Streams and Mentors

Lessons in Fly Fishing and Life

You have to picture Bob. He's the kind of guy you would see in a Norman Rockwell fly fishing painting.

You can tell from his appearance he's an old pro. Way past the trendy fly fishing stuff, he wears a fishing shirt with big pockets and a classic hat. His constant companions are his pipe and his dog Boozer. We first met when I was planning a trip to Pennsylvania and called his fly shop to arrange for a guide. I talked to Bob Sentiwany, who seemed intent on fixing me up with his son; we had a great conversation—full of laughs.

I did hire his son, who's an excellent guide. But the following day, Bob invited me to fish with him. The drive to the stream allowed time for us to talk.

You know how you can sometimes say things to strangers that you don't even say to your friends? Well, Bob and I had that kind of conversation. We spent the afternoon talking, while fishing an idyllic Pennsylvania stream. I say "we," but I'm not sure Bob picked up a rod at all. He mostly sat on a rock and coached me: " . . .cast to the right of that rock; now into this riffle; wait a little longer on your back cast . . ."

His teaching style is relaxed and gentle.

It was an extraordinary day and I kept thinking to myself that this must be what it was like to be taught to fish by a real master. I was amazed by how much I learned. With a great sense of nostalgia, I've read those stories of an idealized sage who initiates a younger fly fisher into the mysteries of the sport, which are then related to the ebb and flow of life. While those who have been written about have been mostly men, I'm sure there have been women in this role as well.

In my few years of fly fishing I've had several glimpses of what that kind of relationship would be—mostly from friends in my fly fishing clubs who teach me casting, fly tying and rod building. I even get to fish with them once in a while.

While honored to be the beneficiary of Bob's generosity, I was puzzled as to why he would choose to spend his afternoon teaching someone to fish for free, when that is pretty much his job on a day-to-day basis. What could he possibly be "getting" out of this?

Later, in the fly shop, he said something to me about how no one takes the time to teach new fly fishers "stream etiquette" anymore. That started me thinking. There was a time when you earned the right to fish a special place with an experienced angler, when you could learn to read water and tie flies only by spending time with an older person who knew these things. And that older person taught you respect for the water and respect for other anglers. Passing knowledge from one generation to the next in this way was once part of everyday life.

Vestiges of this tradition are preserved in the culture of fly fishing, but it is becoming increasingly rare as fly fishing is transformed into an "industry.'' You can hire someone to teach you to cast. You can pay money to attend a class in which fishing techniques are taught. (And this is not intended as an indictment of those things in themselves.) But you can't hire someone to teach you about life.

Mentoring happens only spontaneously, and once you arrive at the point where you must hire someone to teach you to fish, mentoring is unlikely to take place.

I know several people who have fished for decades and no longer have the passion that I (a relative beginner) have for the actual catching of fish. Those who still love the sport now find their joy in the enthusiasm of those of us who are just learning. I'm starting to think of it as a process in which an important phase is being lost.


Special thanks to the folks at AA Pro Shop  for sponsoring Julie's article on GORP!

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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