Eight dollars per hour. As public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine and public information director for the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association, that’s what Charlie Powell earns — to teach fly-fishing at WSU, that is.
But in truth, he would probably teach for free because he loves the sport and loves to teach it to others.
“It’s a privilege for me to teach,” Powell said. “My philosophy for the class is that it’s a lifelong physical activity that gets people out into the environment and stresses physical and mental health. Through teaching, I can turn out 20 to 25 anglers each year with strong ethics, who are conservation minded and have a strong reverence for the outdoors.”
Perhaps that is why his class is one of the most popular on campus. Powell said PEACT 266, or fly-fishing, regularly shows up on the Daily Evergreen’s list of “classes too hot for the catalog.”
“There is a waiting list of more than 100 students who want to take it, so usually only upperclassmen and grad students get in,” he said.
Taking his place in history
WSU has a rich history of teaching fly-fishing. It began more than 50 years ago, when the sport was first taught by the late Ike Deeter, legendary WSU boxing coach. Next the late Dave Engerbretson, an anatomist at WSU, taught the class for 26 years. (Both Deeter and Engerbretson died in 2003.)
But for the past six years, Powell has taught everything from casting, tying knots and reading water to fish behavior, entomology and fly-fishing theory.
“One of the things that intrigues me most is that you never stop learning about aquatic insects, fish behavior and conservation,” he said.
An avid fan and fly-fisher since age 7, Powell said another reason why he and many students like the sport so much is that they can take the skills with them and use them usually wherever and whenever they go.
“You can pursue this activity even if you live in one of the nation’s largest cities,” he said. “And in the Pacific Northwest, there is no time you need to put the fly rod away — there is always something to be caught.”
Powell spends half his class teaching students how to cast. But once that is accomplished, he focuses on theory and how to identify where fish can be caught in a stream.
“The part the students enjoy the most is the sets of slides I bring in of waters from around North America,” Powell said. “The students like to know where the fish are going to be.”
And these students are not just men. Between 25 to 50 percent of his students are women.
“There is a social element to taking the course,” he said. “Some take interest in the sport because their grandfather or father used to do it. Some take it to hone their skills or are amateurs who have not tried it.”
Sport is versatile, family friendly
One of the most exciting aspects of fly-fishing is that a person can catch virtually any fish with a fly rod, Powell said. “Except sturgeon,” he said, “but there is a guy in Boise who did that.”
For those interested in catching record-breaking fish, the Northwest is a great place to be, said Powell, who is also the Idaho representative to the International Game Fish Association, the official record keeper for all of the world’s angling records.
“There are waters just 10 miles from Pullman where a person could catch a record-breaking fish,” he said.
One person who may be trying next summer is Powell’s youngest daughter, Ava, who developed a love for fishing from both her parents.
“Fly-fishing can be a family activity, which is another thing that drives me to teach this class,” he said. “Society is changing so families aren’t structured where children can easily learn outdoor pursuits anymore.”
Regardless of his meager pay, Powell devotes at least an hour of preparation for every hour he teaches.
“I personally maintain all of the equipment, and the lectures always need to be reviewed and refreshed because things change. And as a personal quirk, I like to memorize my lectures… I don’t like it when teachers read from notes. I try to make my class more conversational and interactive.”
Still, he says he wouldn’t change anything, except to have more funds become available to replace aging rods and reels, some of which are more than 30 years old.
“I teach for the love of the sport, not the money,” Powell said. “And I’ll continue to do it until they chase me off.”
PEACT 266 is offered during fall semester, but Powell also teaches weekend classes for the Outdoor Recreation Centers at WSU and the University of Idaho.