Michael Lenetsky started his fishing career humbly enoughÂ â€” at the age of 3 with a stick, a piece of string, a borrowed hook and a chunk of bread.
A few bluegills later, and the Ithaca resident was hooked for life.
Over the years, LenetskyÂ refined his fishing methods, and eventually fell into the art of fly fishing.
These days, after years of fishing with conventional bait and tackle, Lenetsky fishes with flies almost exclusively.
While other anglers will be elbow-to-elbow on Southern Tier waters for Monday’s opening day of trout fishing season, casting out egg sacs, night crawlers and other bait, Lenetsky will most likely be on someÂ secluded stream,Â hoping a skeptical trout mistakes his delicate artificial fly for the realÂ thing.
“I find fly fishing to be a relaxing and meditative activity,” said Lenetsky, vice president of the Leon Chandler Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Ithaca.Â “When I am fly fishing, I am often standing in cold, clean, moving waters. The environment around me is beautiful. The act of fly fishing is practiced and measured, so I can take the time to be aware of my surrounding.
“I believe that to be successful when fly fishing, or really with any type of fishing,Â you need to look around the water so that you can figure out where the fish are, what they are eating, and how you can fool them into taking your fly,” he said. “All of that leads me to be more aware of the moment and separates me from the many concerns and challenges of the world around me.”
Fly fishing is the least popular of the three fishing types â€” freshwater and saltwater fishing being the other twoÂ â€”Â Â but participation in the sport has steadily grown since 2014, according to a joint 2018 report on fishing from the Outdoor Foundation and the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation.
With 6.8 million anglers, fly fishing participation is at an all-time high, the report stated.
Fly fishing also had the highest rate of new participants, according to the report.
Nearly 15 percent of fly anglers were new to the sport in 2017, compared with 5.6 percent of freshwater anglers and 10.6 percent of saltwater enthusiasts, the report said.
You might not see many of those fly anglers on the more popular opening day streamsÂ â€” such as fabled Seneca Lake tributary Catharine CreekÂ â€” but they are out there.
“We are fishing in places to avoid the crowds, where the fish are not spooked. Fly fishing is much more pleasant, more productive and way more fun that way,” said Kirk Klingensmith, of Corning, president of theÂ Twin Tiers FiveÂ Rivers Chapter ofÂ Fly Fishers International.
“I believe interest in fly fishing is growing,” Klingensmith said. “It is especially interesting that its popularity is significantly increasing among women. This trend has become quite evident in media, emergence of female guides, authors, celebritiesÂ and bloggers â€”Â and is a welcomed trend in our sport.”
Anyone who has ever picked up a fly rod knows fly fishing is radically different from conventional fishing.
When an angler casts out live bait or an artificial lure, the weight of that lure propels the line out into the water.
But most flies are light as a featherÂ â€” in fact, feathers are a common fly tying materialÂ â€” and thus the line itself has to be heavy to provide that momentum.
Fly rods are therefore long and whip-like, and the line is weighted, and casting accurately can take hours of practice.
Fly anglers also tend to study their quarry in greater detailÂ â€” learning how trout and other fish react to various weather and water conditions, when their favorite aquatic insects hatch, and presenting flies designed to “match the hatch.”Â
All of thoseÂ traits lead many anglers who are accustomed to casting out bait or lures with basic spinning tackle to believe that fly fishing is too complicated or only for the elite few.
But that is a common misconception, said David Passmore, owner of Finger Lakes Fly Fishing Guide Service.
Passmore guides fly anglers across the Finger Lakes region.
“Advances in the nymph fishing technique of fly fishing has made fly fishing very easy to learn.Â There haveÂ been many books out recently about nymph fishing,” Passmore said. “Spin fishermen that are good at spin fishing with worms can turn into great nymph fishermen, which would make it an easy switch to fly fishing.Â
“Fly fishing is easier to learn simply â€” you need to read books and match the color of the fly to what you see on the water,” he said.Â “Hiring a one-on-one guide experienced to take you on the stream will help immensely.”
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It also doesn’t cost much to outfit a new fly angler, according to Mike Hogue, who owns Badger Creek Fly Tying in the Tompkins County Village ofÂ Freeville.
“You’re not buying bait, you’re not buying electronics, you’re not buying an expensive boat. Itâ€™s very accessible to the average person,” Hogue said. “The quality (of fly tackle) is better than it was many years ago. If you really wanted to be outfitted right, you could do it for a few hundred bucks.”
While some people fall into fly fishing through happenstance, some dedicated fly anglers are actively working to recruit more people to the sport.
Among them is Gary Romanic, of Vestal, a member ofÂ Broome County Flyfishers.
Romanic is also a fly fishing instructor at Binghamton University, and conducts many other outreach efforts to introduce more people to the pastime.
“I see people from all different ages, walks of life and conditions,” Romanic said. “Last summer, I worked with the 82nd Airborne. The summer before that, I worked with disabled children from BOCES. I run a veteran’s group called Broome Veteran Fly Fishers. One of my friends said, ‘Iâ€™m not seeing any young people.’ I said, ‘Thatâ€™s because you arenâ€™t looking.’
“The class I teach is basically a 101 course. I teach different stages of insects.Â They learn how to tie knots, catch and release fish, how to read water,” he said. “I giveÂ a history of fly fishing. It’s aÂ soup-to-nuts course. TheÂ classes are always full, and I always have a waiting list.”
Fly fishing can be challenging and complicated for those who want to learn it, Lenetsky said.
But the beauty of the sport is you don’t have to master every aspect to find success on the water, he added.
“I think that the biggest challenge of fly fishing is also its greatest strength. Fly fishing is an activity that is difficult, if not impossible, to master,” Lenetsky said. “Casting, fly selection, reading water, understanding feeding habits, learning the cycles of the insects, understanding what it is the fish are eating, all of these topics provide endless opportunity for developing skills and abilities.
“The joy of fly fishing is that you can never fully master it because there are so many factors that lead to success,” he said. “So if you just focus on a few specific things, you can get good and develop the skills needed to catch fish.”
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