They were casting on a soccer pitch that was covered in clover, honing their skills to be used on future trips to the Brule for trout, or the Cloquet for smallmouth bass or maybe a little Douglas County lake for bluegills.
Welcome to Fly Casting 101. Class is held most Thursday evenings during July and August at Homecroft Elementary School just outside Duluth.
Your professor is Todd Heggestad, a certified fly-casting instructor with decades of fly-fishing experience, plenty of patience and a knack for showing people how to do it right.
“Todd is so good at helping people work out their problems, or just helping you get better at casting,” said Claudia Berguson of Duluth as she worked on trying to get more distance out of her cast. “He’s got so many little tips to offer. … You learn just by watching him.”
The casters are all members of The Arrowhead Fly Fishers, a local fly-fishing group. The Thursday night sessions, included with the $20 annual club membership, are primarily aimed at beginners. But you might see all levels of casting expertise on hand as people work on the most basic element of their sport: How to get the fly out to the fish.
“It’s not as hard as it looks,” Heggestad said.
Berguson was one of eight students at the first Thursday night session of the summer. She’s one of those in the “perfecting your craft” category of students. She’s been fly-fishing for 10 years now and clearly has the basics down for casting.
“But there are always things to work on,’’ she noted.
On the soccer field there are no alder thickets to grab your tippet on a backcast, or rocks to snag your fly, although you might snag a stem of clover now and then. The wide-open space offers anglers unimpeded casting and a clear view for Heggestad to watch his students.
The informal lessons generally run for an hour or more, or until people’s arms get tired. That’s what was happening to C.J. Kendall of Hermatown who came with her mom, Dianne, to try something new. Dianne had her own fly rod, a Christmas gift from her husband, while C.J. borrowed a rod from Heggestad.
“I’ve never done this before,” C.J, noted as she practiced making small, understated arm movements to fling, rather than throw, the fly line out. In fly-fishing, the angler casts the line, not the lure.
Dianne Kendall had tried fly-fishing before, “and failed miserably. I couldn’t do anything right,” she noted. So now she’s trying to lay the proper foundation.
“I know it’s fun. But it’s more fun if you know what you’re doing,” she said. “It’s an entirely different motion … it’s like going from a softball swing to a golf swing.”
The Arrowhead Fly Fishers formed in 1989, the idea of a few local fly anglers who wanted to promote their sport, do some conservation work and improve their skills but also to bring people together who share a common passion. The group now has about 90 members from across the Northland. The local chapter is an affiliate of Fly Fishers International, of which Heggestad is a board member.
“We try to keep it fun,” said Laurie Arndt of Duluth, president of the club. “We do a lot of informal gatherings, like our pop-up fishing trips.”
Several times each summer the group announces “pop-up” day or evening trips to a local lake or river where people meet to fish and socialize. There’s also a women’s getaway fly-fishing retreat and regular club meetings as well as conservation projects.
James Ellingson of Duluth was another newbie practicing on this Thursday night.
“One of my neighbors convinced me to join,’’ he said not long after his first cast with a fly rod. “I think it’s going to be fun.”
Berguson said she was introduced to fly-fishing by a friend and was immediately bitten by the bug.
“I tried it once and now I can’t get enough of it. … It’s sort of become an obsession,” Berguson said between casts. “My friend now says she created a monster.”
Frank and Karen Koshere of Duluth came together to work on their casting. They have been fly-fishing for several years, and have had fun catching trout from stocked lakes in the region.
“We’re kind of beginners and dabblers, not hardcore,” Frank said. “But despite our lack of skill, we are typically pretty successful.”
Heggestad has been fly-fishing since the mid-1980s, since a friend brought him on a trip to Montana. Unlike the trout in the river that week, Heggestad was hooked.
“I didn’t catch a single fish, but I can’t stop doing it now,’’ Heggestad said.
Heggestad has been a certified fly-casting instructor since 2010 and he loves sharing his passion and his skills. He arrives to class early and sets out casting targets and measuring tape so anglers have something to aim for.
Anglers spread out to cast, and Heggestad makes his way around to each — watching, analyzing, advising and showing.
“It’s good to be able to see someone do it right,” Arndt noted. “I always learn something from Todd.”
Heggestad said most people are surprised that fly-casting is much more finesse than muscle, and he said many people try to overpower their cast. “In general, men tend to use too much power while women tend to go a little light,” he said.
Fly-casting “is such a different way of doing things. The motion is so different than throwing a football or even than casting a baitcasting rod with a spoon. … Usually it’s a matter of getting people to back off on the power.”
Heggestad said the Thursday night sessions work well because they allow him to watch, assist and listen for mistakes.
“I can hear it when they are going too hard because you can hear the woosh of the rod,’’ he noted. “Sometimes, if they allow me, I’ll cast their rod with them so they can feel the actual motion as I do it.”
Like anything else, the key to casting success is practice, he noted.
Heggestad added that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get into fly-fishing. While some of his rods cost upward of $800, several companies offer quality products for beginners.
“You can get into it — rod, reel and line — for $150 to $200,” he said.
Hegegstad suggests a 6-weight rod for beginners, a good all-around size for most Northland fish. Anglers after mostly smaller trout and bluegills could get away with a 5-weight, while steelhead trout anglers might want a 7-weight, he said.
“People see others fly-fishing and say “Hey, that looks like fun, I want to try that,’” Heggestad said. “That’s what we’re doing, giving them the opportunity to try it with a little help along the way.”
The Arrowhead Fly Fishers
For more information on The Arrowhead Fly Fishers, go to arrowheadflyfishers.com or email email@example.com. Annual dues are $20 for individuals and $25 for families and include access to Thursday evening fly-casting lessons set for July 22 and Aug. 5, 9, 15 and 26. The group also holds fly-tying gatherings as well as summertime “pop-up” fishing excursions, announced on their Facebook page, informal gatherings where members get together for fishing and camaraderie. Arrowhead Fly Fishers is a local affiliate of Fly Fishers International, which offers a wealth of information for beginner fly anglers at flyfishersinternational.org under Learning Center.