Chicago School Goes Fly Fishing

Three years ago I got a phone call from a school just outside Chicago. North Shore Country Day has an awesome program called the Interim Week Experience. This program is a unique opportunity for teachers and faculty to share some of their personal passions and hobbies with students, while encouraging their students to participate in service and experiential learning trips throughout the world. True Trout Bums at heart, Dean of Students Erik and his co-conspirator/longtime school administrator Cindy realized the potential of a fly fishing based Interim Week trip, which they quickly dubbed the Trout Bum Experience. Obviously this was right up our ally, so when I got the call, of course I was all in. With the help of our friends at Virginia Outside just we ran our third annual “Trout Bum Experience,” and it has only gotten better each year. As educators continue to embrace experiential learning as an important part of a student's development we hope to partner with more schools on similar programs. Here are my 3 biggest takeaways from the last three years working with these students.  

Sampling macroinvertebrates to calculate the biotic index and health of the river.

During what would otherwise be just another week in the middle of a long and cold fall semester, most students view their interim week out of the classroom as a mini vacation. What they don’t realize is that just because they are not in class, the learning doesn't stop. With the help of the school's biology teacher, the students suited up in waders to sample aquatic macroinvertebrates (bugs and insects for the layperson). Using what they find in the water, they learn to determine the health of the river from the samples collected. The learning opportunities don’t stop with field biology. Creative writing with journal entries, art with fly tying, and classic American literature all make an appearance during the week. What sets the experiential learning experience apart from a normal week is not just how it takes the classroom outside, but that it provides a unique learning experience where the student applies what they have learned to real world situations, in real time, and have a ton of fun doing so! As we sat around the dinner table on the last night of this year's, trip each student took turns explaining their rose, thorn, and bud, or in other words their highlight, lowlight, and something they would change about the week. The restorative power of time spent in nature, healthy techniques for dealing with stress, connecting with peers they normally don't interact with at school, the confidence to take on new challenges, independence, and leadership were all life lessons that made up the list of their highlights. 

Learning about how the county turned an abandoned railway into a scenic bike trail along the river, followed by a bike ride to remove trash from over 15 miles of the trail proved to be one of the highlights of the week.

I started LFFE with the mission of “inspiring future generations of confident and independent anglers with a passion for conservation and stewardship”.  So naturally, at first, I assumed the best metric for the success of the Trout Bum Experience was how many students decided fly fishing was something they would like to try again. With that goal in mind, I put a huge priority on making sure every kid caught plenty of fish. The combination of low water and lower temps made catching fish more of a challenge this year. While at times it seemed like the fish were few and far between, we still managed to help every student land their first trout on the fly!  Much to my surprise, catching fish didn’t come up a single time as we went around the table discussing our roses, buds, and thorns. The big fish caught never came up as a highlight, and the lack of fish never made the list of things they would change. What I quickly realized is that most of these students will probably not go on to be lifelong fly anglers, and that is ok. What is most important is that in our group of 12 students this year, I am confident we spurred a lifelong love of fishing in at least 2 or 3 of them.  More importantly, I came to the realization that creating lifelong fly fisherman was not the only metric that mattered. We used fly fishing to teach life lessons to bright young minds. Regardless of if they never step foot in another trout stream, I am confident that this experience will forever influence the way they value clean cold water.

Things started to come together on the last day. Precise casts to spooky fish were the name of the game.

In the 3 years, we have partnered with NSCD we have worked with roughly 40 students. Well over half of those have been girls. During a typical LFFE summer, our trips are 98% boys. Working with NSCD has shown me that the disproportionate representation of girls on our trips is not a reflection of the lack of interest in fly fishing from teenage girls. In fact, of those 3 students from this year's trip that I am confident will continue to fly fish, 2 of them are girls. There is undoubtedly a huge pool of girls and young women who are eager for the chance to fly fish, especially in a learning environment that is wholly inclusive of women and girls. This experience has inspired our efforts to provide more opportunities for young girls to participate in our programs. The first step of which was the introduction of our new all girls Colorado Expedition. 

"Waders feel awesome!" Who remembers the first time they waded in some waders?

I have never doubted the educational benefits of backcountry fly fishing trips for teens, but working with NSCD has helped me learn how to better apply those lessons to a "school setting". Further, the lessons I have learned working with a school have helped me improve LFFE's summer adventures and expeditions. I look forward to the opportunity to work with more schools in the future.


Tight Lines,

Will Lillard

Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions was started in 2010 as a graduate thesis for my Master's Degree in Environmental Conservation Education at NYU. The operating premise was simple - by coupling amazing wilderness fly fishing camps for teens with environmental education and service learning we can help inspire future generations of fly fishing conservationists. We have been growing our unique list of trips and experiences ever since.

When it comes to choosing a summer program for your teen the options are endless. For the teen who loves to fish, be outside, and has a strong sense of adventure we have made the choice easy. We are the leader in teen fly fishing adventures and are dedicated to providing the best backcountry fly fishing experience with opportunities for teens to engage in leadership training, community service, and backcountry camping.


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Will Lillard, Founder/Director/Guide

Contact Us

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Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions
2540 King Road
Pisgah Forest, NC 28768

(828) 577-8204