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NATURE'S CASTING CALL LURED BY A COURSE FOR WOMEN ONLY, THIS SKEPTIC GOT HOOKED ON FLY-FISHING

Elbow in. Forearm up. Now cast. But not too hard. And please,
try not to lunge.

"You look like the Statue of Liberty," said my fly-fishing
instructor, Erin Crupier, shaking her head as she walked past me.

I stared helplessly at my line, which was resting on top of the
water, and tried to will it to move. Rain was falling, and my
boots were squishing deep into the mud. I began to question my
sanity. What was I, a New York City woman by way of suburban
Connecticut, doing here anyway?

Last winter I had read an article about women-only sports camps,
and it mentioned a 2 1/2-day fly-fishing course at the Orvis
school in Manchester, Vt. I couldn't understand why anyone would
shell out several hundred dollars to spend hours trying to catch
a fish, only to put it right back in the water and watch it swim
away. Might as well give back the toy surprise you've dug out of
the bottom of the cereal box.

My image of fly-fishing owes much to A River Runs Through It:
generations of fathers and sons bonding on the rivers of their
lives. There was no chance of that happening in my family. My
parents were raised in big cities, and though I grew up near
Hartford in a town with plenty of lakes and streams, getting up
before dawn and sitting still for hours while mosquitoes feasted
on me wasn't my idea of a good time.

Maybe I was missing the point. More and more women, I was told,
were taking up fly-fishing. And of course, I was used to barging
into No Girls Allowed environments. That's how I make my living,
by going into locker rooms, sitting in press boxes, speaking the
language of mostly male athletes and the games they play.

I do not, however, speak rod, reel or fly, much less PM-10,
drag-free drift or woolly bugger (though I think I've dated a
few of the latter). Still, my curiosity was piqued. So I sent in
my $395, packed my duck boots and lucky baseball cap, and, on a
cloudy Friday in late spring, pointed my rental car toward
southern Vermont.

Upon arriving in Manchester, an outlet-stocked town that draws
skiers in winter, I checked in at the Orvis retail store. I half
expected to be denied the fishing license I had applied for
several weeks earlier. They would certainly have run a
background check on me and realized I wasn't competent. The only
live fish I had gone eye-to-eye with were behind glass.

I must have fooled somebody, because I was handed the official
license, a white piece of paper with a yellow stamp issued by
the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. Then I was asked to
fill out a survey that said, at one point, "Please indicate the
type of fishing you plan to do following your Orvis course." The
choices were trout, steelhead, bonefish, redfish, pike, striped
bass and bluefish. I checked the only ones I had eaten: trout
and bluefish.

We 37 students gathered on folding chairs in a classroom with
our eight instructors, also women. The teachers looked freshly
scrubbed and oozed confidence and clean living. I oozed subway
grime and recycled office air.

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.

But nothing could dampen my enthusiasm, and no sooner had I
untangled my line than I got another bite. I got the fish to
shore, but when instructor Jody Erickson went to unhook it, the
fish swallowed the fly, and she had to cut the line to free it.
I felt bad for the fish. I imagined it dying a slow, horrible
death. But Erickson said that often the hook works itself free,
or the acid in the fish's stomach dissolves the metal. Yikes.
This was supposed to make me feel better? I realized I'd had
enough fishing for one day.

After lunch we headed for the river for a demonstration.
Erickson, sporting a snazzy pair of neoprene waders and boots,
went up to her chest in the water to show us different casting
techniques. Obviously, fishing in a stocked pond is like taking
batting practice in a cage. Watching the instructor standing in
the rushing water, you realize how much there is to deal
with--the currents, uneven footing, overhanging branches, and,
of course, the possibility that there simply may be no fish in
the area.

On the last day of class the sun finally broke through the
clouds. I chose a spot on the pond just over a little footbridge
and tried several different flies--but no luck. As the day got
warmer, the fish started to appear. It was 20 minutes before I
felt the by now familiar tug. But I forgot to lift my rod tip,
and the fish escaped. Within moments of recasting with a
different fly, I felt another fish bite. I lifted my line, this
time too quickly, and the fish came out of the water only to let
go and swim off.

I suddenly realized that that was O.K. I was enjoying just being
outside, with nothing else on my mind except the possibility of
a good chase.

After class we posed for a group photo. I proudly tucked my new
framed diploma under my arm and got back into my rental car for
the 220-mile return trip to Manhattan. I had just one last stop
to make, at the Orvis retail store. I bought a faded blue
baseball cap with an embroidered trout, into which I stuck the
fly I had used to catch my last fish.

The next day at work a colleague took one look at the fly and
exclaimed, "Eeew! Is that real?"

I just shook my head. City slicker.

TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVID ROLFE[Drawing of woman fly-fishing; drawing of woman holding fish, wearing crown and thinking of fish]