked if anyone cared to help. The response was immediate. Now I was two-fisted, ready to approach the school administration…but I encountered no debate: they offered open arms.

That was a decade ago, and we’ve reinvented the program a couple of times since. (By the way, I’m a librarian at the school.) Student interest is still high. Support morphs into this form or that, as the winds of education change. I’ve realized that I can’t change the wind, but I can adjust my sails. This year, nearly 200 8th graders will learn to cast a fly rod. Our senior-high students will host a regional conclave of anglers. Today, during lunch, a contingent of middle-school kids asked me to pick a night, any night, and they’d be there to tie flies—and could they please go to the fish hatchery again?

To integrate any fly-fishing program into a school, I’ve found that there are a few necessary steps. First, there’s the right person within the school. It must be an adult on the inside, the front man or woman, someone who can make announcements and do all the legwork teachers know how to do very well. It can’t be a student, although one or two very motivated students can carry the program to success even if the willing “inside adult” knows nothing at all about fly-fishing or conservation. Every school has that teacher who jumps at the chance to offer kids something they want, who can recognize a good learning opportunity.

Next, decide what to offer. The choices are many: integrated as part of physical education or environmental science (or art-class fly-tying), a club, a sport, a lunchtime/enrichment activity? Each has its pros and cons and will vary with the school, the students’ interests and the time demanded by other activities. (I’ve found that high-school students generally have no time during school to meet, but middle-school students do.)

To say that fly-fishing is an unusual activity in a school is an understatement. Every single effort put forth in a school has to go to someone for approval. In the case of fly-fishing, rods and lines with hooks (however barbless) fly about at times and there are people walking around, so safety is a concern. Philosophical reactions are possible, maybe from those who’ve heard of fly-fishing as elitist, or from the student vegan. All of this adds up to having to do a little homework with your school Insider before that Insider approaches the powers that be (the school administration, that is).

In the case of our high-school club, we opted not to jump through the state-complicated hoops of becoming a certified high-school sport. Our written statement to the co-curricular coordinator contained one simple goal: to provide a means for students interested in a lifelong activity to locate each other and like-minded adults in a high school of 800 students. We left the requests for trips and gear for later.

Integration into an existing subject, such as physical-education classes, is simply a part of what any teacher does every day. He or she looks at the curriculum, and then matches up available resources and the best practices for using them. Every state has a published curriculum for every subject; every teacher knows how to use it; the fly-fishing volunteer doesn’t need to. In the best case, the physical-education teacher also knows how to fly fish. Otherwise, the fly-fishing volunteer (you!) will have to explain that casting to a hula-hoop in the gym and tying flies, in our case, on the library tables are good places to start.

Volunteers are the backbone of available resources. They are out there, in Trout Unlimited chapters, outing clubs, fly-tying clubs and on the stream. Contacts can be made in person, on-line though forum posts or e-mailing, or face-to-face at fly-fishing shows. Many of them come with gear to loan, or at least with gear for demonstrations. I often receive gifts of fly rods, used waders and, more often, flies. Volunteers shouldn’t be expected to do the stuff of classroom management—attendance, discipline (rarely necessary) or signing passes. The Insider knows that part, too. The volunteers know fishing and conservation. It’s a partnership.

Funding was, for us, not an issue. We had none. Gifts (from individuals to clubs to corporate donations) appeared once the needs were known. Fundraising (approved by the school principal) made up the rest. Some of my students made furled leaders to sell. We host a midwinter conclave for the public, and the anglers attending (adults) buy our coffee, pizza slices and commemorative t-shirts to support the club.

Once you’ve hooked the students, they’ll help you decide where to go next. My middle-school activity period was eliminated from the schedule, for a time, but the demand had been so great that integrating casting and fishing, sometimes tying, into physical-education classes seemed logical to all of us. It has been a success, although we never require a student to actually fish for the same reason students in biology can dissect virtual frogs.

The high-school students sometimes tie flies and cast in PE, too, but our high-school club is separate from coursework. The Varsity Fly Fishing Club meets irregularly, takes advantage of the group purchase plan Orvis offers schools once a year and sponsors one or two service events. Some members apply to the various Trout Unlimited camps around the nation; our kids have attended or served as counselors in Maine, Montana, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Washington. We take off together for a weekend of landlocked Atlantic salmon fishing in the spring.

Good teaching, like good angling, requires an unflagging ability to adapt to conditions. It’s worth saying again: we can’t change the wind on our sails, but we can change our direction. We’ll find a way.

Kathy Scott, a writer and educator who lives in central Maine, received Trout Unlimited’s 50th Anniversary Youth Leader Award. Her book Brook Trout Forest will be published in 2011.