Claremont McKenna College’s fly fishing physical education class may be a tradition passed down through the ages, but it’s also the perfect chance for students to experience something completely new.
The course, which has been a constant in CMC’s PE curriculum for over three decades, teaches the intricacies of fly fishing techniques to seasoned fishers, enthusiasts and fascinated beginners alike.
“It’s a really nice break in the middle of my day,” Lara Cunningham SC ’22 said. “And even though I knew how to fly fish before, I think that I’m definitely still learning a lot.”
Fly fishing is hosted on Parents Field once a week. Instructor Damian Ross offers special experiences for his students each session, taking advantage of the activity’s uniqueness.
“At the end of the semester, we [might be] going to Bonelli [Regional Park] and Puddingstone [Reservoir] to cast some nets,” Cunningham said.
Having previously fly fished in Michigan, Cunningham explained how she approaches the sport.
“The more you do it, you kind of get a feel for the line. And I feel the more that I fly fish, the more I realize that it’s not as much about how you move the rod, but more about how the line moves when you’re casting,” she said.
Cunningham also said the sport is more aesthetically pleasing than normal fishing.
“There’s more of an art to it, like the way that you cast for regular fishing doesn’t really have an effect,” she said. “Fly fishing earned its name from the usage of baits that imitate flies landing on water.”
Ross echoed the sentiment.
“I think it’s more of an art form…. I almost feel like fly fishing is sort of graduating from conventional fishing,” he said. “It’s a graceful sport. It really is.”
In addition to participating in the activity, Ross gives important lessons about the biological aspects of the sport.
“In class, we’re studying the insects and the process of aquatic insects becoming adults … and so those are what we represent with our artificial flies that we either tie or buy from a fly shop,” he said.
Ross’s passion for knowing the intricacies of the sport began nearly forty years ago.
“I had been an avid fisherman and had started fly fishing in the 1980s,” he said. “Some 5C athletic coaches started a fly fishing club called the Inland Fly Fishers. I joined the club and got more involved through that.”
The idea for hosting this unique class came just a decade later.
“The class actually started about 30 years ago, I want to say, and it started with [former CMC president] Jack Starck, John Bianco, and John Zinda, who was the athletic director at that time,” Ross said.
Bianco and Zinda — a former professional fly fisher and casting teacher — later influenced Ross into practicing casting and learning new techniques. Zinda passed away in 1994, a significant loss to friends and colleagues at CMS.
Five years later in 1999, the class was left without an instructor after Bianco’s retirement, nearly ending its long legacy. But fresh out of college, Ross had other plans.
“I enjoyed the class so much I thought, well, it’s a shame to let this go,” he said. “And so after just graduating from Pitzer, being a college employee, Mike Sutton — the swim and water polo coach at the time — wrote the letter for me and we got it going.”
Since then, Ross has been teaching the class for 23 years.
“[Fly fishing] is one of my favorite activities in my life,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to share with young people [since they’re] able to learn quickly and possess these skills and knowledge for the rest of their lives. It’s exciting for me to be around the students to teach something I love so much.”