Thursday, July 1, 2010


“Congratulations, you passed” the examiner said, as he reached out and shook my hand. I didn’t think I performed many of the casting tasks very well. Nevertheless, I was both relieved and excited. I had taken the test once before, and had failed early on in the testing routine.

The examiner completed some paperwork while I pondered what it all meant. I have a mind set that says if I did it, it must have been easy; they must have wanted to give it to me, like the Groucho Marks thing: “I would never belong to a club that would have me.” Low self esteem, contrary nature, cynicism; call it what you will. I cast a fly rod better than about 90% of the fly fishers I know, but that doesn’t make any difference. I’m not as good as I should be, not as good as that other ten percent.

And so by the time I left the testing site, I was convinced that the test was a “gimme”, not difficult at all, and that all this hoopla about it had been merely made up as a way of scaring me into practicing more. That was my thinking despite the fact that I had practiced for the exam for about two and a half years.

After the test I phoned Ray. He’s a master, and he’d asked me to give him a ring with the results.

“So ya passed; I knew ya would” he said. I told him I didn’t think I really did that well. “Everybody feels that way, kid. It’s like my ex-wife; whatever ya do, it ain’t gonna be enough. Relax, you earned it. Stop beatin’ yourself up and enjoy what ya earned.” Ray knew me pretty well.

Finally, after hanging up the phone, I was left with only one question: “Why do I want to be a certified fly casting instructor?” This was not the first time I had asked myself that question. You can teach people for pay without the certification, so it isn’t really necessary. The honest answer remains what it has always been: “I dunno; don’t have a clue.”

Why do some people climb mountains? Why do some try to circumnavigate the globe in small sailing craft? President Kennedy’s quote comes to mind, even if it’s meant for far loftier goals than mine: “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.

As I reflect on it, some theories ring more true than others. It is a way of aggrandizing my ego. I get to set myself apart from other fly fishermen as being more capable, more knowledgeable about the art of casting a fly rod. Yeah, that’s right, I said “art”. Those who know me know that’s a word I use very sparingly; I have a pretty rigorous definition of it. But when I started practicing my casting seriously, I began to observe good casters, and gradually, my thoughts about casting a fly rod changed.

I started this certification project by saying that I wanted to help others to become more proficient, to have more fun with the sport. That is true in some small measure, but not totally; that’s just not me. I really don’t care all that much how others use or abuse their fly rods, except that when I see a really poor caster, I want to give that person advice he or she may not want. When I see a really good one, I want to stop fishing and watch him.

My examiners had been a couple of the really good ones. After the exam, I watched as they each did things with their fly rods that made me both humble and jealous. Yes, what they did with a fly rod makes it easy for me to call it an “art”.

As a small boy, I had the opportunity one autumn day to visit a man in his modest apartment back in Louisville. He was hooked up to an oxygen machine, and the ashtrays in the place were littered with cigarette butts. His wife, if he’d ever had one, was long gone. I didn’t know him; I went there with my fishing buddy and his father because they had asked me. My friend’s father was perhaps the greatest craftsman of wood work I’ve ever known. Beautiful inlay work covered by a satin smooth finish. There were no nails or screws in any piece of furniture he ever finished, yet it was all sturdy as a rock. But for some reason I didn’t understand, he wanted to come and visit this man in his humble surroundings.

The old man painted pictures of wildlife that he had seen as a hunter. The apartment had easels and paintings everywhere. I could barely step over or around all of it. Doves, ducks, geese, deer, rabbits, quail. His paintings were not that good. Some would say they were crude, that he didn’t know how to paint. But I never forgot his pictures. I think that he knew he was not a good painter. But now the old man speaks to me in a voice louder than when I was a boy. I think now that he believed that his lack of skill was no reason not to paint. And so he continued on, showing his paintings to anyone who cared to look at them, talking endlessly about the hunts he had been on, what he had seen. And he continued to work on new paintings. I never went back, so I don’t know if the he ever got any better.

But I don't think that was his point, if he had one. I think he just loved painting those scenes. At least that's the message I took from that experience. The old man is long gone now, and I'm left with his memory, strained through years of experience.

Seeing the true craftsman, my friend's father, paying homage to the old man with his crude paintings left a profound impression on me.

Time and experience will push me toward improvement in my teaching, in my casting. I hope I never lose the kind of love the old man had for his art.

© James Webb 2010

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