Learning a new physical skill is often a humiliating experience. Teaching your body to do something novel involves a period of repetition that eventually builds enough muscle memory so that you can think about something else while doing it. And when that happens, the feeling is amazing. But until that level of competence is achieved, you inevitably suffer through varying levels of frustration, embarrassment, self-pity, self-loathing and loathing of the person who told you this would be “fun.”
For example, my dude is really good at fly fishing, and he tried to teach me how to do it, and of course I was bad at it, and because I'm the kind of person who expects to be good at everything right away, I ended up plopping down on a creek bank and throwing a teary toddler tantrum. Very unsporting. We don't speak of it.
Get a Guide—and Borrow Gear
So I resolved to get better (but not with him watching). There are several Santa Fe-area fly-fishing shops and outfits that offer formal classes, but everyone I talked to said the best way to learn is to fish with a guide, who will give you as much—or as little—instruction as you want. Guides are willing to teach as much as you want to learn, and absolute beginners have the best opportunity to soak up a ton of knowledge from one day with a guide. “They pay attention to detail and instruction and are more willing to be taught,” says Jarrett Sasser of High Desert Angler.
This makes great sense: Pay someone who's really good at fishing and spends enough time on the water that he won't get all bent about coaching you all day.
"I'm 62, and I've been fly fishing since I was 4 years old, and I would not try to teach my wife how to fly fish," says Noah Parker of Land of Enchantment Guides. "Seriously. We run into this all the time. Whether it's couples or father and son, it's like, yeah, don't do it." Learning from a stranger is totally baggage-free.
What exactly will you learn? David Lemke, who is the one-man Fly Fishing School of Santa Fe, teaches in his back yard in Pecos. "We'll sit at a table, and I'll teach them how to rig and choose flies, and then I do a little casting lesson." After that, they walk down to the river and learn how to manage the line in the water, how to read the water, how to actually catch fish—and release them properly. "Some people think they're doing catch-and-release but really they're putting a fish back into the water, and it's going to die," he says.
It's not cheap to hire a fly fishing guide (about $350 for a full day), but there are plenty of advantages to it, including the fact that many of them will outfit you with everything you need for the day (waders, boots, rod, reel, flies, snips and tippets) for free or a small fee. Trying to gear up before you've ever been on the water can be daunting, but "all you need is a hat and a pair of sunglasses," says Parker, who stocks gear from kids' size 4 to men's 15. "If we can't fit you out in wading gear, you're either very, very small or very, very large."
Of course, some guides don't have a big stock of waders to rent, but the truth is, you don't need much more than a rod and reel, which every guide outfit can lend. In the summer here, you can wade into the water with shorts and river sandals. If you get cold, climb back onto the bank and fish for a while, and you'll be dry in a flash. "My best advice is, before you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on gear, take a guided trip" and borrow gear, says Ivan Valdez, whose shop, The Reel Life, sells everything it lends out.
And the important thing is not how you look, it's that you 1) learn how to fish, 2) have a good time and 3) don't cry. Sounds doable.
Land of Enchantment Guides
Six full-time guides lead trips all over the state and southern Colorado. Full-day trip with a guide ($365) includes all gear, lunch and pickup/drop-off in Santa Fe.
High Desert Angler
460 Cerrillos Road, 988-7688
Day trips ($350) include all equipment and lunch; two-day boot camp runs $750 for one or $900 for two. Private water available for an extra fee.
The Reel Life
Inside DeVargas Center, 526 N Guadalupe St., 995-8114
Eight guides lead day trips around northern NM ($350, plus $25 to rent gear) and annual trips to Argentina and Alaska.
Santa Fe Fly Fishing School
One-on-one instruction on private water in Pecos ($350/day). Also offers focused instruction for $125 per two-hour blocks. Bring your own wading gear.