Voices from the river

Voices from the River: Fifteen minutes

By Eric Booton

I start by asking the kids “what kind of rod is this?” While holding up a basic Shakespeare 8-weight combo rod on display for them to analyze.

The answers vary, some are wrong, some are accurate, and some are obscure. The best answer remains “it’s an old timey rod!” I am self-taught fly angler. I know I am nothing special and honestly consider my cast to be a bit of a hack. This is the first reason why I find it interesting that for the third year running, I am teaching fly casting to hundreds of Anchorage School District sixth-grade students as part of Youth Outdoor Week, hosted by the Bureau of Land Management.

The second reason is that youth intimidate me. It’s not that I am scared of them, it’s more that I have almost zero experience teaching or interacting with them. I have no clue what the kids are into these days, but in 15-minute increments I am willing to entertain them by sharing the basics of the activity that has captured my heart and haunts my dreams.

So here I find myself learning the dance to an apparently hit hip-hop song called “Flick of the Wrist,” putting an end to fly rod sword fights, and connecting with the surprising amount of students that would rather try and cast their (hookless) yarn fly into a hula hoop than catch the school bus home.

Over the last three years I have observed for the most part three consistent groups of kids:

  • The overly excited kids that grew up fishing and know it all. They want to be the first to cast and don’t want to give up until they land the fly in the hula hoop. Some of the finer points of my instruction are not absorbed, but their persistence is impressive.
  • The shy and timid who listen intently but are reluctant to step in front of their classmates and give it a shot. These kids must be encouraged to take their turn with the fly rod and try casting at least once. More often than not these are the students who land the fly in the hula hoop first try and have the best cast.
  • The inherent handful that is distracted by the impending summer and wouldn’t pay attention to me even if I was dressed as a unicorn and handing out ice cream bars. Maybe some of them were simply day dreaming about fish? One can hope.

Fifteen minutes is too brief to fully introduce a dozen preteens to fly fishing, but at the very least it was an opportunity to offer the students a glimpse at a rewarding pursuit that majority of them would never have otherwise had the chance to consider. It’s also 15 minutes spent breathing fresh air, listening to the chickadee’s sing, and not staring at a screen, which is time well spent in my book.

Based off the number of students that were enthralled by watching two robins squabble like it was their first time observing wildlife and couldn’t identify moose feces or differentiate between a spruce tree or a birch tree, I am confident that each of the students brought back something from Outdoor Week. I am pleased to be a part of that and will not be broken-hearted if my intro to fly casting wasn’t retained.

Throughout the week I observed John, a retired BLM employee who has helped at Outdoor Week for decades as BLM staff, and now as a volunteer, teaching a dozen kids at a time how to tie a basic buck tail streamer with the patience and temperament of a seasoned grandfather.

In a few years maybe I’ll be more like John—calm, cool, and collected and handing down subtle life lessons. At the end of each fly-tying session John would tell the kids, “Great work, now respect yourselves and have a good summer.”

Eric Booton is the sportsmen’s outreach coordinator for TU’s Alaska Program. He lives and works in Anchorage.

By Chris Hunt.