- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Larry Coburn’s job is to think like a fish. Where do they like to swim? What do they like to eat?

When do they like to eat it?

Mr. Coburn, a fly-fishing professional at Bass Pro Shops in Hanover, Md., is in the business of psyching out trout and helping other anglers to do the same.

“If you feel you’ve learned it all, that’s when you’ve lost,” says Mr. Coburn, who started fly-fishing 24 years ago when he was 22.

Now he manages Bass Pro’s fly-fishing shop, advises customers what equipment to buy, where to go, and teaches fly-casting and fly-tying classes. He also acts as a guide for sportsmen who want a full-day, first-person lesson.

About 11.5 million people fly-fished in the United States last year, and retail sales for the outdoor activity reached $686 million, according to the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. The number of participants is up 16 percent and sales of fly-casting equipment are up slightly, 1.5 percent, over the past two years, an association spokeswoman says.

In Maryland, trout fishing is possible largely because of an extensive state program — with a budget just under $2 million funded through licenses and excise taxes on fishing equipment — to stock streams and rivers.

The state Department of Natural Resources stocks almost 300,000 trout annually, according to Bob Lunsford, hatcheries manager for the state. In the next two weeks, some 33,000 trout will be released into Maryland waters during the fall stocking season.

“We expect the vast majority of those fish to be harvested,” Mr. Lunsford says.

Each year some 65,000 people in Maryland buy licenses and trout stamps to have a go at the stock.

But just because brook, brown, cutthroat and rainbow trout are swimming around doesn’t mean they are easy to catch.

“Fly-fishing is a unique sport. It’s one-on-one, you against the fish,” Mr. Coburn says. “You use an artificial item you yourself make, and you have to present it in a way to trick the fish.”

The experience doesn’t start with a quick cast into the water.

The prospective angler has to get outfitted with a few hundred dollars worth of equipment — rod, reel, line, waders, a vest, flies and a net. And get a license from the state.

Mr. Coburn can point to the most basic equipment. Then he can teach you how to use it.

He formerly owned his own hunting and fishing shop in Laurel. He took a three-year sabbatical to fish across the country and write a book.

He has been at Bass Pro shop for two years to head up the fly-fishing department. The busiest times of the year for him are around Christmas and in the spring.

But the fall is a good time for fishing and the store is active. Bass Pro’s last casting class this season is Oct. 17. Fly-tieing classes start after the holidays.

A true fly fisherman ties his own flies — woolly buggers, little black stoneflies, nymphs, midges, gnats and the like. A trout is a fussy eater, though. Anglers have to create and then cast whatever is on the day’s menu, whether it is a particular insect, pupa or worm.

Mr. Coburn demonstrates.

“This is part of the fun of fly-fishing, making your own flies,” Mr. Coburn says.

A small barbed hook is set in a vice. Needle-nose pliers, fine black thread and a bit of cement are used to attach a turkey feather, a luminous thread called crystal flash, rooster cape, and some peacock feather. The result is a woolly bugger.

“It’s a basic fly, a very practical fly. It catches a lot of fish,” Mr. Coburn says.

Figuring out where to go is another challenge. The state lists stocked streams, and Mr. Coburn also co-authored a book, the appropriately named “Guide to Maryland Trout Fishing,” that tells where the state’s catch-and-release streams are, and how to get the fish that are in them.

Most trout creeks are in Central and Western Maryland — Gunpowder Falls, Big Hunting Creek, Owens Creek and the Youghiogheny River for example. Hunting Creek is a favorite destination for guided trips.

But finding the fish is only part of the challenge. Hooking it is another.

“It’s always difficult. If you miss a little thing, you lose,” Mr. Coburn says. “You have to have patience. If you slow down, you start observing, then you are able to decode what’s going on around you and you will be able to catch fish.”

Approaching the water, standing upstream or downstream from the direction of the cast, observing the way a current will pull on a fly, watching where and what the fish are striking.

It’s all in a day’s work.

“It’s a neat game. You’re always creating a strategy,” Mr. Coburn says.

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