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First Flies
Learning to use a fly rod is a challenge, but that's precisely what makes the sport so intruiguing for so many saltwater anglers.

BY TODD MASSON

With the low-water conditions, the redfish were in the dead-end canals during Springer’s trip with Bourgeois. The guide expects the fish to be mostly in the ponds this month.
With the low-water conditions, the redfish were in the dead-end canals during Springer’s trip with Bourgeois. The guide expects the fish to be mostly in the ponds this month.

Cherise Springer comes from a long line of coonasses. Her ancestors had names like Couvillion, Gremillion and Lemoine, and they hailed from towns like Plaucheville, Bunkie and Carencro.

But at precisely 7:05 on Jan.

16, 2002, Springer betrayed her Cajun heritage. She, of all things, undertook to learn to catch fish with a fly rod. And not just any fish – but redfish. Poisson rouge, the unofficial state fish of Louisiana.

Such things just aren’t done here. Cajuns throw live bait when we can get it, double rigs when we can’t. We like to anchor, and keep the number of casts per trip to a minimum. We want meat, nothing more, nothing less.

But there Springer was, with Capt. Theophile Bourgeois calmly offering encouragement and guidance, swinging an extra-long, whippy rod through the air several times in an effort to make just a single cast. Ol’ Man Gremillion was surely rolling over in his grave.

“Just keep the rod between 10 and 2, and try not to break your wrist,” Bourgeois instructed.

For about the first two hours, Springer looked as lost as a goose. Poor rhythm, short backcasts and an early release point conspired to make her first hundred or so casts painful to watch. Surely, she could have picked up the fly with her bare hands and hurled it — line and all — farther than she was able to cast it in the Lafitte canal. She looked like a young medical student must feel on his first day of brain-surgery class.

During the first hour, she would try to smile occasionally and would laugh at some of her efforts. During the second hour, her shoulder, wrist and legs began to burn with lactic acid from the unusual movements, and the smiles were few and far between.

“I will never be able to do this,” she later admitted to thinking.

But Bourgeois kept offering non-stop pointers with the confidence of a man who has watched complete novices progress into fly-fishing pros.

Bourgeois saw something promising in Springer’s casts, even though most fell within a 12-foot radius from the boat.

“You’re going to get this. I can tell,” he said. “The first time I took Susan Gros out, she was worse than you.”

Bourgeois says fly-rodders who can consistently lay a fly 30 feet from the boat are ready for saltwater action.
Bourgeois says fly-rodders who can consistently lay a fly 30 feet from the boat are ready for saltwater action.

That meant nothing to Springer until Bourgeois explained that Gros, a New Orleans resident, now has her name scattered throughout the state and International Game Fish Association record books.

The steady stream of advice and praise began bearing fruit during the third hour of Springer’s lesson. After tying the butt of the rod to her forearm with a towel to get her to stop breaking her wrist, Bourgeois went to work on Springer’s release point — the exact moment when she’d let go of the line on her forward cast.

Springer, like nearly everyone who picks up a fly rod for the first time, was releasing the line too early, while the rod was almost overhead. Bourgeois talked her through it, and Springer began waiting until she felt the rod “load.”

This was the ticket. Although she still couldn’t effortlessly cast 40 feet, as could her teacher, she was now able to consistently shoot the fly 25 feet from the boat.

That was good enough for Bourgeois.

“These are just my practice canals,” he said. “Now I’m going to take you to my fishing canals.”

Springer was exhausted, and her muscles ached, but the pain was numbed by the anticipation of actually being able to cast to feeding fish.

She put her heavy coat back on, and Bourgeois lowered the throttle. The air was warming after a bitter start to the day, but with the boat in motion, it felt colder than ever. Every canal had at least 3 feet of mud exposed to the low winter sun, and the tide was still falling.

Bourgeois said the water was actually high, though, compared to what it had been.

“Up until Monday (two days earlier), we were catching 50 to 60 redfish per day on a fly because the water was so low all the fish were stacked up in the canals,” he said over the roar of the 200-horsepower Yamaha. “It’s come up about 8 inches since then, and a lot of the fish have moved back into the ponds. We’ll see what happens, though.”

With a breeze of 8 to 10 knots blowing out of the east, Bourgeois was reluctant to take his new student into the wide-open ponds. She would find it easier to cast in the protected canals, and besides, she probably wasn’t accurate enough yet to put a fly directly in front of a feeding red in a pond, he explained.

After the first stop in one of Bourgeois’ “fishing canals,” it appeared he might have no choice but to go into the ponds. The fly went untouched, and there was no hint of a red moving anywhere in the dead-end canal.

In the second waterway, however, the captain spotted a big red searching for an easy meal along the clear shoreline.

It wandered off before Springer was able to shoot a fly in front of it, but it at least was a good sign.

The burgeoning fly-fisher continued blind-casting, and at 12:22 p.m., it finally happened. With the boat about 25 feet from the exposed mud along the bank, Springer sent a spoon-fly just to the edge of the water and began to strip it. She thought she had snagged another oyster shell, when Bourgeois saw the “oyster shell” heading for deeper water in the center of the canal.

“Strip set! Strip set!” Bourgeois shouted, and his student did as instructed.

A spoon fly fooled this low-water redfish. These lures are among Bourgeois’ favorites.
A spoon fly fooled this low-water redfish. These lures are among Bourgeois’ favorites.

The fish responded with a mad dash, but it was unable to pull the line free from Springer’s hand. She stripped it all the way to the boat.

It was only a 14-incher, but like every first fish caught on a fly, it was a trophy.

Springer would later catch three more fish on the fly, including a 22-inch beauty that forced her to fight it on the reel.

By the standards of most Cajuns, it was a horrible day. Springer had fished for six hours, but had only one keeper to show for her efforts.

But as any veteran fly-fisherman will tell you, four fish during your first outing with a long-rod is a major accomplishment.

“You don’t fly-fish to fill the freezer,” Bourgeois said. “It’s a different type of fulfillment. It’s the ultimate challenge. You’re in the marsh, and it’s just you, the guide and the fish. There might be a trophy redfish next to you, and you get one cast at it. That’s it.

“Each fish is much more rewarding.”

Those rewards aren’t measured in meat.

“Ninety percent of my fly-fishing clients practice catch-and-release,” Bourgeois said. “They work so hard to get the fish that they respect it more.”

Though Bourgeois had Springer out in January to teach her how to cast, the prime time for fly-fishing in the Lafitte area starts right about now.

“March is known for wind. They say it’s our windiest month of the year, and I’m sure that’s true, but we also have a lot of calm days in March. If you can get out on one of those days, that’s the beginning of when our fish really turn on,” Bourgeois said. “We fish big poppers for trout in the lakes and bays, and spoon flies for reds.”

From March through September, he’ll fish the reds in the shallow ponds, opting only to work the canals when the tides are extremely low following a hard north or northwest blow.

Bourgeois is more than happy to take out beginners or those who think they might have an interest in fly-fishing. But, he said, to maximize the enjoyment of the experience, it’s probably better for rookies to practice at home before hiring a guide.

Springer agreed.

“By the time I figured out how to do it, I was too tired to fish,” she said.

Bourgeois recommends that a beginner set up a series of paper plates in a wide-open area, with the first plate at 15 feet, the last at 50 feet, and the rest at measured distances between them.

“You’ll never hit that 50-foot plate, but it’s good to have it there as a goal,” he said. “When you can consistently hit the 30-foot plate with only one false cast, you can have success fly-fishing.”

After that, Bourgeois recommends that anglers try their hand at freshwater fishing for bass and bream in order to sharpen their skills.

“Being able to fly-fish in fresh water is a step to being able to fly-fish in salt water. You don’t have to cast as far in freshwater fly-fishing as you do in saltwater fly-fishing, and you don’t have to be as accurate,” he said. “But you can learn how to fight a fish and get it to the boat.”

Bourgeois tied a towel around the butt of the rod and Springer’s forearm.
Bourgeois tied a towel around the butt of the rod and Springer’s forearm.

Bourgeois recommends that those who have never picked up a fly-rod take lessons through a local fly shop. But for those who want to try it on their own, here are the basics (for right-handers; left-handers should use the opposite hand for all tasks):

Hold the rod in your right hand, and strip about 30 feet of line from the reel using your left hand. Allow the line to pile up at your feet.

Hold the line between the pile at your feet and the first rod guide with your left hand, and sharply swing the rod back to the 2 o’clock position behind your head. When the line on the fly side of the last rod guide has passed the tip of the rod and is sticking nearly straight out behind you, snap the rod to the 10 o’clock position. When the line has passed the rod and is just about sticking straight out in front of you, let go of the line in your left hand. The line will feed out in the direction of the fly. This is called a false cast.

Just before the fly stops its forward motion, grab the line again with your left hand and snap the rod back to the 2 o’clock position, and repeat the process.

On your next forward cast, allow the line to feed again and fall to the water.

It sounds like a piece of cake, but it isn’t.

Some of the most common mistakes beginners make are:

Not allowing enough time on the backcast.

This doesn’t allow you to get any forward momentum because the line hasn’t yet extended fully behind you. All you’re doing is pulling forward the slack that is over your head.

Going past 2 o’clock on the backcast.

This kills you because it pulls the line downward rather than straight behind you.

Letting go of the line on a forward cast before the rod has “loaded.”

This is a doozy, and it’s most prevalent among anglers who have a lot of experience with spinning and baitcasting equipment because with such gear the line or spool must be let go of when the bait is almost directly overhead.

This is one of the main reasons Bourgeois finds women easier to teach to fly-fish than men — primarily because, in general, they have less fishing experience than men. That and the fact that women are a lot less hard-headed.

Breaking the casting wrist.

The arm should be an extension of the butt of the rod, with little or no flex.

To ensure that a beginner doesn’t break his wrist, Bourgeois ties the student’s forearm to the rod butt using a towel, rope, bungee cord or hair scrungee.

Not going past 10 o’clock on the cast.

The rod should only be stopped at 10 o’clock on a false cast. On the actual cast, the rod should be pointed at the spot where the angler would like the fly to land.

Trying to cast when it’s too windy.

Even the best fly angler will have great difficulty casting in any wind greater than 15 m.p.h. Eight m.p.h. is about the maximum for a beginner.

Springer might add another mistake that beginners tend to make — not being in peak physical condition.

“You need to work out for a couple of weeks before you try it,” she said. “My arms are killing me.”

Capt. Theophile Bourgeois can be reached at (504) 341-5614.