Today, we are delighted to share a unique perspective straight from the heart of a 16-year-old adventurer and fly-fishing enthusiast. Meet Jonathan Willis, a teenager whose passion for fly fishing has become a personal journey of discovery and inspired an appreciation of nature and a passion for the great outdoors. In this guest blog post written by Jonathan himself, he invites us into his world, sharing the story of how he got started on his fly fishing adventures and what continues to draw him back to the water. It’s a story that emphasizes how the simple act of getting kids outside can spark a new passion, leading to research, persistence, patience, determination, and appreciation. It’s the kind of story that reminds us parents that getting kids off screens and outside is SO worth it.          

“To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy” Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.

A fisherman’s journey

Learning to fly fish is a continuous process, but embarking on this new adventure for me was a rollercoaster of challenges and emotions. Despite past setbacks, fly fishing continues to open new doors in my life, allowing me to travel to different places, experience new things, and bond with friends and family. Fly fishing has taught me to overcome challenges and appreciate nature in a greater way.

How my fly fishing adventures began

It was the early summer of last year when I dragged my dad into our car and convinced him to drive from the suburbs of Maryland, through the mountains of Pennsylvania, to the cool waters of a small limestone stream. Our targets, which had been on my mind since we were introduced to the idea, were brown and rainbow trout.

Earlier that month, we bought two rods, two reels, lines, leaders, and an assortment of flies to help us catch these elusive species. With high expectations and our cameras ready, we arrived at the spot, stepped into our waders, tied a “buggy” fly onto our line, and entered the flowing water. My dad and I proceeded to catch absolutely nothing, tripping over rocks and falling into the water several times. With our hopes low and our feet soggy, we loaded everything into the car and drove home.

Back to the drawing board

Over the next few days, I did some research and discovered how truly difficult it is to catch a trout on a fly. I learned that a fisherman has to take into consideration the depth, speed, and temperature of the water, the type of insect that is hatching, along with the time and weather. I discovered the vast array of fly patterns and casting techniques used while fishing. I also discovered how much work was cut out for me if I was ever going to catch a trout on a fly.

After a week or so of continued learning and research, we mustered up the courage to return to the same stream, now a little more informed. It was a sunny bluebird day, and the drive through the green forests and mountains was breathtaking. We arrived at the spot and noticed an old orange pickup truck parked by the stream. During the earlier trip, we had seen no one fishing, so this came as a slight surprise to us. My dad parked the car, and we began what we thought was going to be another grueling day.

Learning from the locals

After about an hour or two on the water, we headed back to the car, without any luck, for some water and snacks. At the car, my dad and I were greeted by an older man sitting on one of the picnic benches scattered around the parking area. He was enjoying the beautiful day, peacefully sitting and appreciating the environment around him. We started talking and found out that he had a successful morning, catching several nice-sized trout.

Curious and desperate for success, I asked what he had used, and the man showed us a strange fly we had never seen before. He made it himself by simply taking a few of his dog’s shed hairs and tying them onto a small barbless hook. I told him that I had been frustrated by the whole fly-fishing experience from this morning and last week.

He explained to me that fly fishing was more than just catching fish. It was an experience, not just an action. He told me to slow down on the water and to appreciate my surroundings. My new friend gave us a few of his dog hair flies, then got in his truck and drove off. After that odd interaction and with the new flies in my arsenal, we ate some trail mix and got back in the stream.

Back in the water

After half an hour, I came across a new patch of water that curved gently with the help of high-cut banks. There were a few large boulders toward the start of the run before the water gradually got deeper until it leveled off under an overhanging branch. After studying the different types of water at home, I knew this area would be fishy.

I cast the dog hair fly just above the large boulders and watched as my indicator drifted down a rifle. As my indicator passed under the overhanging branch, it jumped down, and I immediately set the hook. My rod bent as I stumbled backward, surprised that something was on the other end of my line.

Landing the prize and finding the beauty

I reeled in and walked closer to the shore so I could have a safer place to net the fish. As it swam closer, I could see that he was a decent-sized rainbow trout. When the fish was within arm’s reach, I fumbled for my net and scooped him up. After all that excitement, I was ecstatic that I had just landed a trout.

I picked him up and watched as he glistened in the sunlight. The trout was slightly green and pink, with intricate black dots running from head to tail. I took the old man’s fly out of his mouth and wished that I could thank him for his help. I submerged the fish back into the water and watched as he swam off.

And at that moment, something dawned upon me as I thought back to what the old man had told me. All around me, there was beauty. I looked up and saw bright green leaves glistening in the sunlight. I looked down and saw the cool stream warping and bubbling its way around large boulders. I looked into the distance and saw great, mighty mountains overlooking the valley I stood in. I began to acknowledge and appreciate all of it.

What fly fishing has taught me

Over the next few months, as I progressed as a fly fisherman, I experienced all kinds of great opportunities that fly fishing gifted me. I experienced new and unique things outdoors in nature, like the sudden exhilarating feeling of a fish hitting your fly. I traveled to new places around the northeast, opening my eyes to the regional area. While fishing or looking in local fly shops, I met many mentors who helped me not only grow my fishing skills but also my character. I connected to my dad’s past in the Florida Keys last summer, fishing the same flats he fished as a kid.

Most importantly, fly fishing connected me to nature. There is no other feeling like standing on a cool limestone stream, surrounded by mountains and trees, while the sun rises. It’s the type of feeling that gets your hairs standing and sends chills through your chest. All technologies and modern-day stresses vanish as you bask in the awe-inspiring outdoors.

Fly fishing has allowed me to appreciate the environment and opened my eyes towards conservation. As I grow older, I want to take steps to protect the earth so my kids and grandkids can enjoy it. Learning to fly fish continues to provide new experiences and possibilities, allowing me to truly grow and discover myself.

What’s an outdoor activity that’s connected you to nature?

About the author

Jonathan is a 16-year-old outdoor adventurer and world traveler. He is an honors student and Varsity athlete at his beloved high school. Besides his love of fly fishing, he is an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer, having experienced Tiger sharks and Sperm whales and lived to tell about it! He loves mountain biking and hiking in the wilderness with his friends. He loves to write about his adventures to share with others his love and passion for nature and for our world.