Gwenn Perkins, who runs the course, told us that we wouldn't be fishing in the nearby Battenkill River. Melting snows had made it too high and swift-flowing for inexperienced waders. Surprisingly, I was disappointed. No river would run through me. Or over me.
The instructors first spoke of their initiation into fly-fishing. Five of the eight had either met their husbands through the sport or learned it from them. Among the students, three women whose husbands fish together had decided to take the course so they could join their spouses. Others were simply tired of sitting on the shore reading novels while their husbands fished.
For one woman the course was a gift from her ex-husband. After 10 years of trying, she hadn't hooked enough fish to fry in a single pan. "I want to catch something if I have to go with my spear," she vowed. There were also five mother-daughter combos, a bubbly blonde grandmother and another woman in her 30's who wanted to start a fly-fishing tradition in her family.
After introductions we headed out to the stocked pond in the yard next to the retail store. We stood in a circle about 50 feet from the pond with our rods extended, practicing the motion of casting. I was having trouble taking myself seriously and had to fight the temptation to start fencing with the woman across from me.
Next we moved to the shore to practice casting into the water. We had no flies on our lines yet. We were told to practice the motion that I've tried for years to erase from my body's muscle memory: throwing like a girl. Keep your elbow in, raise your forearm in a quick, fluid motion. When the rod tip points at the sky and the line unfurls behind you, bring your arm straight back down. The object was to get the line to extend over the pond and then land gently on the surface. I, who as a child had endured the backyard taunts of my brother and father for my first awkward attempts to play catch, kept wanting to snap my wrist and "throw" the line as hard as I could out over the water.
After a half hour of this, Perkins came over and asked if I had ever cast before. I thought she was joking. She said she had seen me across the pond and, noting the good form, wondered who I was. She said I was a natural. I beamed.
The next morning in class, one of the students asked how a novice is supposed to know what type of rod to get. Perkins used me as an example. "Cheryl had a nice cast, but the line was going blaaah," Perkins explained to the class. "She needed a rod with stiff butt action." Wahoo! This was starting to get interesting. I thought stiff butt action was just something you saw on the dance floor.
After a videotaping session to record and analyze our casting motion, there was an hourlong presentation on insects. Finally we went to the pond for our first attempt at catching fish. Despite the continuing rain, I was excited. I had no sooner cast than the woman next to me got a bite. I tried to pull my line out of the water to go watch her reel the fish in, when I noticed I had a bite myself! But because I had yanked the rod up too quickly, the tension eased on the line, and the fish got away.
The next little swimmer wasn't so lucky. Within five minutes of my first bite I felt a tug on my line and yelled, "I got one!" Everyone started cheering. Problem was, the instructors hadn't yet told us what to do when we hooked a fish on our line. Suddenly caught between thrill and panic, I began slowly to reel in my line. The fish's scales flashed as it surfaced. I led it to the shore, and an instructor removed the hook from its lip. I picked up the fish, about a 10-inch rainbow trout, and mugged for a student's camera before releasing the fish back into the pond.
Still flushed from the fight, I cast again with new confidence. I was Cheryl, Queen of the Pond. I was Angler Extraordinaire. I was caught in the tree behind me; my backcast had gotten snagged in some branches.