(article by John Cramer, taken from the Missoulian)
Their lines went out, a bit awkwardly at first, but more rhythmically after a while, a half dozen boys learning to fly-fish – not in water but on a grassy field.
The Clark Fork River flowed nearby in downtown Missoula, but the boys had their backs turned to the water, standing instead in a circle, sweat beaded on their upper lips, earnestly casting over and over in a quest for craft and art.
The craft of catching a fish, the art of understanding nature, a dual lesson on life offered by the Watershed Education Network, a Missoula-based nonprofit that teaches schoolchildren about water stewardship.
On Monday, the WEN started its second annual Liam Wood Fly Fishing and River Guardian Program, a memorial workshop named after an 18-year-old Washington state youngster who died while fly-fishing near Bellingham, Wash., in 1999.
Liam, who drowned after being overcome by gas fumes from an upstream pipeline explosion, was a talented fisherman.
He also was an aspiring writer who admired the work of David James Duncan, a well-known outdoors and environmental writer from Lolo.
In 2005, Liam’s parents, Marlene Robinson and Bruce Brabec, worked with Duncan to create a memorial workshop at Western Washington University, where teenagers are taught fly-fishing as a means to explore water stewardship and self-expression through field writing and sketching.
A few years ago, Chris Dombrowski, a Missoula fly-fishing guide, heard about the workshop from two of his clients who were from Bellingham.
“A very simple kind of light went on in my head,” said Dombrowski, a poet who teaches creative writing at the University of Montana when he’s not on the water.
Dombrowski talked to Duncan, who is a friend, about the workshop, and both men contacted WEN about starting a similar program in Missoula. The local workshop is financially supported by Liam’s parents and several Missoula-area residents and businesses.
“It gives the kids a neat foundation for something more than just catching a fish,” Dombrowski said. “The craft is catching fish, but the art is knowing the ecosystem and what makes them interconnected.”
The workshop, which drew eight teenagers last year and six this year, lasts five days and includes lessons in fly tying, knot tying, river ecology, reading the river and fly casting.
The lessons are taught on land and water, but they start with readings from Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” the revered book on fly-fishing and life that the workshop uses both as an instruction manual and for literary inspiration.
Dombrowski, 32, read the novella when he was a high school junior in East Lansing, Mich., where he was an avid athlete and a fly-fisherman who didn’t have much use for school.
That was until his English teacher, one Jim Colando, put a copy of Maclean’s book in his hands, a moment that Dombrowski said converted him from a fly-fishing slacker into a wordsmith and river steward.
“I wasn’t a bad kid,” he said. “I just didn’t care about school, but that book changed my life. It was the total, absolute turning point. It was the real trigger to see the written word could express or re-create a similar feeling or events I’d encountered in my own life.”
After coming to Montana in 1995 to “bum around” as an angler, Dombrowski got a master’s degree in creative writing from UM and started working as a river guide, making a living with words and fly-fishing.
He’s read Maclean’s book at least a half-dozen times, which is why he was standing on the football field in John H. Toole Park on the south side of the Clark Fork River on Monday.
The workshop started with the story about Liam’s life and death. They read excerpts from Maclean’s book, including the one about not “disgracing” a fish by clumsily casting about without knowing what you’re doing.
Dombrowski and Josh Gubits, WEN’s field trip director, gave the boys fly-fishing rods and introduced them to the basics. The rods were inscribed with entries from Wood’s journal, such as: “Every sort of insect is your constant companion.”
They stood in a circle in the hazy sunshine, backcasting and forward-casting and sidearm-casting and roll-casting, their rods bending, the neon orange lines snapping out and back in a delicate whine.
Sometimes their lines tangled at their feet. More often they sailed far out, arcing and looping and landing softly in the damp grass.
Dombrowski and Gubits offered encouragement and advice and analogies along the way to teach the rhythms of fly-fishing, to generate line speed in a motion that is both free-flowing and restrained at the same time.
Pretend you’re hammering your way out of a phone booth, they said.
Spread the butter smoothly so the bread doesn’t rip, they said.
Practice can be just as detrimental if you’re doing the wrong thing over and over, they said.
Too much fishing line is like a late curfew – it gives you more trouble to get into, they said.
They stuck forks into potatoes and had the boys toss the tubers, using the snapping motion needed to send a line, leader and fly into the distance.
But for Dombrowski and Gubits, it was about more than catching fish, as pleasurable as that is.
It was about understanding the natural world that fish and aquatic insects and clean water are a part of, that humans are a part of, too. It was about taking a closer look at the natural world and at themselves.
“We’re here because we share a love of fly-fishing, but there’s something broader, too,” Gubits said. “It’s about river ecology and field-journaling and sketching and self-expression. Part of our mission is to educate the next generation of water stewards, to instill that conservation ethic right in our backyards.”
The boys learned the value of keeping a field journal, that Lewis and Clark and da Vinci and others kept field journals, a practice that not only recorded the weather, flora and fauna, but improved their powers of observation and understanding.
Later this week, they will head to nearby streams, where they will study bugs, fish and water quality. They’ll see healthy streams with cold water, deep holes, riffles, runs and shady banks. They also see streams that need restoration.
And they’ll fish, too.
“My mission is to get these students to pay closer attention, to turn over a rock, to sketch a leaf,” Dombrowski said. “It’s an infinite unfolding. There’s no end to what they can connect with out there.”
Two of the students, Andrew Confer, 16, a junior at Sentinel High School, and Adam Lewis, 15, a Hellgate High School freshman, took the WEN program last year, too.
“I had so much fun and made lots of friends,” Andrew said. “I learned about river ecology and fishing, too.”
Both teenagers like the peace of fishing, of being alone in nature.
“I love everything about it,” Adam said.