The trout of his dreams
ARLINGTON — The famed Batten Kill runs through here, its waters much higher than normal, thanks to the abundant, recent rains.
In a tidy house near its waters, an older man talks of fly fishing in far-off places, of people he has fished with, of a love of casting flies to wary brown trout.
Bill Cairns has fished in places most of us can only imagine. And, over the years, he has fished with a few anglers who would easily make the fly fishing Hall of Fame.
Cairns was introduced to fly fishing as a boy in Melrose, Mass., where he grew up. A neighbor was teaching the sport to his son, then asked Cairns if he too wanted to learn about this strange, new approach to angling.
“There was a mystique about it,” Cairns said in an interview at his Arlington home. “And nobody was doing it.”
They fished small streams in Melrose, but Cairns’s real exposure to fly fishing came when his family went on vacation near North Conway, N.H. Once again, a man, a virtual stranger, took him under his wing.
“I was sitting on a bank, watching him. He had an extra fly rod and began to teach me the rudiments of fly fishing,” Cairns said. “I never looked back.”
Cairns took to the fly rod like a brook trout to a worm.
“I think as you get into fishing, like anything else, I found that I could master the next step. I wanted to be as good with a fly rod as I was with a spinning rod,” he said.
After moving to Vermont in 1963, the 81-year-old Cairns was hired by Orvis, in Manchester, to begin the Orvis Fly Fishing School in the late 1960s.
“Fly fishing wasn’t really popular back then. Leigh Perkins had a ton of money and wanted to start the school. I had some skepticism about that,” he said.
The school caught on and over a span of at least 20 years, Cairns taught thousands of neophytes the way of the fly rod.
A natural lefty, Cairns taught himself, after long hours of practice, to cast with his right hand. He believed that beginners, most of them right-handed, would catch on quicker if he worked the rod as they would.
The job with Orvis “opened up a whole new world” for him, Cairns said.
“Orvis wanted to take people to these exotic destinations,” Cairns said, places like Belize and a host of other far-off places. Cairns has also fished in Russia, Argentina and in Newfoundland.
Cairns son, David William Cairns, was right on the money when we spoke prior to the interview with the senior Cairns.
During the interview, one thing rang true: His dad was no boaster, but the son filled me in on some of the things that father left out of the interview.
“My dad has fly fished all over the world, taught countless thousands as the original director of the Orvis fly fishing school, has given many casting demonstrations throughout the country, is an author (two books on fly fishing) and photographer, knows pretty much every darn river in this country, knows (or knew) most of the country’s outdoor writers from the 1970s on ... .this list could go on and on. A natural lefty, he spent thousands of hours casting in the front yard right-handed to better teach. He could perform the double haul cast better than anyone, ever.”
A three-year Army veteran, Cairns spent the early 1950s as a cryptographer (breaking codes) at NATO Headquarters in Paris.
The great Ted Williams, a fly fishing fanatic “was my absolute hero,” Cairns said.
“Ted Williams helped me pick out my first fly rod,” said Cairns. Williams had appeared as a guest at a sporting goods shop at the time.
And he fished with Nelson Bryant of the New York Times, arguably the finest outdoor writer who ever graced the pages of a newspaper. Cairns and Bryant were fond of walking a few miles uphill to fish for native brook trout in backwoods beaver ponds.
Cairns caught stripers in Cape Cod, using a fly rod, of course, and has taken fish in the Florida Keys — bonefish, permit and tarpon.
Cairns is presently ill and appeared somewhat frail but very alert. The energy was there and his eyes lit up as he spoke of his decades of devotion to fly fishing.
While he is a dedicated fly fisherman, Cairns did not go on and on about the “purity” of the sport. He offered as much praise for other anglers in his midst, those who go forth with lures or worms.
“Fly fishing is just a little more of a challenge,” he said.
Cairns spoke of fish — all fish — as a blessed resource.
“I don’t keep any trout but I don’t have a problem with a decent, sporting guy keeping some fish,” he said, “but the resource is so fragile. It’s important to leave the resource for others to enjoy,”
But of all the fish that Cairns has caught and released, it was clear, for him anyway, that the brown trout reigned supreme.
“They get smarter than any trout,” he said. “I think that’s because of their European origin. They’ve been fished for centuries. If you’re consistent with brown trout, I don’t care what lures you use, or worms, you’re a good trout fisherman.”
Asked if he had but one day left to fish, Cairns flashed a big smile, then replied: “It would be a big-ass, smart brown trout.”