Tim O’Neill of Hockessin is burly, 6-foot-2 and 275 pounds. He’s a machinist who works with CAD software. A father of two. A hunter—rifle and bow—and a boater. Comes from a family of outdoorsmen. In other words, he is a man’s man.
But get him talking about fly fishing and he melts into a mash-up of Walt Whitman and Izaak Walton. “There’s an overall art, or Zen, to it,” O’Neill says. “If done correctly, the fly cast is a beautiful thing to watch—the line going out and lying on the water nice and soft, the fly drifting down, and the fish coming up to take it. It’s a very Zen type of feeling.”
He pauses self-consciously. “I don’t normally talk like this, but there’s something about it.”
Indeed, there is a mystique to fly fishing that transcends the sport itself. And catching fish is only part of it.
For Lester Young, who lives in West Chester, the mystique begins with an environment that is seldom less than beautiful—rivers, creeks and ponds surrounded by verdant woods. “Connectivity with Mother Nature in many ways” is the way he describes it. “First, of course, is the exposure to the elements. I have to contend with sun, dark, rain, heat, cold, wind—all before I even set foot in water. Then there’s something ineffable about subjecting myself to the flow of rushing water, trying not to scare the fish—and avoiding falling in.”
The 72-year-old Young owns 200—count ’em, 200—fly rods, and he’s an expert on entomology, the study of insects, which puts the “fly” in fly fishing.
“The details of what the trees and plants are doing provide clues to what bugs might be available for the fish to eat, which dictates what flies I ought to tie on,” Young says.
Indicators of his quarry’s diet are all about him. ”Spider webs might trap specific bugs in the area, and the behaviors of birds and bats signal what flying bugs are doing. And, of course, literally achieving connections with fish tugging on my fly rod through the line and hook is the whole point.”
Finally, there’s the cast, which, as O’Neill indicates, is pure art. The lightweight bamboo or graphite rod and the colorful line—its core of braided Nylon or Dacron coated with green, yellow or orange plastic—create a visual symphony that is a photographer’s delight. On the back cast, the rod bends slightly as the line unfurls in a graceful curve. Then, as the fisherman brings his arm forward, the line shoots out in a straight line, depositing the fly—feathers and fur wrapped around a tiny hook—gently on the water, the presentation of a tasty piscatorial meal.
The total experience is nature’s version of the psychiatrist’s couch. “If you’re having a bad day, it’s calming, it cures your angst,” says O’Neill. “A half-hour on the Brandywine, say, even if I don’t catch any fish, kind of clears my mind.”
You can get into the sport for a relatively small investment. O’Neill, who operates an online fly-tying and guide service, says combination sets—rod, reel and line—run as low as $125. Add waders or hip boots, vest and license, and you’re ready to go.