Life, Love and Fly-Fishing (Part 1)
By Michael Seale
I consider myself, relative to most people I know and grew up with, to be somewhat of a city-slicker. I am more comfortable on a sidewalk than I am a nature trail, and my experience with the great outdoors likely pales in comparison to most people in Alabama. I did not grow up camping, hunting, or doing much fishing. And most of my time I have spent outdoors in my life has been on a baseball field or a golf course. That being said, I do enjoy going fishing when I can, being outdoors and enjoying what nature has to offer. But in all of my years on this earth, I had never attempted the art of fly-fishing. I have been dying to learn, as I have watched people doing it on television or in movies and let’s face it, it just looks “cool.”
Luckily, I found Dr. David Diaz, one of the best instructors in the country, right here in Birmingham.
Rob Rogers, owner and operator of Deep South Outfitters in Altadena Square, has Diaz on staff to provide his customers with one-on-one instruction on what Diaz believes is one of the finest ways to spend your free time.
Diaz, who is a certified instructor by the Federation of Fly Fishing, started this hobby when he was 10 years old, and perfected the art while a student at the University of Oregon. “Oregon has some of the best places anywhere to fly fish,” Diaz said. He said he was able to spend a great deal of time perfecting his craft in the streams and lakes in and around Eugene, where the university is located, and was pleased to find that Alabama offers plenty of location as well, if you know where to find them.
His love of this pastime – a method of fishing that can be chronicled back to 200 AD – is enhanced by teaching others. Diaz said he gets a tremendous amount of joy seeing younger people take up the hobby.
I wondered if Diaz was telling me about this because he was wary of teaching an “old dog new tricks,” so to speak, when I approached him for a lesson. I am easy to coach and eager to learn, but I feel that regardless, Diaz could teach anyone to not only learn his craft, but learn to love it as well.
When I met up with Diaz at the store, I had no idea I was about to not only embark on a fly fishing tutorial, but also a lesson in physics, geometry, golf, and even marriage. To Diaz, fly-fishing incorporates so much of what we do in our everyday life, which is why he says, “It is the most exciting way to catch a fish.” So with fly-fishing lessons also come a great deal of soul searching and life lessons as well.
We proceeded to his “casting pond” in the Colonnade Office Park (where, incidentally, no fishing is allowed, bit Diaz is allowed to give his casting lessons). I had watched fly fishing several times, so I assumed I could just pick it up and take to it like I would anything else. But there is so much more to it, which is what made me realize why so many people develop such a passion for it.
Dan Starnes, this newspaper’s esteemed publisher, and I accompanied Diaz to the pond, where we went through a series of lessons on where to hold the fly rod, how to hold it, how much line is needed, threading the line, etc. We turned away from the water to first learn the perfect cast. I was wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, which Diaz asked to turn backward temporarily for one particular exercise in casting. “I know it feels silly. And we all look like our IQ lowers a lot when we do this, so don’t worry this is temporary.” I wish I had remembered that, because I foolishly kept my hat turned that way for most of the lesson.
Diaz has a wonderful way of patiently allowing his pupils to make mistakes while correcting those mistakes with stories and philosophies that make sense to anyone. He talks often of simple lessons we should all remember from school, that all apply to fly fishing. Angles, force and resistance, speed and accuracy – all tangled up in what appears on the surface to be an easy task until you try to do it.
I struggled a little to remember my high school Physics classes and formulas I had once written on my hand so I could remember them for quizzes in Fred Stephens’ class many moons ago at Mountain Brook High School. I attempted to recall Geometry lessons and angles and vectors. But it all came together once I made the perfect cast.
And nothing pleases Diaz more than a perfect cast. “You felt that, didn’t you?” he asked with a smile as I stood on the bank looking goofy with my hat still turned backward. I did feel it. And like a perfect tee shot in golf or that feeling of hitting a baseball right on the sweet spot, it just felt right. Like everything was aligned. He looked at me and said with a stern look, “Remember what you did and how that feels and repeat it.”
Unfortunately I did not. I was giving too much slack on my line, which is strangely similar to some of the criticism I give myself in many of the things I do in my life. Doing something right, and then allowing too much leeway when repeating the task. Again, a wonderful way that this activity is so indicative of how we are as people.
“It’s about resisting and then giving a little,” Diaz said, and then looked down at my left hand and noticed my wedding ring. “You’re married, so you should know a little about that.” Diaz says there are several correlations between fly fishing and marriage, because they are both a “partnership involving cooperation and compromise, with tremendous rewards.”
The thought made me smile, and brought me a deeper understanding of why so many people develop a passion for fly-fishing and why it becomes a part of a person’s life. Diaz wouldn’t be an instructor if he did not love what he instructs, but allowing others to share his love for the sport so easily is another one of Diaz’ gifts.
While I explained before that I do not get to fish as often as I would like, I also was once an avid golfer – not very good at it, but avid nonetheless – and Diaz was able to put simple fishing terms into golf terminology to help me understand what I was doing wrong and how to do it right.
“We all want to hit the long drive and power everything through. Swing hard and muscle it in there, don’t we?” he asked. I agreed. But I knew where he was going with this. Letting the club do the work in golf is one of the first lessons you learn. And making sure your short game is just as good – if not better – than your ability to crush the ball off the tee is a recipe for golf success.
It is also completely applicable to fly fishing. He explained that accuracy, and letting the rod do the work for me was what would make me a better fisherman. It was about finesse, and patience and timing. He was right.
I was able to perform a flawless cast four times in a row, which is when Diaz announced that the lesson would conclude there. “I think that is a good note to end on,” he said. “Wouldn’t you like to always finish a round of golf on a good shot?” (again with the golf analogy). The intertwining of golf, and relationships and poetry and physics and baseball and everything else that makes my life wonderful was also what made my lesson so enjoyable.
And that, I believe, is what makes Diaz such a successful instructor. He is able to apply the techniques and philosophies of his hobby to what your interests are. And he can do it with an intuitive knowledge that makes him one of the more likable guys I have ever met.
This article is the first part of a series – watch for the second portion in the June issue. For more information on how to set up a lesson with David Diaz, visit Deep South Outfitters at 4700 Cahaba River Road, or call 205-969-3868.
Life, Love and Fly Fishing (part 2)
By Michael Seale
(Note: This is a continuation of a story from the may issue of Village Living, wherein writer Michael Seale and publisher Dan Starnes took a fly-fishing lesson from Dr. David Diaz of Deep South Outfitters).
I soaked in all that David Diaz taught me about the art of fly-fishing, after my tutorial at the Colonnade pond. And make no mistake, fly-fishing most certainly is an art. If not, it is at the very least a way of life and a culture. And I fully understand why.
My publisher Dan Starnes arranged for us to take a short trip up to Sipsey Fork, a branch of the Warrior River, near Smith Lake in Cullman County. I was nervous, somewhat, because like in everything I do, I wanted to be successful at fly fishing, and I wanted to make sure I came back with at least a good story, if not a fish or two.
It was a beautiful day. Sunny, not too hot, a cloudless sky. All of it culminated into one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in some time. And I owe so much of that experience to Diaz, who introduced me to the joys of fly-fishing.
After buying some midge’s (the preferred fly for catching trout in Sipsey Fork), some leader line and a couple of Slim Jim’s, then renting some waders and boots from the Riverside Fly Shop, Dan and I drove on down to the river. We had both assumed we could just stand in the water in out shorts and sandaled feet, but Brandon at the fly shop all but laughed at us when we said such a thing, reminding us that the water was no warmer than 42 degrees, which is why trout is the preferred fish for the spot, being a cold water fish.
After walking down a small slope and a few trails, we reached the water’s edge and picked out a spot to start casting. I thought back to my lesson with Diaz. I remembered what he said about the “feel” of a good cast. I recalled how he told me to keep my rod low to the water before pulling back to cast, and to wait until the line is back behind me fully before I cast it forward.
That is not saying, however, that I executed his tutorial the first few times. In fact, on my fourth or fifth cast, I ended up throwing my leader loose and having to spend a good 30 minutes staring at the line to figure out what needed to be done to prevent my entire fishing trip from going the way of the dodo.
While contemplating the knot I would need to tie, I saw Dan snag the first of a handful of trout he would catch that day. It was a beautiful fish, and the fight I witnessed as he hooked the trout, then summoned it to him made my heart pound, and I simply had to get out there. That is when I met Mike Key.
Mike has been fishing this river since 1973, and I had noticed him about 20 yards from Dan when we first started fishing at this spot. He pulled in three or four fish before we were able to get one, collectively.
A soft-spoken man, Mike asked me why I was sitting on the bank with my tangled line in my hands and not out in the river fishing. I explained that my leader had come loose and I had no idea how to get it back on.
“Is that all?” he asked with a smile. I handed him my rod and in about 30 seconds he had tied a quick knot, attached one of his homemade flies to my line and had me all ready to fish again. Walking out to him in my waders, I could understand why Brandon at the fly shop thought Dan and I were fools for thinking we could fish in the river without the waders. Even though the waterproof material, I could feel how cold the water was. There was no way we could have done this in shorts and flip flops.
Mike talked me through a few casts, and before too long, I was pulling in my first fish. A small trout with a lot of fight, this first fish meant a heck of a lot more to me than the 20 or so fish Mike caught that day, I can assure you. It was the first time I had ever caught a fish on the fly, and I have to admit, it felt good. And I remembered Diaz telling me why he preferred fly-fishing.
“It is the most exciting way to catch a fish,” Diaz told me during my lesson. And he is right. There is something so satisfying about the methods involved in fly-fishing. The excitement, I think, comes from the constant motion, and the tact with which one catches a fish on the fly.
Mike’s fly that he let me use, unfortunately, ended up in the river with the fish I caught, and I felt awful about it, although he insisted I use another one of his flies. “My son, Tim, and I have a policy,” Mike said. “The only time we leave the river without one of these flies is if it gets lost or it is with a fish.” Luckily, my situation fell in the latter category.
Dan saw a good deal of success on the Sipsey as well. Shortly after my catch, he pulled in his second fish of the day. Dan’s second fish was bigger than his first, and put up a bigger fight. You see, it is the fight that adds so much to the excitement. Seeing Dan land that second fish got my adrenaline flowing. And seeing Mike pull in his sixth of the afternoon (although he only kept five) made me forget that I likely needed to get back to my house by 3 p.m. For the record, we did not get back until after 6.
The day was simply perfect. Using Diaz’ instruction and the philosophy he linked to the perfect fly cast, coupled with Mike’s humble instruction and wisdom gave me the confidence to stay out there, and to want to return.
Watching people like Mike Key and David Diaz, and listening to them talk about fly-fishing makes me understand why this is not just a “game” or an “activity.” It is a culture. It is a way of life. It is – as foolish as this may sound – a romantic partnership of sorts. And if you will pardon the pun, I’m hooked.