The author tries fly fishing. Photo by Kathy Andrews Wright.

November 1, 2023

Lifelong Learning to Fish

A father and son fish in a stream during the summer. Both father and son raise the fishing rod with a small fish caught on the line.
Fishing with my father and catching my first fish at a family cabin on Mill Creek, Oregon, ca 1992. Photo courtesy of Kristopher Maxson.

There’s not a time in my life when I don’t remember enjoying fishing. Camping with my family as a child, I remember escaping down to the lake at the soonest possible moment and fishing until I was called back to camp. Or of fishing off my grandparents’ pontoon boat, upset at being chased off the lake by rain but catching a big bluegill as the boat pulled into dock. You might say I’ve been hooked since the first cast.

I credit this love of fishing to my father and grandfather, who introduced it to me at a young age. That love grew into a greater love and passion for ecosystems in which fish, and myself, are a part. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to pursue that passion as a fisheries biologist for the Illinois Natural History Survey at the Illinois River Biological Station in Havana.

The funny thing about being done with schooling is that I always thought it would mean more leisure time. Time free from the studying and homework and related activities that seemed to consume so much of my time. As the years go by, I realize that we just trade one busy thing for another, a fact that has spilled into many of the fishing trips I now take. Squeezed into 30 to 60 minute detours on my commute home, this once leisure activity has turned into one focused on catching the lake’s daily creel limit to fill my freezer. By necessity this has fine-tuned my technique into one guaranteed to catch my quarry, whether Carolina rigging with dough bait for stocked rainbow trout or drop-shotting red wrigglers for panfish or catfish. While this does not lessen my joy in fishing, I find myself too often focused on the next fish rather than the one currently on the end of my line.

A biologist untangles a fishing net while standing in a boat on a body of water. In the background is a horizon line of trees.
Untangling a trammel net on Trout Lake, Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, 2013. Photo courtesy of Kristopher Maxson.

In the August issue of OutdoorIllinois Journal, fly fishing guide and instructor Tom Yokom wrote about the opportunities for fly fishing in Illinois and of the myriad reasons people seek out fly fishing. For me, it’s the appeal of learning something new and seeking a new challenge, and a return to the peaceful rhythms of casting and use of life-like lures imitating the very creatures I spend my career studying. I inherited one of my grandfather’s flyfishing rods when he passed away in the spring of 2023. While I had entertained the idea of learning to fly fish before, his loss reinvigorated that desire. In the non-stop frenzy of adult life, it is my hope that the rhythm of fly casting returns my mind to the present rather than the expectation of some future catch. There is added appeal in the presentation of each fly, crafted carefully to mimic some insect or small fish that my quarry would encounter in the wild. Someday I also hope to try my hand at tying my own flies, perhaps with materials I collected myself, that would lend greater significance to each cast and fish I catch.

This past summer at the Illinois State Fair, I attended one of Tom Yokom’s free flyfishing clinics at Conservation World. Yocom walked us through the basics of getting started fly fishing and showed us a few casts. While I have watched many YouTube videos on fly fishing, the value of having someone teach you in-person cannot be overstated. Bad habits, in fly fishing as in all other aspects of life, are easiest broken if never started, and having someone there to correct my cast as I practiced was invaluable. After class he even let me use one of the rods on the nearby pond. Only one tree was snared in the process!

A angler holds up a large trout caught at a lake. In the background are trees in winter against a bright blue sky.
Holding a large rainbow trout caught at Gridley Lake, Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area. 2021. Photo courtesy of Kristopher Maxson.

Whatever path finds you with a fly rod in your hand, I hope it brings you a closer connection to the wild outdoors and the ecosystems we share with our fish quarry. I also encourage you to attend a free flyfishing clinic at next year’s Illinois State Fair. And while you are there, check out all the other amazing exhibits at Conservation World.

And, if you’re reading this, I wish you tight lines and bent rods on whatever water you find yourself!

Kristopher Maxson is a Large Rivers Fisheries Ecologist for the Illinois River Biological Station, a field station operated by the Illinois Natural History Survey. Based in Havana, he monitors fish communities on the Illinois River between Peoria and Beardstown. Over the course of his career, he has surveyed reptile and amphibian communities in river floodplains and the Chicago suburbs, zooplankton communities of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and Lake Michigan, fish and aquatic plant/insect interactions in the Wisconsin Northwoods, and fish communities on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. When not fishing for his dinner, he enjoys spending time with his 15-month-old daughter, traveling with his family, and reading nature and science fiction/fantasy books.

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