Saturday, January 22, 2011

A conversation with Sheila Hassan

Tell me a little about your background, how did fly fishing become such a big part of your life?

I am a FFF Master Certified Casting Instructor. Worldwide there are approximately ten women with this rating and I was number seven. I am the lead instructor at the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in New York. I have a part time fly casting instructional business and teach private lessons and group classes in the New England area.

I fish both saltwater and freshwater and spend about 75 days per year fishing. I love fly fishing for the challenge that each fishing situation presents. No two days are the same and I love trying figure out what it will take to find and catch fish on any given day.

For my real job, I am a nurse practitioner; this can be very intense job. Fly fishing provides a great balance for my work life. I love being outdoors and being fortunate to spend so much time in nature, you observe things that many people never get to experience.

When did you begin to focus on being a casting instructor?

Unlike most fly fisherman, I did not grow up fly fishing, or fishing. I started spin fishing as an adult. After I enjoyed fishing, I got interested in fly fishing. My husband and I taught ourselves to cast. For me it did not go so easily. At some point, I was a better angler than fly caster, this caused me a lot of stress as I was fishing. I realized that my casting abilities were limiting my fishing. At this point, I took a casting lesson. After the first lesson, it was clear to me that I had no idea what I was doing, so no wonder I was bad. After a series of lessons and a lot of practice, I began to improve. When I could see the benefits of my casting practice, it motivated me to continue. After some time, my casting was no longer the obstacle to my fishing and fly fishing became fun again! When fly casting became fun, it opened the doors to enjoy my time on the water, whether I was catching fish or not.

I decided to become a teacher to help save others from the frustration I felt simply because I did not know what to do to make a good cast. I felt that if I could save someone else even a fraction of the frustration, and time I wasted not being able to cast, then being a fly casting instructor was for me. It is such a great position to be able to share my love of fly fishing with someone else and to see the look on their face as they improve, it is just great!

Who were some of the people who influenced you?

George Roberts (author or Master the Cast and DVD: Saltwater Casting 10 Steps to Power and Distance) was my first casting mentor. George gave me my first fly casting lesson and worked intensively with me over a two year period. He introduced me to Joan's Wulff's method of casting, which I found to be invaluable. George encouraged me to be a fly casting instructor. This is what led to my attending the Wulff Instructors school. There I met Floyd Franke and Joan Wulff both of whom influenced my teaching tremendously. I then was fortunate enough to learn from Floyd Franke ((former lead instructor) , who helped me as I prepared for my Master Casting Instructors test. I have also had the incredible experience of studying directly under Joan Wulff. Teaching alongside Joan has been a fantastic opportunity and I learn something every time I teach with her. I have truly been fortunate to have some great mentors.

So what makes a good fly casting teacher?

The reason I am a good teacher is because of my own struggles. Fly casting did not come easy to me, so I understand a student's struggles. I think that at some point in time I owned every possible casting error. I have not met a student that was worse than I was when I went for my first lesson. Because my greatest skill was tenacity and I was willing to be hard on myself and put in the hours of practice it took to improve, I believe that everyone is capable of change and improving. Some of us just take longer to get this improvement.

Tell me about your book, "Fly Casting: A Systematic Approach," why did you write it?

My book is unique in two ways, first it is divided into complete lesson plans for beginner, intermediate and distance casting. Most books have a chapter on each cast and the learner needs to determine their progression from one cast to the next. This usually means they follow the chapter based on their own interest, not in a pattern where the skills build sequentially on each other. In my book, you can focus on the complete lesson that matches your skill.

The second way my book is unique is that I have included a section on how to practice. The practice section matches the lesson plan approach. If you are following the intermediate casting lesson, then you can follow the practice session for this lesson. There is a fair amount of detail in each practice section. I envisioned someone using this as a checklist format for their practice.

I wrote the book to be an aid for other fly casters like myself, who needed detailed information about what to focus on when casting and how to actually practice casting. During lessons, I give so much information and a person can only absorb a small amount of this. My approach is to help the individual help themselves. The book is a technical manual, meant to be used as a resource for reference, clarification and learning that occurs as you re-read information.

When you get some time off, where do you like to fish?

I like to fish for everything. My most favorite fishing is for bonefish on a beautiful flat somewhere warm and sunny, but I am happy fishing freshwater or saltwater. Outside of Boston is not the best trout fishing so I spend more time saltwater fishing for stripers, blues and false albacore.

What is the most common casting error?

The most common error I observe is using too much force in a cast. Typically, when the cast goes bad, people resort to adding more force as a way to correct the problem, but this rarely works. Other casters use force because they think it is needed to get a good cast.

Fly casting is more about proper timing and speed. Developing the proper speed and timing is a thing of feeling. You can never get this feeling if you are using force to make the rod perform. You need to slow down, and decrease the force used. Then, you can feel the interaction between the rod and line. This is the feeling that good casters have. When you have this feeling, you can adjust your cast for a specific set of conditions. This ability to feel, is what make fly casting so enjoyable, to get it, most people need to back off and use less force.

What is the most important thing anyone can do to improve their casting?

Practice if of course a big piece of being able to change, but practice alone is not enough. Most people tend to practice what they are already good at. This make them feel good, but does not make them a better caster. When working to improve your cast you must be willing to change. The change will not feel comfortable at first. Often when I suggest that someone cast differently, they say it feels awkward. Of course if feels different, it is a new way of doing things. It will not feel natural at first but this is only because you have so much muscle memory for casting the old way. The only reason an instructor suggests that you change your casting is because your prior way of casting is not allowing you to get the results you want it is limiting you. If you practice this new way of casting, it will begin to feel comfortable and you will have better results. If you want a different outcome, you must be willing to change.

Good advice and thanks Sheila for taking the time to talk with us.

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