'It's about the community': Meet West Linn's fly fishing expert
She can't help herself.
The fly fishing expert is playing with her favorite toys. Today, at West Linn's Willamette Park, where the Tualatin River joins the Willamette, that toy is a 12-foot bamboo fly rod with graphite tips. Jennifer La Follette waited three years to get the handcrafted, $3,000 rod.
She guides the fly through the air, elegantly forming the shape of a D, pausing mid-sentence to acknowledge a great cast.
"Fly fishing is not how hard you can cast it," La Follette said. "It's how hard you can stop the rod to load the line … Everything comes together just like a perfect golf swing."
La Follette, a West Linn resident of two-plus years, is a true master of the craft. She's a licensed Oregon Outfitter and fly fishing guide, a private fly fishing instructor, a three-time competitor at Spey-O-Rama (a fly fishing competition) and a world renowned expert on English-made Hardy Fly Reels. In June, she and her husband Joel La Follette were among just a handful of U.S. fishing experts who were present for the Hardy 150-year anniversary celebration at the Duke of Northumberland's Castle, in Alnwick, Northumberland, along with a small group of international experts.
She grew up in Ventura, California, but learned to fish across the U.S. during the summers of her youth. She and her parents, Steve and Nita Swope, piled into an RV and set out for months at a time. Steve fished, but didn't use a fly rod. Nita's brother-in-law Larry Henderson had one, but didn't know how to use it. Noticing his niece's outdoor-oriented mindset, he gifted the rod to La Follette and sparked what would become a lifelong passion.
She'd grab the gear and give it a go whenever she got a chance. Eventually, she taught herself how to use the complex apparatus.
"I was definitely the tomboy," she said. "(Fly fishing) created an interest and developed into a passion for things that are old, that are of history of people who I was connected to, and it's just made me start asking questions."
Large animal veterinary services and human emergency medicine paid the bills for well over 14 years. In Southern California, she worked full-time for a veterinary clinic and rotated days on an ambulance as soon as she was 18. When La Follette was deciding between veterinary school or medical school, one of her vet mentors, Dr. Larry Dresher, who now resides in Prineville, encouraged her to follow her fly fishing passion.
A light went off.
Sick of school and remembering dad's wise words — "If you do what you love, you don't work nearly as many days in your life" — she continued to augment her schedule in ways which allowed more time on the river.
In 2008, La Follette set out on what became a nine-year RV exploration across the states — chasing warm weather and fishing all the while. She moved to Grants Pass four years ago before settling in West Linn. She's become a beacon of knowledge in her new community. When people have questions, they go to La Follette.
Aside from her private lessons — through which La Follette taught 438 individuals last year ranging in ages from seven to 84 — she volunteers with Casting For Recovery, Project Healing Waters and The Mayfly Project and helps Joel run Royal Treatment Fly Fishing fly shop which he's been operating for 12 years.
"It's been really special to be able to walk downtown (and hear), 'Oh hey Jenn,' and have people send a text, 'I caught this fish' or call and say, 'Can you come to the fly shop and help me get that rod for my son?'" she said. "Those are things that you don't really get on the road."
She added: "It's about community. I cannot stress that enough."
To be sure, she still finds plenty of time for herself. Aside from the months of December and January, La Follette delegates around 10 hours a week to fishing — sometimes alone or with Joel, others with a friend or two. Sometimes she hits the water early in the morning. A late-afternoon session with a scotch in hand is just as pleasant.
La Follette has fished extensively outside of the U.S. and, in many ways, those international trips have provided the basis for her strong belief in the sport's community-driven roots.
"The scene for fly fishing, it connects you," she said. "It gets back to, 'Oh, you fly fish? I can't speak your language, but here, let's trade flies,' and it's kind of like people sharing recipes."
There are two myths about the sport of fly fishing that La Follette has worked diligently to refute: That the sport is inaccessible and that it's difficult.
No sport requires more gear than fly fishing, yet La Follette said beginners can walk out with a full set of gear for $300. You don't need to break the bank until you want to, or can. She's no different. She's donned a pair of $800 Gore Tex waders, but most pairs hang in the $200 range.
She sticks to the motto that if she can't, or won't, use it, she doesn't buy or keep it.
La Follette has dozens of rods. She's lost count. But with her eyes closed, she said she could tell each one apart based on their feel and action — where the rod bends when pressure is applied.
She's got well over 100 flies, too —some specifically used for warm weather and some for cold. Some are more traditionally-shaped fishing hooks, and others are crafted like specific critters to attract a certain type of fish. On most, she's removed the barb to avoid unnecessary pain and flesh tears on her potential catches.
Holding a sneak-peek of the seemingly-endless supply of gear, the trunk of La Follette's light green Hyundai Tucson is a dizzying display of the sport's craftsmanship and her ever-growing passion for it. Picking the right gear before heading out is like picking shoes for the day, she said.
On a recent weekday morning, La Follette's line dances across the water at Willamette Park. It may not be her favorite spot — that would be either the Rogue River in Grants Pass or the middle bite of Andros in the Bahamas — but she's spent hours teaching private lessons here because of the smooth bottom and easily-accessible bank.
"Fly fishing is an excuse to be in beautiful places and see what … creation has for you that day — and in this kind of world that's so chaotic, we need that rebalance," she said. "There's times that we come home and we just go, 'I need to go fish. I don't care if we catch anything.'"
One of La Follette's students is a 12-year-old boy named Jasper. He's had lung cancer for eight of those years.
Some months back, the wheelchair-ridden Jasper came into the store looking for fly tie material. He was shy and barely spoke, La Follette said.
Now she gives him free lessons. The two sit, submerged in camping chairs, and cast together, his elbow resting on the chair's arm.
"His dad said the moment he gets in the car he won't stop talking," she said. "He goes home (and) he watches videos. He has a new zeal for life."
The La Follettes made him Royal Treatment's first ever youth ambassador. Their thought was that people give him free things all the time; they wanted to offer him a responsibility.
The late fly fishing expert Lefty Kreh said, "When you create a fly fisherman, you create a conservationist."
"All of a sudden, people are more aware of their environment," La Follette said. "They're aware of water. They're aware of healthy fisheries. They want to remove dams. They want clean water. They want the things we love in the environment to be protected for future generations."
She demonstrates the Snake Roll cast — a trickier move — and then allows her fly to sink ever so slightly into the water.
The best depth to catch fish is near where habitats lie. It's also inconveniently near the bottom of the river, where many beginners will often snag a branch, rock or debris, believing they've caught a fish.
"Oh," she exclaims. "See that bend in the rod?"
A new side of La Follette has emerged. She's beaming with youthful wonderment.
Slowly, she pulls in what reveals itself to be a six-inch pan fish. She's never caught this species here before. Skillfully tilting the fish in her palm so that its gills are never fully out of the water, she allows the sun to dance off its blue, green and yellow scales.
"You can just see the kid in me come out," she said.
La Follette will remind you that fly fishing isn't really about the fish. It's about community and, most of all, it's an excuse to escape into the great outdoors.
But nothing beats a catch.
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