Editor’s note: This is the second installment in an irregular series we’re calling Try-Town, where reporters from the Tri-Town Weekly papers – The Colchester Sun, Essex Reporter and Milton Independent – try activities available in our communities. Submit your suggestions to email@example.com.
By MICHAELA HALNON
It was a bad day for fly fishing.
Mid-day summer sun had heated Browns River to at least 72 degrees. That’s according to a thermometer Mark Wilde, a St. Albans fly fishing guide, found on the side of a riverbank years ago.
It’s considered unethical to fish in such tepid waters, Wilde explained, making spring and autumn the ideal seasons for anglers. We drove a few miles upstream to deeper waters in Underhill Center and measured the temperature again: much better.
“Try a practice cast,” Wilde told me, certain his temperature assessment had scared any nearby fish away already.
I was so shocked to see an immediate tug on the line, I stood motionless, mouth gaping. Then it happened again – and again.
If this was an indication of luck to come, I was in for a thrill, I thought as I carefully tailed Wilde upstream to a new spot.
The Underhill native picked up the hobby from a family friend at age 12 and sold his hand-tied flies to his father’s coworkers at IBM.
He bought Uncle Jammer’s Guide Service in 1998 from James Ehlers, now at the helm of Lake Champlain International in Colchester.
The only thing I was instructed to bring the morning of my first lesson was a license, which I’d bought online that morning for $26. Wilde provided everything else, including a pair of wading boots that were, he said, the smallest and most fashionable he had. He even rolled out a small tan carpet square to stand on as I swapped shoes.
“People always ask me if their feet will get wet,” Wilde laughed. “Yes, they will!”
I was thankful he didn’t see the look on my face as water seeped into my waders just seconds later.
The majority of the lesson was spent with dry feet, on a soccer field at Browns River Middle School in Jericho.
A summer camp released a herd of students onto a nearby playground as we arrived. Some watched quizzically as Wilde set up a hula hoop target. Fifty pairs of observing little eyes did not exactly quell my nerves.
“I have confidence in you,” Wilde said. “I brought the smallest hula hoops.”
He demonstrated a few basic casts, effortlessly hitting the target each time. When I made my first cast, he erupted into a smile.
“That was beautiful!” he exclaimed. “You’re ready for the next cast.”
I looked at him skeptically – my line was nowhere near the hula hoop. The water would behave much differently than the grass, he swore.
Teaching, it seems, surrounds Wilde in every aspect of his life. He works as the lead fly fishing instructor for L.L. Bean, giving fly tying classes outside on Bank Street in Burlington. He also heads multiple summer fishing camps, working with kids as young as 10 through Colchester and South Burlington parks and recreation departments.
Wilde’s also a guide for the Wulff School of Fly Fishing, a legendary company teaching courses through the Catskills in New York, and hosts weekly clinics in Highgate Springs.
An average week includes at least 25 students, Wilde said. Prices vary, but a four-hour private booking like mine generally runs around $175 with all materials included.
During the school year, Wilde teaches agriculture and natural resources at Missisquoi Valley Union High School, a job that pays the bills, he said.
Wilde’s instructions are also full of similes, I soon learned. Casting is like tossing a cup of water over your shoulder or swooping a paintbrush, he said. It’s like chess, not checkers, and like hunting a wild turkey with a bow.
“I love these teaching moments,” he said, giddy.
A motion fly fishing is not like? Swinging a tennis racket or tossing a baseball. A skilled angler casts with the same force forward and back, Wilde explained.
“Athletic training actually works against you,” he said. Check one off for me, I thought.
The excitement from the first three bites in the water was, unfortunately, not matched again. Even Wilde couldn’t coerce nibble from the fish with his own expert casts. That’s a fact, I’m not ashamed to admit, that did wonders for my ego.
“Catch any flies?” a man yelled down from his deck as we waded across the stream, perhaps looking a little defeated.
“Not yet,” Wilde replied kindly.
Some of Wilde’s students have trouble taking this disappointment gracefully. Several have stormed off in frustration after they didn’t master skills at the pace they’d hoped. Many are successful businessmen unaccustomed to failure.
“I’ve met more millionaires than I care to say,” Wilde said. “But fly fishing is the great equalizer.”
Wilde gives all his students the fly they used to catch their first fish. He once received a photo of a prominent CEO’s first fly floating inside a glass paperweight on an impressive-looking desk.
I leave the water fishless but thrilled. I all but gasp when I check the time and notice more than five hours elapsed since I first met Wilde in the parking lot.
This time, I refuse the tiny tan carpet square, wringing out my sopping wet socks as the bottoms of my feet turn brown with dirt. As I got in the car and turned the key, Wilde waved his arms and started toward me.
“Here,” he said, cutting the fly from the line with his teeth. “You might not have caught a fish, but I think you earned this.”
I examined my fly, settled carefully at the bottom of a bright orange pill bottle. Preserving it in a paperweight suddenly seemed reasonable.
For more information about Uncle Jammers Guide Service and to sign-up for a class, visit www.unclejammers.com or call Mark Wilde at 309-4118.