fly fishing

Fathers, Daughters, & Fly Fishing


The great state of Nebraska is not exactly an iconic fly fishing location—but that didn’t stop Jeff Wagner from picking up a flyrod before he could legally drive a car.

An angler from the age of 10, he accredits his passion for fly fishing to the many mentors that would “donate” their flies and gear. From helping him cast to learning nearly everything there is to know about equipment, he still remembers their generosity. It’s also one of the reasons he believes so strongly in fly fishing education and youth getting involved in fly fishing. 

Jeff Wagner is Smartwool’s Sales Operations Director. Though, that’s hardly the extent of his title. When he’s not at Smartwool, Jeff is writing for Fly Fusion and Flyfisher magazines as the fly casting field editor. But most importantly, he is married and father of two daughters – Maiya and Sariana.

The same reasons Jeff loved fly fishing as a kid still hold true today. It boils down to three things:

“First, just being outside. Being on the stream, near the lake, in the water, on the water. Just experiencing the animals, the weather, and the different environments.

Second was the fish. I have always been fascinated by fish. I have a bit of a nerd side and read my first Ichthyology textbook at age 12. I borrowed it from a neighbor who later gave it to me, I think because I had smudged the pages with chocolate while I read it. I loved not knowing what we would catch, the size or the color. I was drawn to different species, their habits and what they ate.

Third, fly casting. There is nothing quite like sending 100’ of line through the air. I spent a lot of time honing that skill. Partly because we lived in Nebraska and the wind is brutal. You have to learn to cast well if you want to fish with a 30mph head wind. Soon it became a passion. One that developed into teaching, which developed into being a certified fly casting instructor with the Fly Fishers International. Then a Master Certified Instructor, serving on the Board of Governors and later on the Board of Directors. I think we all find things that just seem to click with us for whatever reason, fly casting is one of those things for me.”

Jeff has seen the industry grow since the early days back home in Nebraska and as it moves forward, he hopes to see water sources remain a priority. “I think that will happen if we teach our kids to fly fish. There’s a special appreciation and connection to nature that forms, and I think that is vital.” 

He believes the trick to getting kids interested in fly fishing is simply by making it fun.

Jeff walking his youngest daughter across the river
Sari and Maiya
Jeff carrying Maiya on shoulders

"We were told by lots of people that when we had kids we wouldn’t be able to do all the things we loved outside. Never tell anyone that.

I say that because we do the same things we did before kids, we just do them a little slower. We eat breakfast. We laugh, we prep, we talk about what we want to do. We let them help decide. We take our time. We typically fish for a few hours. Then eat lunch or a good snack. Then play in the water a little. Eat again. Fish again.

And then see where the day leads. Sometimes when we are camping my wife or I will sneak off to fish, bike or trail run solo while the other hangs with the kids. It’s important to find the balance."

 

But it’s not just fly fishing they enjoy—it’s the places they spend their time together, whether hiking, camping, fishing, rafting, climbing, or biking. Every day Jeff gets to spend with his family outside is a good day. He recalls a favorite fishing memory with his oldest daughter, Maiya.

 





"It was Maiya’s first day in her new neoprene boot foot waders (neoprene because that was the smallest size we could find). At only 9 years old, she was so light that when she waded into water deeper than her knees she had a hard time keeping the highly buoyant neoprene waders connected to the stream bed. Her feet kept floating up.



We found a great bend with a nice seam she could nymph. She made the cast and set the hook. She did a great job fighting the fish until he went downstream. She tried to run downstream but kept floating.



I finally had to pick her up and run with her downstream, held out of the water, while my friend netted the fish on the other side of the river. 27” brown trout. She may spend years trying to catch another one that big."

Big brown trout
Maiya holding fish

Sari, Jeff’s younger daughter, couldn’t be more different from her big sister—recalling her first autonomous moment with a fly rod in hand.

 


"It was a bright sunny spring day. We parked on the inside bend of the stream with a nice pocket just ahead of us. Fish were rising regularly. We tied on two dries so she could see them. She had to make a high enough back cast to cast over the Nebraska tumble weeds.

After finally getting a hang of things she made a short cast (15’) with the 4 wt. rod she was using. She saw the fish eat and lifted the rod and pulled the fish in."

Sari and Jeff fishing

Jeff’s genuine passion for fly fishing is infectious. Both his girls gravitate towards it naturally. Through spending time together and enjoying the world around them, Jeff encourages his kids to find their own passion. “If we can share a similar passion, that’s great! But what is most important is that they find their own passion.”

As Sari eagerly drifts her line through another pool and Maiya identifies plants along the river, Jeff shares a few tips for parents who want to get their kids excited about spending time outdoors and fly fishing.

 

Go outside, let them be kids.

It means being ok with them falling in the water.

It means being patient.

It means throwing rocks in the water after only 10 minutes of fishing, even though you spent 2 hours prepping, 3 hours driving, and $200 on gas and supplies.

It means occasionally breaking things and not getting mad.

It means putting on a fly only because it ‘looks pretty’ when you know it won’t catch anything.

 

Jeff and Sari
Maiya holding worm

It means saying you were wrong when that ‘pretty’ fly works.

It means saying you don’t know when they ask you how many drops of water are in the river.

It means leaving it better than you found it.  

It means doing something other than fishing when they don’t want to go.

It means sometimes making them go when they don’t want to.

It means knowing you won’t always know whether you should or shouldn’t go, and when you get it wrong, go back to throwing rocks.

 


"At the end of the day, it isn’t just about catching fish anymore...although that's nice, too."

Sari holding big rainbow

 

Jeff’s Go-To Gear for Fly Fishing

Stay comfortable on the river all day long—our Merino wool fabric is breathable and helps regulate temperature, perfect for those days when the morning starts off cold but the afternoon is hot. Keep casting till the sun goes down with our Merino 150 collection, and add a pair of PhD socks for comfort from head to toe.

 

 

 

 

A special thank you to Steve Henderson, Owner & Guide of Henderson Fly Fishing for spending a day on the water with Smartwool and the Wagner family.