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Billy Baker

Fly fishing school left me tied in knots

If Brad Pitt weren’t so darn handsome we could have skipped this midlife crisis.

Fly fishing is a lot like regular fishing, except that there are 867 complicated steps, involving wildly expensive gear, before you can actually get a hook in front of a fish.
Fly fishing is a lot like regular fishing, except that there are 867 complicated steps, involving wildly expensive gear, before you can actually get a hook in front of a fish.Globe Staff/Adobe

FREEPORT, MAINE — I now have a diploma from L.L.Bean Fly Fishing School.

I worry that may come across as bragging, or degree-shaming. But please know that this diploma attests that I “possess the skills and knowledge necessary to enjoy a lifetime of fly fishing,” and I’m now fairly certain that a lifetime of fly fishing is one of those chronic diseases that are probably best to avoid, like leprosy or golf.

No, this certificate is nothing more than written proof of a midlife crisis, one I can now see was triggered by a willful denial of failing eyesight, the ridiculous male desire to pursue simple pleasures in painfully complicated ways, and an undeniable attraction to Brad Pitt. It is also a reminder of the $399 I owe my credit card company for the class.

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Not that I was aware of these blind spots — blind spots are funny like that — as I set out for Fogg Farm in Freeport, the small town/L.L.Bean theme park that is home to the company’s headquarters, its ZIP code-sized flagship store, and a disconcertingly large sculpture of its iconic Bean Boot.

When I pulled into the farm, home to several of the company’s “outdoor discovery programs,” I was met by two instructors and 10 other students, all of whom were guys, including four who were actually wearing Bean Boots.

I spent some time pondering this — for all male midlife crises are largely devoted to jealousy of other guys’ gear — as class began in a big outdoor tent. Ours was a two-day “immersion course,” and after a short introduction we were led outside to two one-inch deep “practice ponds” to learn how to cast. Which was very exciting until I actually picked up a fly rod for the first time.

Fly fishing, if you are unfamiliar, is a lot like regular fishing, except that there are 867 complicated steps, involving wildly expensive gear, before you can actually get a hook in front of a fish. Where traditional fishing tackle involves a light line with some sort of weight at the end — a lure, bait, some sinkers — in fly fishing the line itself contains the weight. You’re not casting the lightweight fly so much as you’re casting the line itself.

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Deep down, I knew fly casting was painfully complicated. But I was in denial — we’ll get to Brad Pitt in a second — until I was handed a rod and asked to mimic the “four-part cast” the instructors had just demonstrated.

In the hands of a skilled fly caster, the movement looks elegant — a tight loop of line unfurling effortlessly until it lands softly in the distance with a gentle kiss.

In the hands of a novice — and I was secretly pleased to see we were all novices, even the dudes in the Bean Boots — it looks like an orangutan using a whip made of al dente spaghetti.

“Do as little as possible. Try to be zen,” Chris Coffin, one of the instructors, said to me, politely trying to avoid words like “hopeless” and “Are you sure you’re right-handed?”

But it turns out I was not entirely useless. Although we weren’t even using hooks — the line was tied to a piece of red yarn, so we didn’t kill ourselves or the other students — I managed to halt the entire class so the instructors could teach everyone perhaps the most important lesson in fly fishing: how to get your line out of a tree without breaking your rod. This is important to know because a good fly rod costs as much as a divorce.

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I was almost ready to quit and take up something easier, like tensor calculus, when Coffin said something that made my heart start racing.

“Now for the sexy part, the ‘River Runs Through It’ part,” he announced. “The false cast!”

Have you seen “A River Runs Through It,” the 1992 Robert Redford movie where Pitt — plus a highly skilled casting double — made fly fishing look, um, sexy? I have. We’ll just say “several times” so it doesn’t get too weird, including the night before I left for class.

For some reason, that movie is blamed for bringing a lot of naïve morons into fly fishing, dopes who think they’re going to pick up a rod and look as sexy as a young Pitt false casting in a Montana stream. Those people are the worst.

False casting is where the angler continuously makes the line move forward and back, and it has several actual functions and one very important one, which is that it looks cool. In the hands of Coffin and the other instructor, Jeff Ireland, it looks like a wave dancing in slow motion. In my hands, it was an opportunity to show that I had, in fact, learned how to get a line out of a tree.

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After eight hours of casting, interrupted by classroom lectures on things like knots, insect hatches, and how to think like a fish, I staggered to my car and headed straight for the L.L.Bean flagship store. Once there, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the cavernous fishing section, surrounded by flies and tippet, indicators and nippers, rods and reels, trying to make a decision.

If we do this, I told myself, there’s no going back. You will never be the same.

It took forever to decide. I may have cried at one point. But there was no denying it anymore. Fly fishing had not changed me; it had revealed me.

So I pulled the trigger and bought my first-ever pair of reading glasses.

The next day was much the same as the first, with two exceptions: I could actually see the microscopic knots I was tying, and I dare say I started to get the hang of it. Every now and then, I’d let a cast go and the line would smooth itself out and melt into the water. This momentum ended the moment they brought out a camera to film and analyze our casts in front of the class, but I had enough moments of genuine breakthrough that when I left the diploma ceremony I was genuinely torn.

Was I about to become a fly fisherman? And if so, should I have bought the reading glasses that hang around your neck and click together magnetically?

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When I got in my car to start the ride home, I actually took a second to find a fly fishing podcast. And I’m glad I did, because as I listened to someone prattle on about the best nymphing rods, whatever that means, I had one of those “what are you doing?” moments. Which was great, because I went to bed that night convinced that this was a silly idea that I could now put behind me.

Then something unfortunate happened, something beyond my control. I dreamt of fly fishing. I saw myself wading into a mountain stream, letting go a perfect cast, and watching a trout jump to snatch my fly from the crystal clear water. When I awoke, all I could think about was buying a fly rod, and I rushed to my computer to see how much money I could get for my car.

I curse you, Brad Pitt. But I thank you for never making a movie about golf.


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.