Network leaders educate National Capital Region about health advantages of fly fishing

Written By Candace Dantes

Published on Apr 23, 2023

Daybreak casts patience. Reels in Black joy. Seven District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia participants trailed two Outdoor Afro volunteer leaders to experience these favorable side effects. Their April 15 waypoint: Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ 1,930-acre Morgan Run. Leader Raymond Smith Jr., 62, huddled the enterprising fly fishers to set activity expectations at the natural environment area: “Today, we’re going to work on our approach, mending, high sticking, setting the hook, and reading the water,” said the now nine-year volunteer leader and sophisticated fisherman. “We want tight lines.” 

The group nodded then looked both ways before crossing Klee Mill Road. Once everyone cleared the street, they hooked a left. Trooped over a 9-foot-long wooden, jury-rigged bridge. Both Smith and co-leader Antonio Simmons, 51, guided their beginner fishers downstream, asking them to file off at earmarked openings along the path. “Give yourself space to practice your technique,” said Simmons. “Let’s see if we catch some trout.” Fly fishing counts as one of 1,200-plus nature activities hosted through the national not-for-profit organization’s Outdoor Afro Leadership Team.

More than 100 volunteer leaders help Outdoor Afro achieve its 14-year mission: celebrate and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature. This particular event invited local participants to learn fly fishing basics in their nature-shared backyard. “I remember watching the fly fishing film ‘A River Runs Through It’ in the ’90s,” said novel fisher Sarah Neal, 55. “What stood out to me in that movie was the characters talking as a family and the calmness that came with fishing.” Neal also thought this type of experience was something she couldn’t afford to do — until she attended her first Outdoor Afro event four years ago.

Lead photo: Volunteer leader Raymond Smith Jr. teaches casting. Above: Participant Sarah Neal carries her trademark smile with every cast. Photos by Tiffanie Page.

“Outdoor Afro taught me that most of the activities out here are not as expensive as I initially assumed,” said the elementary school educator. Neal has camped with Outdoor Afro. Even learned how to make deer sausage at a previous network event. While Smith continued to chaperone other participants downstream, Simmons held back with Neal and cautioned: “Pay attention to your surroundings before you cast,” said the five-year volunteer leader. “We’re in a wooded area with a shaded cover.” 

Neal surveyed the location and found her bearings. Set up her fly rod and reel. Fumbled to hook her fly a few times. Finally ready: She attempted an overhead cast. Again. And again. And again. And again. Her rod mimicked an insect as it hit the water. “Yes, fly fishing is ‘active’ fishing,” Simmons said to remind Neal of her good efforts. “Constantly mend and strip the line.” Nothing. After many misses, still nothing. Just six months into the sport, Neal accepted her repeated results with a twinkled grin. Tee-hees in between.

Natural reactions Outdoor Afro commonly pulls out of participants across networks nationwide. In addition to Neal, Smith and Simmons introduced 25 network attendees to fly fishing last year. “It was important to share this skill with participants because our people have so many health challenges,” Smith said, “especially high blood pressure. Fly fishing helps take the stress and anxiety away. Nature in general does.” When Smith and Simmons incorporated this popular event into their network offerings for National Capital Region residents, deep-rooted family ties to fishing came with their nature adventures.

Volunteer leader Antonio Simmons guides a network participant to a fishing site along Morgan Run. Photo by Joe Klementovich.

Simmons fished as a Baltimore kid with his father. Primarily catfish and carp. Along the Chesapeake Bay, his childhood fishing routine: Sculpt dough balls. Cast. Wait a few minutes before impatience kicked in. “I kept two rods with me back then,” the broad-built outdoorsman said. “I needed to move. Why fly fishing always worked for me.” Simmons has since upgraded to competitive fishing arenas. During 2022, he entered the Second Annual Snakehead Derby at Gunpowder Falls State Park in Maryland. He placed second in his category with a 5 pound, 3.5 ounce snakehead — an invasive species within the community.

Smith also gained angler expertise from his father. “Everyone in Glenarden knew ‘The Smiths’ fished,” said the veteran Outdoor Afro leader. “My dad, the late Raymond Smith Sr., was a professional barber. He fished almost every evening after work.” Raymond Smith Sr. casted his line into local waters until age 90. Living to reach 102 years old. Raymond Smith Jr. held onto his dad’s leisure and business habits. Currently owning Smith’s Barber Shop and buying his neighborhood’s takeout Horace & Dickies Seafood of Glenarden. Smith literally takes Outdoor Afro participants through the conventional process of catching their meal to re-imagining fishing as an entrepreneurship avenue.

“We serve five varieties of fish at Horace & Dickies — whiting, tilapia, catfish, trout, and croaker,” Smith said smiling and kneading his hands together. “People come from all over for the fish. And our lemon cake.” The two volunteer leaders plan to expand fly fishing site options for participants this year. Starting with Maryland’s Fly Fishing Trail. The first statewide course of fly fishing destinations in the nation. The brand-new, 2-site trail is positioned in Baltimore City and each of Maryland’s 23 counties. It constructed to help increase tourism to Baltimore waterways and deepen historical bonds to the pastime and sport.

Outdoor Afro fly fishing attendees woohooed when they heard the network news. “Fly fishing has taught me diligence on a new level,” said Devon Williams, 42, who is also a snowboarder and has joined Outdoor Afro in nature for a decade now. “Just by practicing casting I’m able to forget everything else going on.” Every few months, the expected DMV network activity offers newer opportunities to apply lessons learned. Provides another chance to release from work lifestyles, reconnect to the outdoors. “We caught absolutely nothing today, but that’s not the point,” said Smith. “The act of fly fishing is something our participants enjoy because this environment is so relaxing.”

Devon Williams puts Outdoor Afro casting lessons to practice at Morgan Run Natural Environment Area. Photo by Tiffanie Page.

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    I want to know more about your organization ad how to participate.


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Candace Dantes

Candace Dantes

Candace Dantes serves as Outdoor Afro's inaugural Communications Director. The fourth-generation cowgirl and award-winning journalist and marketer is based in the Georgia Black Belt Region. For more than a decade, the rural Georgia storyteller has given agency to Black farming and cowhand culture in traditional and new media. From Smalltown USA, she has collaborated with global brands like London's Black Beauty & Hair Magazine and M&C Saatchi. Back home with U.S. Department of Agriculture research grant Black Farmers' Network, Wrangler, Justin Boots and Visit Fort Worth.