Birth of a Fly Fisher

Birth of a Fly Fisher

How early lessons astream shape life-long angling and teaching passions.

  • By: Joe Humphreys
Young Joe Humphreys

The first book I ever read cover to cover was Ray Bergman’s Just Fishing; I was 12. It was gospel. Bergman’s Trout followed. He far surpassed Shakespeare and Chaucer—neither of those guys could fish worth a damn, and I didn’t understand what they were saying anyway. Something about this guy Romeo getting hung up on some girl, having family problems…hey, I had my own problems!

The influence of trout and stream might best be indicated by the epilogue of my book Trout Tactics:

A shiver went through me as I lay on the dew-soaked earth. My wet bib overalls clung to me and itched unmercifully. Time had little meaning to me then—except that the rising morning sun would bring warmth and comfort as I began to dry out. Switching positions to ease my cramped muscles, I strained to view the trout before me, finning like suspended animations in the transparent spring water.

I had already learned that any attempt to capture those speckled beauties had to be a slow, stealthy one. Often my heavy, impetuous feet sent tremors from the spongy bank, tremors that sent trout scurrying for cover, leaving only a cloud of silt and sand.…On previous attempts, I usually frightened every trout in the pool.…It seemed like hours, and at times it was, before the trout would recover from fright and go about the business of feeding, sometimes picking up my worm in the process. It took patience, but the anticipation of catching a trout was worth it.

That was Thompson Run, a tributary of famed Spring Creek in Pennsylvania. The pool, the trout and the surroundings became my classroom. I learned where trout hid when frightened, how close they fed to cover, where the currents brought food to the fish, and where they positioned themselves to accept it. Watching insects ride the currents and noting when they were most readily taken gave me insight—years later—as to how a fly should be designed and made.

I went to this class all year long. At different seasons, I saw that the trout fed at different levels. In April, when the water was coldest, the trout would lie on the bottom, moving little or not at all. As the season progressed, many would hold just under the surface, sipping rhythmically and feeding to one side or the other. Even after a fright the trout would always come back and stake out the same territory, and line up according to size—the pecking order, a perception that would shape my casting strategy in the years to come.

I developed an appreciation for life around me—the aesthetics of streams, meadow and woodlands, the sounds and mysteries of nature. This fostered a deep reverence for outdoor life. I developed an attitude that might be illustrated best by paraphrasing the words of Abraham Lincoln about the Union, prior to the Civil War. “No man has an oath registered under God to destroy a trout stream, while I have the most valid one to defend and protect it.”

An association with experts shaped me too. George Harvey, in my mind the most knowledgeable fly fisher of trout in the 20th Century, continued to be an influence. When I was a boy, our paths would cross on the stream; he’d give a tip or some helpful insight, which thrilled me and drove me to succeed. His angling classes were the most enjoyable and meaningful of my college days. Then George brought me to teach at Penn State and I became his successor.

Clyde Schreffler, my neighbor in childhood days, was also an inspiration. He was up in years and not in the best health. He wheezed when he talked and was frequently short of breath, maybe because of those roll-your-own cigarettes he smoked incessantly.

I was fascinated-watching those gnarled, tobacco-stained fingers fashion a nearly tailor-made smoke, tobacco spilling down his shirt as Clyde told how he took a 17-inch brown from the Railroad Trestle Hole on Spring Creek near Oak Hall, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the story, yet if Clyde didn’t start it, I’d prod him into doing so.

Clyde knew I was trout-bit, obsessed, and that I fished every day. He’d give a knowing nod and smile as I pedaled by on my bicycle, fly rod across the handlebars, fly box and peanut-butter sandwiches piled in the wire basket. Perhaps he began to feel an obligation to introduce me to wet-fly fishing. One spring evening, while I was sitting on Clyde’s porch swing and listening to how wet flies were fished, he stopped and said, “How’d you like to go fishing with me?”

I shook with excitement and stammered, “Thank you!”

“Get your rod,” he said, “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

Clyde had two Dark Cahills on. The top fly was snelled and a heavy loop extended from the leader three feet above the tail fly. The wood-duck wings were faded and a bit yellowed. The leader was gut that had to be soaked, and his pet nine-foot, three-piece bamboo rod showed the effects of age and use.

His basic method was a downstream-and-across cast, letting the flies finish the arc with little or no movement, followed by a slow hand-twist retrieve. I was standing below him and saw a trout drift up under the fly and follow it, then stop, turn and disappear. I can still see vividly the spots on that fish. “Come back here with me,” cautioned Clyde, “you’re too close to the bank. That trout say you.”

The fishing tactics I learned then never left me. For instance, follow the line you see in the water with the rod tip so you know where your flies are and keep that rod tip up. I never questioned why. You don’t question expert advice when you’re 10 years old.

The rest of the evening I followed Clyde and thrilled as he hooked and landed four fish and missed as many. This was Spring Creek in 1938 or ’39, a limestone stream loaded with wild browns, and it had little fishing pressure compared to today. The last trout, a foot-long beauty, he killed and laid on the grass. “For your breakfast,” he said. Thanks, Clyde.

Fishing has given my life purpose. The ultimate reward is that I may help shape a life—to share this with others and with aspiring, trout-bit kids. And when I’m too old to navigate a stream or string a rod, my memories of battles with trout won and lost will help ease the weight of old age. Fishing will be my salvation. It always has been.

Joe Humphreys suggested we re-print this essay, which he wrote for the magazine in 1992, as a means to inspire others to pass along the traditions of our sport. Joe, now in his 80s, taught fly-fishing at Penn State University for almost two decades—indeed, he’s spread the gospel of fly-fishing to many thousands.