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The Florida Keys Fly-Fishing School is by far the best of its kind I have seen anywhere. They have world-class instructors and a full schedule of activities and events for each day...

April 26, 2005

The Florida Keys Fly-Fishing School is by far the best of its kind I have seen anywhere. They have world-class instructors and a full schedule of activities and events for each day. All students, including those who have many years’ experience, come away with a lot of knowledge, making them much better fly-fishermen.

Flip Pallot, Chico Fernandez and I helped Sandy Moret start the school, which is held at Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, back in 1989. It usually starts on a Friday evening at a cocktail party, where everyone gets acquainted with each other and the instructors. Then we have class on Saturday and Sunday, meeting outside at least twice a day so the instructors can help students perfect their casting strokes. Sandy normally tries to set up a few days after the school for the students to fish with some local backcountry guides.

On Sunday I spend part of the day outside teaching fish-fighting techniques – my forte – and it’s always an eye-opener! During one class, back in about 1995 when the Miami Dolphins where in their heyday, a couple of the players were enrolled in the school. In addition, we had one very slightly built lady – just like my wife, Jeannine, about 5 foot 2 and 109 pounds – and after I showed her how to apply the proper amount of pressure on the fish, she did very well. In fact, she could pull 12 pounds on a scale. It may sound like overkill, but we used a very accurate Chatillon scale so we could see how much pressure each student was applying with the rod.

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Well, one of the great big linemen from the Dolphins, who was probably 300 pounds, attempted the same technique but bent the wrong part of the rod. He couldn’t believe he wasn’t pulling at least what she could, so he had his buddy hold the scale. He arched his back, flexed his muscles and pulled so hard that he started shaking while he tried to apply maximum pressure. I casually walked up to him and asked, “How many pounds do you actually think you’re pulling, John?”

“It has to be at least 50 pounds,” he replied.

I promptly yelled to his buddy holding the scale and asked him what it read. His friend yelled back that it was just about 5 pounds. John couldn’t believe it, but the problem was obvious to me: He was using the wrong part of the rod, bending only the tip.

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I asked John to let me show him something, and I called the lady over. Now she was probably 50 years old and, as I said, slender, but she was in reasonably good shape. I asked her to demonstrate the technique I just taught her on using the fly rod as a fish-fighting weapon. Applying pressure correctly by using the butt section of the rod, she ran the scale right up to 11 pounds. John’s eyes got as big as saucers, and he got this puffed-up belligerent look.

“You guys are really jerking my chain, just trying to make me look bad,” he yelled. After I convinced him that we weren’t making fun of him, I offered to show why he couldn’t do it and how to turn the rod into a fish-fighting tool.

I explained that a fishing rod, any kind of fishing rod, is simply a lever and that the person using the rod to fight a fish is on the wrong end of the fulcrum of this lever. The longer the rod, say a 9-foot fly rod, the more work the angler must do and the less pressure is applied to the fish on the other end of the fulcrum. The only way to gain a mechanical advantage comes from shortening the lever. John immediately asked if he had to break his fly rod in half to shorten that lever. I explained that around 20 years ago, big-game offshore anglers used 7-foot-long stand-up rods for marlin and tuna, and they would fight these fish for many grueling hours. Then one day, one of these anglers finally broke the code and began using 4-foot-long rods. Who knows? He or she could’ve been a physics professor, but these short rods were also made from high-tech composite materials and cut their fighting time in half. Before John could even ask about breaking his rod again, I took it from him and demonstrated that if you put its butt directly in the center of your belly and wind your rod tip down tightly toward your adversary, you can then arch your back and lift the fish while keeping your elbows into your sides.

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I also explained that if the fish went to the side, say to the right, you should move your left foot and your shoulders and body to the left, letting your back and shoulders do the work, not your arms. I told him that only near the end of the fight should you turn your body sideways to the fish and draw down and to the right or down and to the left so that you are always pulling toward the tail of the fish. As long as you keep the rod butt in the center of your belly and your elbows tucked into your sides, your arms will not get tired.

Of course, this is the technique I perfected back in the 1960s while fighting big tarpon and Pacific sailfish, and I call it “down and dirty.” I pointed out to John that while you do this, the upper portion of the fly rod doesn’t bend at all, but rather it follows the fly line straight down toward the fish. In fact, I bend only the lower portion of the rod closest to my belly, which had in fact shortened my 9-foot rod by 4 1/2 feet, thus giving me back my mechanical advantage. And I didn’t have to break it.

This truly got his attention, and after learning only a little of the technique involved in proper fish fighting, John immediately became a disciple. After that he understood exactly why he could apply 15 pounds of pressure using only one hand while he previously strained and shook to apply 5 pounds of pressure when he used both hands. Using the tip of the rod makes it virtually impossible to apply very much pressure, even with the heaviest rod.

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Remember, though, that it is just as important to know when to pull on a fish as it is to know how ? but that will have to wait for the next issue.

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