High Priest Of The Unfurling Line Seeks A Fresh Band Of Acolytes

But the question remains: If fly-fishing’s so great, how come all those guys have spinners?

Lined up on the bank of Tonto Creek at Kohl’s Ranch these prospective fly-casting anglers get their first opportunity to try out what they’ve learned from Bob Youst during their intense classroom and outdoor practice sessions. From left to right are: John Webster, James Caldwell, Debbie Mahoney, Bob Youtz and Kenneth Caldwell.

Photo by Andy Towle. |

Lined up on the bank of Tonto Creek at Kohl’s Ranch these prospective fly-casting anglers get their first opportunity to try out what they’ve learned from Bob Youst during their intense classroom and outdoor practice sessions. From left to right are: John Webster, James Caldwell, Debbie Mahoney, Bob Youtz and Kenneth Caldwell.


Forward. Back. Wrist straight. Forward. Back. Arm straight. Forward. Line unfurls. Back. The trout rises. Forward.

The fly falls — and floats. Perfect.

Granted: The fish is laughing.

But it was perfect — down right Zen.

Truth be told: I always have a lot more fun not catching fish on a fly rod, than not catching fish with a spinner. So much to do, given my limited attention span.

Still, I probably ought to go stand in a trout stream with Bob Youst — who once upon a time made a fly rod for President George Bush (the first) and now devotes himself to spreading the gospel of fly-fishing.

Recently, Youst lured a little school of neophyte fly-fishermen to a class on Tonto Creek, just upstream from Kohl’s Ranch. He hoped to induct them into the mysteries — make them acolytes of the rise and the cast and the float.

They had foolishly floated into his range — risking addiction to a sport that will enrich their souls and impoverish their wallets. It always starts harmlessly enough — with the borrowed fly rod and the first strike. Only when it is too late, does the addict price a good rod and a little plastic box of hand-tied flies.

Youst heads up the Payson Flycaster’s Club and the local chapter of Trout Unlimited — overlapping groups devoted to befriending anglers and protecting the streams on which their obsession depends. The club has about 70 members now, who meet for breakfast the last Saturday of every month at Tiny’s. The club has more or less adopted the East Verde River, working with the Forest Service and Arizona Game and Fish to improve the fishing when they’re not picking up trash.

Youst also helps put on science projects involving hatching fish eggs in the schools and teaches classes intermittently at Green Valley Park.

On this particular morning, Youst was introducing the newbies to the basics of fly-fishing and the particular joys of Tonto Creek. This spring-fed creek gushes from fractures in the rock at the bottom of the Rim, runs through the Arizona Game and Fish hatchery that stocks most of the Rim Country lakes and streams, then rushes down through a series of pools and riffles. The

creek runs under the bridge at Highway 260, right past Kohl’s Ranch, then down into the Hellsgate Wilderness, nurturing fish all along its joyful course.

Youst can talk all day about the fine art of fly-fishing: The endless research on what insects are swarming, and dropping, and emerging from their underwater casings, and clinging to the undersides of rocks. The hours of practice so you can land your caddis fly imitation just a little upstream from the rock in mid current behind which that hungry trout must surely wait.


James Caldwell listens and practices the same movement as Youst when Bob explains how a wrist guard can occasionally help those new to the sport of fly-fishing get a feel for the proper whipping motion of the rod.

The tying and retying, to find the fly pattern that most closely resembles the insect of the day. The soothing, hypnotic coil of the line, the touchdown, the float. So graceful and layered and absorbing.

Especially dry fly-fishing — when they come to the surface to take the tufted imitation of a mayfly or a mosquito or a grasshopper.

“You catch a fish on a fly rod and they fight twice as hard — the fly rod is a lot more limber, you’re pulling the line in by hand — so you’re fighting them in a different way,” says Youst.

So here’s the question.

If fly-fishing’s so great — how come fly-fishermen are as common as native Gila Trout in the great wriggling swarms of spin casters?

“You’d be surprised how many there are,” says Youst, defensively when confronted with the question — as though covens of flycasters gather to dance under the full moon in their legions, when there’s no one about.

Seriously: Must be 20 spin casters for every fly-fisherman — even here in Rim Country with its abundance of streams just begging for a nice, ginked up, floating Adams fly.

Youst addresses the sad truth reluctantly.

“Lots of people just don’t have the interest,” he says, in deep sorrow. “They’d rather put Power Bait or a worm on. Those are more the ones that just want to take a fish home and have it for supper. Fly-fishermen — the majority you’ll find are catch and release.”

Indeed: It’s a mystery as deep as the preferences of trout. After all, trout will lunge enthusiastically after the most gaudy, chartreuse horror story of a little glowworm that bears no resemblance at all to any creature that’s ever hatched from their pond — but then watch with wall-eyed skepticism as the most perfect, hand-wrapped imitation of a mayfly floats past overhead.

In the end, who can fathom the mind of a trout? They rise as mysterious as the zephyr, which blows from nowhere and then vanishes.

Of course — maybe that’s just me.

What does Youst say?

So I pump him for wisdom —like the pilgrim who has found the monk sitting cross-legged on the mountain top. For instance — when dry-flying the East Verde.


Debbie Mahoney works on her wrist and arm action as she practices a comfortable method of casting the line in one smooth motion.

“Adams flies, Blue Wing Dollies, Nymphs — real small nymph, down to 18s, 20s and 22-size hooks. Certain times of day, you’ll get a hatch of Blue Wing Dolly Mayflies, but that depends on the weather. When the temperature gets right, they start hatching. So they start feeding on that particular fly at that time. You just never know.”

Never know? You “just never know?” Did Buddha just say: “you never know?” What then is the secret?

“Oh, if I don’t get anything — I just change flies. Then it seems like first cast — bang,” says Youst.

Ah. Change flies. Which means I have to keep tying that damnable knot. Oh, well.

But for Youst, it’s all about spreading the joy — or the addiction, depending on your point of view.

“We took a whole bunch of our new people out on the East Verde and whole bunch of them caught fish for the first time. The look on their faces: You could tell it made an impression on them.”

Ah yes. The impression.

Forward. Back.

Forward. Back.

My line uncoils. The water stirs.

The fly alights. The fish laughs. And again.


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