Learning to Fly Fish

One newcomer to the Granite State spent a weekend in May learning how to fly fish

Northeast Fly Fishing School instructor Gerry Crow (left) with a student on the Contoocook River during a weekend-long excursion hosted by the Hancock Inn.

As I browsed through my tattered and dog-eared copy of New Hampshire Magazine’s September 2014 issue, I couldn’t help but breathe a contented sigh and let loose a bubbly giggle. This window to a then-distant state gave me hope for the future. We were living in southern Texas at the time, and we dreamed of a cooler climate filled with less-humid outdoor activities set among beautiful lakes and mountains. That dream finally became a reality last year when we left that southern climate behind and signed the paperwork to purchase a century-old farmhouse perched on a little hill overlooking a charming covered bridge nestled in the Mink Hills of New Hampshire.

I remember flipping through the pages of the magazine when a photo of a fly fishing scene caught my eye. It was of a river tumbling over giant granite boulders, worn smooth and round over thousands of years. A cool morning mist hovered over the surface of the river as a lone fly fisherman cast his rod out over the fast-moving water, the line curling through the air like a wisp of smoke.

At the time, I remember thinking how mysterious fly fishing seemed. It appeared both rugged and graceful, and I instantly wanted to experience it for myself.

Fast forward to 2016. In between renovation projects galore on our old farmhouse, we squeezed out weekend escapes to explore beautiful New Hampshire as we continued to introduce ourselves to our adoptive state. One of our favorite go-to places is the Hancock Inn in the Monadnock Region. Tucked between Mount Monadnock and Crotched Mountain along the windy Contoocook River, it’s been operating since 1789. Here, you’ll find a perfect example of an inn that remains true to its origins, thanks to innkeepers Marcia and Jarvis, who work hard to capture feelings of quintessential New England charm.

It just so happened that the inn was teaming up with Northeast Fly Fishing School for weekend packages filled with a scrumptious breakfast and fly fishing excursion. It was all followed by a relaxing gourmet dinner overlooking the inn’s beautiful flower gardens and little koi pond. Two weekend collaborations were planned for 2016 — one in May and another coming up in September. Without hesitation, we signed up for the first weekend.

On a cool, misty weekend this past May, we packed our warm socks and waterproof boots and left our to-do projects behind for a memorable weekend along the ambling Contoocook. We soon met Gerry Crow, our instantly likable instructor. He’s a genuinely engaging man with a deep, rich, soft-spoken voice and mannerisms not unlike Mr. Carson from “Downton Abbey.”

Our class for the weekend was made up of five fun-loving enthusiasts of all levels, from amateur to intermediate, hailing from all over New England. The morning was crisp and cool with a fine mist falling gently, so we all cozied up indoors, enjoying pastries and hot coffee while Gerry took us through the beginning paces of Fly Fishing 101.

“Think like a fish, act like a bug” was Gerry’s first lesson of the weekend. We all chuckled. But it turns out this is excellent advice. Everything we learned, from which tiny fly to select to how to cast our line onto the water, was based on simulating the movements of an insect in order to fool an unsuspecting — and hopefully hungry — fish. Gerry divided up his remarkable collection of handmade flies by seasons to show us what would be flying out over the rivers at what time of the year and which flies the fish would consider to be the most tasty.

Filled with more knowledge than we could have imagined — fly fishing involves a combination of biology, physical science, and fish and insect psychology — we spent hours in the morning getting introduced to more insects than we knew existed. After a filling lunch of sandwiches, pasta salad and scrumptious plump oatmeal cookies served with a side of entertaining stories shared among our group members, Gerry got us all suited up and we headed outdoors. The second half of the day was spent at a nearby pond trying to cast a rod gracefully out onto the water as we kept in mind Gerry’s advice: “Think like a fish, act like a bug.”

The afternoon was spent in a steady, cooling drizzle around that little pond as we first tested our newfound knowledge. Everything from which rod to select and how to tie a clinch knot to which fly pattern to choose that best imitates our chosen insect occupied us happily during the quiet afternoon hours. Gerry had a way of making each person in the group feel like the lesson is tailored just for him or her.

With several hours of casting practice behind us, we eagerly awaited the next morning when Gerry would bring us out onto the swiftly flowing Contoocook River to fish for real. But first, the much-anticipated gourmet dinner at the inn. This was an evening to be savored as stories from the day dominated the conversations around the table. Dinner did not disappoint. After hours spent building up an appetite outdoors in the exhilarating summer air, dining on locally sourced dishes in a cozy dining room was the ideal ending to the day.

The setting was just as wonderful as the excellent food. From the fresh country flowers cut from the back garden on each table to the antique oil-burning lamps that flickered romantically on white tablecloths, the inn most certainly has found a balance between upscale recipes and a comfortable, unpretentious ambiance.

The Hancock Inn is your home base for the weekend.

The Hancock Inn is your home base for the weekend.

After an exquisite dinner and a good night’s sleep at the inn, a hearty tavern breakfast was the first item on the agenda for the morning. No one goes away hungry from breakfast at the Hancock Inn. It was served in the bright, cheery tavern room and consisted of hearty choices such as omelets; French toast; fresh, seasonal fruit; and Marcia’s signature muffins. At this point our small group felt familiar, and you might think we were a band of longtime friends.

With a full morning ahead, our little troop gathered to trek over to Contoocook River for the real deal — fly fishing on a fast-moving, boulder-studded river. The experience is everything it appears to be when looking at photos of fly fishing in glossy magazines. Under Gerry’s careful eye, we readied our lines. We carefully waded out into the swiftly-moving water, using carved, sturdy wooden sticks to keep our balance. Gerry lifted various rocks and swished his stick through the tree branches to show us the insects that were currently breeding, which would make tasty morsels for the fish. The water rushing around our thick waders was exhilarating. The sounds of the rumbling river and the trees swishing overhead was like a coordinated orchestra of lullaby music for outdoorspeople.

Once out on the water I found fishing to be a calming and solitary experience. Much space is needed between each person due to lines flying through the air. All that occupies the tranquil hours that stretch into the morning are one’s thoughts and an appreciation of the beauty of our state. It is a sport that mesmerizes the senses. The repetitive motion of casting the line, working the motion of it on the water, and pulling it back in play out over and over. I can imagine fly fishing is a wonderful way to travel all over the state experiencing different rivers with diverse scenery all the way from spring through early fall.

Gerry is a natural storyteller, and he entertained and informed us of the many places in New Hampshire where he has fished with his buddies. After hours out on the water, it was time to end this memorable weekend adventure. Thoughts of a cup of strong coffee with steamed milk or a casual lunch at the adorable Fiddleheads Café across from the inn lured me out of the water to search for terrestrial delights.

The day ended with a thoughtful, contented drive home. We actually followed the Contoocook River as it winds up and over to our little village of Warner. The inn provided the perfect place to relax after a day filled with fresh air and wild waters. We felt as if we had been away from home longer than a weekend. We became friends with each of the people in our small group as we shared light-hearted stories of how we all came to seek out this experience.

Photos are alluring, but the experience of fly fishing in the middle of a tumbling river, with a light spray of mist all around and the possibility of the thrill of victory in catching a rainbow trout cannot be matched by any photo. What started as a wistful glance at a photo in a magazine may indeed become a lifelong hobby as we continue to explore more of our new state filled with charming rivers, imposing mountains, rolling hills and quaint, timeless villages.

Fly Fishing 101

Honing your skills takes time and practice

By Ernesto Burden

You’ve always wanted to try fly fishing. Maybe your granddad came home with stringers of giant trout and wore a hat with bright, bristly bits of hair and fur stuck in it. Or maybe you had occasion to steep in the glory of the film that shall not be named (if I’ve got to say it, then you don’t get it). Perhaps you gave adult coloring books a shot and realized there’s a reason you stopped getting crayons for your birthday at age 9. Whatever the catalyst, you’ve thrown caution to the wind and booked your first fly fishing weekend. Ever. It’s at a cushy country inn. There might be flambé. There’s definitely Scotch. There’s a top-notch, crusty-but-good-hearted guide. What else do you need?

There are a few things no instructor can teach you in a weekend, things that must be mastered by the age-old formula — TOTW, or time on the water. Do you want to make the most of this luxurious treat, a guided weekend of fly fishing? Get started by learning the aspect of the sport most determined by a deft, almost second-nature sense of feel that can only come by doing: setting the hook.

It sounds grim, but one of the elements that makes it less grim is also one that makes it more difficult. The hooks these days, at least the ones used by many fly fishermen, are barbless. Some rivers even require it. Do you recall getting the worm-encrusted barbed hook stuck in your plaid shirt as a kid and your mother had to cut it out? Or when you caught your Uncle Todd’s ear and the family finished the fishing weekend at the ER? Well, that’s not an issue with a barbless hook. A barbless hook, when rotated, will slip right out of your shirt, your finger or your ear — and right out of a fish’s mouth, leaving only a pinprick. The only thing that prevents that is a proper hookset and subsequent application of pressure, achieved by keeping the line between you and the fish neither too stressed (the fish will break free) or too loose (the fish will slip free).

As you can imagine, these two skills are not ones that can be mastered in any other way than attempting to hook a fish, and then, having done so, attempting to keep it on the hook until you get it to shore, where you can gently release it. (Or hit it on the head with a rock and throw it in your creel to take home for dinner, depending on the stream regulations and your personal temperament. Or the distance between you and your last meal.)

You get this essential practice before braving the pristine trout stream with your expert guide by purposefully floundering.
Start with a warm water pond or lake that has a plentiful population of sunfish. Those little bluegills and pumpkinseeds that congregate in the shallows on warm days nip at everything that falls into the water. The point being — everything.

No matter how clumsy a caster you may be, no matter how elusive the vaunted dead drift is to your skills, you can get a bluegill to strike at your fly. Slap it into the water like your flyrod is a flyswatter and the bluegill will still strike. Which means you can work out the precise moment and tension at which to raise the rod top and secure it.

Then practice (and I recommend the finest, most gossamer tippet — the bit that connects the fly to the leader to fly line — you can find) to add to the challenge and hone your skills.

From there, move on to one of New Hampshire’s fishing gems — the managed trout pond. These ponds are well-stocked and easy to find. Species stocked include brook, rainbow and brown trout, up to a monster 1.5 pounds. Some of these ponds are fly fishing only, some are accessible just a half a minute’s walk from the parking lot (Archery Pond at Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown) and some are remote wilderness hikes (Cole Pond in Enfield is one such).

Are there plenty of fish to be cast at in a New Hampshire trout pond? Yes, and you can usually see them, or at least see them rising. It’s an excellent opportunity (now that you’ve mastered setting the hook) to practice sight casting to rising fish. This does not happen nearly as frequently in rivers. But set your expectations properly. You will see many fish and make many casts. But these fish have seen many flies. They are well-educated trout.

Good luck, and tight lines!

Categories: Features, Summer Sports