I remember picking up my phone the other day to dial my friend Todd Tanner in hopes of getting a better idea of what his new fly fishing class is going to be all about. Todd, who’s spearheaded the School of Trout seminars that have taken place on the Henry’s Fork in Island Park, Idaho, for the last few years, is altering the class’ formula this coming fall, and the alteration was the reason I was holding the phone and considering making a call.
This conversation could be heady. I mean, we were going to dive into East Asian religion and philosophy. Real meaning-of-life shit. As I held up my phone to dial, I had a sudden awakening. Nope. I wasn’t ready for this.
That’s not a slight on Todd. Not at all. I’ve known Todd for years. In order to have a proper conversation with him, you owe it to yourself to be ready to participate. If you’re rushed or if your head is elsewhere, you’re not going to get the most out of the discussion. And when the topic of conversation is The Tao of Trout — the new name for Todd’s immersive, weeklong fly-fishing school—you owe it to the interviewee to be at least somewhat prepared to tackle the depth of the topic.
So I waited a day and got my head in the game. I prepped a list of questions. I did some research into Taoism (or Daoism — either way, it’s pronounced with a D) and figured I was ready to have a discussion that would skirt the edges of philosophy while vowing to keep on task and talk mainly about what the class was about and why an angler might want to pony up $12,500 in order spend a week on the Henry’s Fork soaking in knowledge from a host of more-than-qualified “professors.”
(And before you clutch your pearls and declare that the price is out of your reach, consider that Todd has assembled perhaps the best cabal of fly-fishing instructors in the country. More on that in a bit).
I picked up my phone and made the call. And, truth be told, it took all of two minutes to catch the gist of Todd’s new fly fishing class. The impetus behind my sudden understanding of what he is trying to accomplish had nothing to do with fly fishing. And therein lies the lesson.
“Hang on a minute, Chris,” Todd said to me from his frigid front yard in northwest Montana. “I’m walking outside in the snow in my slippers and a bald eagle just dropped down on something over this little rise. I’m walking over to see what it is.”
And there you have it. Well … I mean … if you’re at all into the teachings of East Asian philosophy or you’ve done even the most basic drive-by when it comes to Far East religion and spirituality, you by now have a pretty good idea of what the Tao of Trout is going to be all about. To put it simply, Todd and his assemblage of fly-fishing gurus hope to teach students how to take in the full experience of a day on the water. Yes. There’ll be seminars about casting. And knots. And flies. And reading the water, trout biology, entomology, photography and all that jazz. But, as Todd puts it, he wants his students to think beyond the act of fishing and think more holistically. “I want them to make a conscious choice about what they want from their time on the water.”
Traditionally, Tanner has given his instructors “carte blanche” to kind of wander the fly fishing journey with his School of Trout students.
“I’ve always liked how they teach using the methods that work for them,” he said.
But this year, Tanner is asking his team of angling pros to lean in a bit more with his students. To go beyond the skills and technique instruction and take the class to a higher spiritual plane.
In other words, he’ll ask his instructors to become de facto spiritual guides — and not in the “woo woo” sense, but by simply sharing with students why and how they, as anglers themselves, derive such pleasure from fly fishing, why fly fishing is so important to them and how it impacts them all the way to the depths of their souls.
“I’m sure there’s quite a bit of appeal to some students who might want to come and rub elbows with guys like Tom Rosenbauer or Craig Mathews (both Tao of Trout instructors),” Tanner said. And while that’s all and well and good, what Tanner really wants to see happen is more visceral. Wouldn’t it be great, he asked, if the anglers attending the class got past the fact that they’ll have the chance to fish with angling legends and instead try to figure out why these long-rod stalwarts love to fly fish so much? Why it brings them joy? Why it completes them, in the spiritual sense?
“The instructors are going to share the stuff that differentiates them from the rest of us,” Tanner said. “My hope is that people will go out on the water with someone like Tom or Bob White, and see the fishing — and everything else around them — through their eyes. And it’s not because they’re incredible anglers — they are. It’s because they just have so much fun.”
Take someone like Mathews, an angling icon in a region chock full of angling icons. “How cool would it be to share the overall experience with Craig, and see his energy and how he fishes?” he asked rhetorically (because it would be very cool, right?). “I mean … Craig sees things that most people miss. And I’m convinced that a lot of really good anglers, who can catch fish with regularity, still don’t get the experiential benefits of seeing the fishing through the eyes of someone like Craig.”
Location, location, location … and perfect timing
The annual class, conducted this year from Sept. 25-Oct. 1, is moving from its traditional home at Trout Hunter, the renowned fishing lodge that occupies a sweet little spot between U.S. Highway 20 and the storied Henry’s Fork in Last Chance, to the world-famous Railroad Ranch, or Harriman State Park, just a bit down the road.
“Harriman is kind of like the Junction Pool on the Beaverkill,” Tanner said. “It’s the spiritual and emotional center of fly fishing in the West. It’s about as cool a spot as I can imagine to run this course.”
Indeed, “the ranch” is perhaps the most iconic fly fishing destination in the Western Hemisphere. Bisected by the Henry’s Fork, it’s a bucket-list port of call for any fly angler desiring to offer homage to the craft’s forefathers — and its trout are as legendary as the river itself.
Second, Tanner is moving the class from its traditional early or mid-October time slot into late September, which should put anglers on the water at the peak of the fall color season.
“We should hear bugling elk, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear wolves howling at night,” he said. And, with any luck, the class’ attendees will enjoy perfectly pleasant Rocky Mountain fall temperatures — a few years back, the class was forced inside as the Island Park mercury dipped below zero in mid-October. “Hopefully, we can avoid that this year.”
Look who’s teaching now
In addition to Rosenbauer, who’s worked for Orvis for more than four decades and has forgotten more about fly fishing than most will ever discover, and Mathews, who for years owned and operated Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Mont., the class features renowned artists, casting instructors, photographers, writers and guides.
White, the storied painter who crafts landscapes and waterscapes, offers a unique perspective to anglers who may not be able to paint a stroke, but who might like to see what the artist sees when he pulls out the easel. Legendary instructors Hillary Hutcheson, Brant Oswald, Steve McFarland and Karlie Roland, who work with angling clients in Montana and the greater Yellowstone region, bring their professional chops to the table. Photographers Tim Romano and John Juracek also share their unique visual gifts with the class — and who wouldn’t want to see through their viewfinders?
Author and editor Kirk Deeter brings four decades of fly fishing and outdoors experience to the table. And Pat McCabe, Tanner’s no-nonsense angler of a brother-in-law who has instructed at the school since its 2018 inception (and learned at the hip of the legendary Andy Puyans), is one of those over-the-shoulder teachers who just makes you better. Finally, there’s John Juracek, Mathews’ former business partner and perhaps the most intuitive fly-casting instructor in the West.
An investment for a lifetime
The biggest change to this year’s offering of classes, other than the obvious name alteration, is the approach the instructors will take when working with students. Much of the daily itinerary is proprietary — Tanner started the School of Trout four years ago, and since then, other similar offerings have kind of sprung up, and some have even shamelessly “borrowed” the verbiage from Tanner’s online description of his program and curriculum. That said, the general idea is fairly easy to understand.
“I want to teach people who are interested in being immersed in the experience,” Tanner said. “I’m not as interested in teaching someone who just wants to catch fish. I’d like to give them the ability to go deeper … to get more out of it. I want to teach the person who appreciates a beautiful sunset or likes to hear the bugle of bull elk in rut. These are the people who are going to be able to take their fishing to the next level, who have what it takes to appreciate the fishing and everything else that goes on around them.”
And, as Rosenbauer puts it, School of Trout alumni have demonstrated a complete willingness to learn over the course of a week on the river. And that enthusiasm only makes him want to be a better teacher.
“I love teaching, especially to novices, who are like sponges and just appreciative of everything,” he said. “But I also learn from them, as well as my fellow instructors. We have so much fun in these schools and I have loved the dedication to learning the students have shown. It’s one of my favorite weeks of the year.”
Tanner is looking for the angler who wants to make an investment in her or his angling that will stay with them for years — even decades — to come. The Tao of Trout, he explained, isn’t a one-off adventure that you might get when you spend a week at an Alaskan lodge. It’s a down payment on the fly fishing students will enjoy over the rest of their lives.
As Juracek puts it, the Tao of Trout is a class where nuances and the substance associated with fly fishing become top-of-mind resources for anglers from the moment the class ends until the moment they stop fly fishing. “This class,” he said, “is where the fly rod represents a form of absolute truth.”
“Damn,” I thought, when I first heard that. “I may not think about fly fishing the same way ever again.”
And that, of course, is the point.
For most of us, the old adage rings true: it’s not just about the fishing. And for Tanner, that’s important when he considers students who might be interested in learning at the elbows of some of the best teachers of the craft in the country. He wants someone who is — or who really wants to be — more than just an angler.
You know, the kind of person who wants to find out exactly what that bald eagle dropped down on that snowy February day in northwest Montana.