The summer weather had been iffy for fishing. One day, it would be raining. The next day, the wind would blow. This was an in-between day as far as conditions go.
"It looks pretty bad," said John Murchison, a retiree who once owned a sporting goods business in Wilmington. "I don't know if we will be able to go today. I will talk to Basil and he can look at the weather map and make the decision."
A few minutes later, the call came. The thunderstorms were moving toward the east, leaving a break in the clouds. The two drove separately through the tapering showers to meet at the gate of a muddy road in the middle of nowhere that apparently led to more of nothing. A key unlocked the gate and the two drove their vehicles through the forest to a small pond.
"I like fishing private ponds because the fish are bigger than the wild fish in our local rivers," said Basil Watts, a retired river pilot from Southport. "I prefer catching them with a fly rod because it gets the most fight out of any fish. It makes catching even the little ones exciting."
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Watts fitted together his rod and Murchison slid his rod from the back of his SUV.
The rod was so long the reel was against the rear lift door while the rod tip poked into the headliner above the rearview mirror.
"I use a 9-weight Scott and a 6-weight St. Croix for bream," Murchison said. "But I've caught all kinds of fish with all kinds of fly rods. I've been fly fishing since I was 15, but really got the bug about 30 years ago around the time I retired. Now, I only fly fish. I watched videos and read books to learn how to do it. I've caught bonito at the Liberty Ship off Wrightsville Beach and caught trout in the San Juan Reservoir in New Mexico."
Murchison said some of his rods were very expensive. However, he did not use them as often as his less expensive ones for fear of breaking them.
"You can buy a Reddington rod for $200 to $250," he said. "I want to show as many people as possible how much fun it is to fly fish. They need to realize that it is no more expensive than any other type of fishing."
While Murchison learned to cast on his own, he said learning from someone else was the best way to come into the sport. He takes newcomers every year and especially enjoys teaching children.
"You have to practice casting until you develop distance and accuracy," he said. "But you don't have to cast far to begin catching fish. I have literally held someone's hand to show them the proper way to cast."
He made a cast, stripped back the line in short jerks and hooked a big bluegill sunfish a few feet from the bank. While he was unhooking it, he shouted across the pond to Watts.
"They are biting 10 feet off the bank, practically at my feet!" he said. "See what I mean?"
Watts shouted back that he had hooked a bluegill. Then he hooked another and another.
"I'm catching a fish on every cast," Watts said. "They are nice, big bream, too."
Murchison moved around the pond to the place where Watts had located the tight concentration of fish in an area the size of a pickup bed. While most fly fishermen use surface flies, such as popping bugs, the secret to these anglers' success was sinking flies.
"Last time we came, I used a surface fly and caught about three fish, while John was wearing them out with a sinking fly," Watts said. "It didn't take me long to catch on and switch flies."
Watts was using a fly tied with hair and feathers that had a brass bead on the hook shank, which he called a bead-head fly. Murchison's fly was flashy, tied with a material that looked like tinsel. It was also heavy enough to sink. He said bluegills would hit anything that looked like a bug.
Both anglers tied their own flies. Fooling the fish with a fly of your own creation is one of the highlights of fly-fishing. Murchison wore a vest that had pockets filled with leaders, clippers and other necessities. He also stuck some extra flies into his fishing.
"You let the fly sink slowly all the way down to the bottom," he said. "The biggest fish usually hang around sunken trees and logs. When you use a sinking fly, it sometimes snags and breaks off so you need to bring some extra flies along."