PISCATAQUIS COUNTY, Maine — A brilliant blue sky reflected in the waters of a Piscataquis County lake, which was flanked by mountains with a hint of color from changing leaves. Water gushed over a small drop into the stream below.
Eight teenagers spread out along the shore and in the stream, casting flies in promising areas of moving water.
Nick Miller stood ready, making suggestions about casting techniques and sharing tips about the visible bugs and movement of the water that might help them catch brook trout and landlocked salmon.
Students from Nokomis High School in Newport spent last Friday in the gorgeous natural classroom as part of an innovative English elective class that focuses on fly fishing.
Nokomis is offering the class, and a few other offerings, to engage students by immersing them in the outdoors.
Miller, in his second year teaching English at Nokomis, grew up in Pittsfield. It was during his job interview with principal Mary Nadeau that he was asked what kind of nontraditional class he would like to teach, if given the opportunity. He chose his favorite hobby, fly fishing.
The fly fishing class is funded in part by a grant from the Barr Foundation, a Massachusetts-based organization that has been working with Nokomis for several years.
“It’s sort of a dream for a teacher to be able to teach your passion like that,” Miller said.
Miller’s students, who spent several hours on Piscataquis County waters last week, are eager to learn about fly fishing and the challenges it presents. He was there to answer questions, or to change a fly if one got broken off or didn’t seem to be enticing to the fish.
“I think that’s when the magic happens in the classroom, when you have a teacher that is really passionate about what they’re doing,” Nadeau said. “They’re going to bring their ‘A’ game.”
The fly fishing outings are only one element of the course, which requires students to keep a journal about their experiences and read works by fishing authors.
With fishing on most rivers and streams set to end Saturday in Maine, Miller has front-loaded the schedule with fishing trips.
“The curriculum focus right now is on leveraging journaling and both technical writing and narrative writing is a way to better reflect our learning of fly fishing,” Miller said.
Later this fall, the class will read works such as Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” and transition into more of a traditional English class.
When the class was first offered during the spring semester, Miller flipped the focus so the reading elements came first. That way, the students could get out fishing once the ice and snow had melted.
Miller has taken his class to a few different waters, including the Piscataquis River in Guilford and Nokomis Pond, across Route 7 from the school. He is pleased with the students’ response to the challenges of fly fishing.
“Every kid that I’ve had has been really open to trying something that’s difficult,” Miller said. “They’ve been committed and excited to try something new.”
Alex Vashon of Newport, among the seniors in the class, is an avid outdoorsman who hunts and fishes. That made the class a no-brainer for him.
“Why wouldn’t I? It’s much better than sitting in a classroom, for sure,” Vashon said.
Vashon has taken to the journaling and writing part of the class and is considering studying forestry and journalism when he heads to college next year.
The highlight of the recent trip came only minutes before the students returned to the bus. Sophomore Devin Treannie of St. Albans was casting and stripping in his fly above the drop-off when he hooked onto a salmon.
“Rod tip up! Rod tip up! Miller yelled as he approached in the hope of snapping a photo of Treannie with the fish.
The other boys looked on as Treannie got the fish to his feet, but the salmon made a couple of determined leaps and shook the hook.
“That’s the first big fish I caught on that fly,” Treannie said. “I touched it.”
A handful of the students landed at least one fish during the excursion, including a brook trout and sunfish. Miller made a few casts at the end of the trip and hooked a small salmon.
Treannie’s previous experience had been limited to using a spinning rod, so he was eager to expand his fishing horizons. His outlook echoed the thoughts of the group.
“I wanted to learn how to fly fish and I thought it would be a good opportunity to do that,” Treannie said. “I’m getting the hang of it.”