Clemson leisure skills program creates thriving fly fishing community

March 2, 2020

You often hear people say, “there’s something in” Clemson’s hills, but there’s also something in its streams. That’s where you’ll find groups of Clemson University students casting flies when the weather’s right.

Fly fishing instructor Mike Watts celebrating a catch with two of his former students.

Fly fishing instructor Mike Watts celebrating a catch with two of his former students.

Mike Watts has been teaching fly fishing as part of the university’s leisure skills program for about 15 years, and estimates he’s taught about 800 students to tie flies, cast a fly rod and understand the ecosystem where the fish they’re hoping to catch thrive.

“Our classes are about fly fishing made simple, but also about the environment that supports the fish and why that’s important,” Watts says. “We also take the time to talk about conservation of our natural habitats and why that matters.”

Fly fishing is one of more than 150 one-credit learning options students can take in subjects such as dance, shotgun sports, yoga, fitness, outdoor recreation, sports and first aid. Class sections are taught by experts in each respective field and coordinated by Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, which applies a research focus to course development and management.

Students take a leisure skills class for a number of reasons, such as introducing themselves to new activities, or exploring potential new hobbies or career options. Fly fishing is one of the program’s most popular class options.

Eleven years ago, the fly fishing class started growing exponentially, so Watts brought on another instructor to meet the demand. Watts and Mike Harvell have been splitting fly fishing classes ever since. Harvell has been fishing since 1960 and says that teaching the class has helped him continue to share his passion for the hobby with others.

“I’ve always liked fishing,” Harvell says. “I learn new things every time I go out, and I like seeing our students experience that, too.”

Classes are taught using the philosophy that the fisherman that only enjoys the catching of the fish is a miserable person 90 percent of the time.

Fly fishing instructor Mike Harvell has always had a love for fishing and the outdoors.

Fly fishing instructor Mike Harvell has always had a love for fishing and the outdoors.

“The point of fly fishing is partly to catch a fish, but it also helps you build an understanding of what fish eat and how that relates to different flies,” says Watts. “You need to know the natural environment to successfully catch a fish and would do it differently if you’re trout fishing in the mountains or salt water fishing on the coast.”

After their leisure skills class ends, many students keep fishing through the CU Fly Fishing Club, with about two-thirds of them becoming members or participating in club events and many more following them on their Instagram account, which has more than 1,200 followers. The group plans group fishing expeditions and shares photos of successful catches by its members. The club was founded by Watts and former student Robert DiBenedetto, who found his passion for fly fishing is also furthering his career.

“My first job interview centered around my leadership of the CU Fly Fishing Club and got me a job in the United States House of Representatives,” DiBenedetto says. “I also just formed a new relationship with a prominent businessman because of our mutual love for fly fishing and my background with the fly fishing class and club at Clemson.”

Another of their former students, Sam Caruso, who graduated from Clemson University with a Bioengineering degree in 2015, says that the weekly classes were an opportunity to break away from the rush to complete their degree by giving them something else to focus on.

“The best part, however, is the continual growth and connection that takes place after the course,” says Caruso, who’s kept in touch with Watts long after his class ended.

Dan Anderson, who runs the leisure skills program, says that Watts and Harvell have found a unicorn of sorts on campus.

“Creating a huge fly fishing community on campus from scratch and then keeping the student club going through leadership changes every couple of years is a major achievement,” Anderson says. “Their ongoing work with these classes and that club demonstrates the passion they have for the students and the sport.”

Information about Clemson University’s leisure skills classes are available in the undergraduate catalog.