Schools of fisherman

Bob Jimerson stood shin-deep in the cold, clear water of the Sol Duc River just outside of Forks.

The 13-foot, 6-inch two-handed fly rod he held in his hand was a far cry from the 9-foot single-hand rod he typically uses.

Instructor Justin Tenzler was at his side, offering suggestions on rod movement, hand speed and patience. The rush of the river over rocks and the chattering of a bald eagle perched atop a streamside conifer provided the background soundtrack.

Taking Tenzler’s advice, Jimerson was soon easily flinging the heavy fly 60 to 70 feet, much farther than he ever could with his single-hand fly rod.

It was that moment Jimerson envisioned when he signed up for the steelhead fly fishing class presented by Tenzler and Chris Ringlee, guides and employees at Gig Harbor Fly Shop.

“You can read books, watch videos,” Jimerson said. “But getting on the water and having someone say ‘That’s what you’re looking for’ can’t be beat.”

The Jan. 30 session is just one example of all the classes and seminars available to anglers. If you are in to winter blackmouth fishing on Puget Sound, there’s a class for you. If you prefer to chase sturgeon in the Columbia River, there’s a session out there. If you want tips on fishing for tuna off Westport, some expert is holding a class.

You can sign up for a session at a specialty fishing store, or one of the large retailers in the South Sound. You can sit in on sessions offered during gatherings such as the recent Washington Sportsman’s Show. And if you belong to a fishing club, just about every meeting offers some level of teaching.

“We have a lot of people who have moved in from out of state for the outdoors,” Tom Nelson of Salmon University said in explaining the increased interest in fishing classes.

“The other reason is people like to be out on the water or around the water. But if they’re not having some sort of success, they’ll give it up” Nelson said.

He has been teaching fishing for 30 years, first at community colleges and now through the two-day Salmon University program offered each March. The university provides sessions on salmon, halibut, tuna and trout fishing in an auditorium setting, but with plenty of time to speak to instructors afterward.

Anil Srivastava, co-owner of Puget Sound Fly Co. in Kent, said the popularity of classes might be driven by the economy.

“People still want to have fun. A lot of them have fishing equipment. It’s fairly easy and inexpensive to take a class and get out and use your gear,” he said.

“People are ready to start doing some stuff and have some fun, whether they have their job or not,” Srivastava added.

Jim McDaniel, owner of Tumwater Sports, recommends anglers look beyond tackle shops for class options.

“There are some pretty good clubs and associations where people can get information like that,” he said.

Bjorn Beech, owner of the Fly Fisher in Lacey, offers fly tying and casting classes. He said fly fishing seems better suited to classes because there is so much to learn.

“Doing terminal gear isn’t generally that difficult. Fly fishing is a little more difficult to learn,” Beech said. “The classes can ease the learning curve a little bit.”

Beech estimated that 75 percent of his students are beginners, while the rest are trying expanding their skill level or fix a problem.

In Forks, Jimerson said one benefit of the class was time.

“I’m not in high school. I don’t have unlimited time. So I’m trying to jump-start the learning process,” Jimerson said.

Classmate Matt Yang said taking the class was the next step in his learning process. He started out fly fishing for trout and is ready to move up to taking on the larger, more aggressive steelhead.

“It’s expensive to hire a guide on my own, so I thought I would try the class,” the Bellevue angler said. “In order to get confident, I need to watch someone do it, or watch me and tell me how to do it.”

From an instructor’s viewpoint, the class offers a chance to share tips on techniques, equipment and even a few places to fish.

“It’s having knowledge and applying what they have learned to have a good steelhead trip, which is more than catching fish,” Ringlee said.

In the two sessions – the first was at the fly shop – Ringlee and Tenzler share their passion for steelhead. They also passed along a strong sense of conservation, asking the anglers to work to protect the resource.

“Out here are the last healthy (steelhead) runs,” Ringlee said. “But even out here the runs are nowhere near what they historically were.”

Hoping to hook a returning steelhead was Derek Vitcovich of Gig Harbor. He typically fishes for steelhead with lures and bait. But friend Tim Mullin, also of Gig Harbor, was trying to convert Vitcovich to fly fishing.

“People can give you all kinds of knowledge, but to be able to apply it is different,” Vitcovich said. “What I liked was they showed us how to do it. Then they let us get out there and they came to each of us individually.”

After a lunch break at a Forks burger joint – packed with a busload of “Twilight” fans mingling with the wader-clad group – the class moved to the upper Hoh River.

Fishing from a long gravel bar, the students spread out in the river using what they learned earlier.

It’s a lot to digest – rod types, lines, flies, reading the water, making a good cast. But classes like this help anglers get beyond the basics and improve their chances of hooking a fish.

“There’s two things, fishing and catching,” Nelson said. “If you don’t do a little catching, it gets a little boring. That’s why people are so eager to learn.”

By day’s end, fishing under a steady rain, Vitcovich said he could tell his casting was greatly improved compared to when he started that morning.

“I know I’m already thinking about when I’ll buy a fly rod. I won’t totally switch over to fly fishing, but it will be nice to know both.”

Vitcovich must have been a quick learner. The day after the class, while on a trip with Mullin and Tenzler, he landed his first fly-caught steelhead.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640