Angling for common ground, students enroll in unusual class

June 12, 2003

University Park, Pa. -- This is no ordinary fish story.

Taking advantage of Penn State's renowned fishing and angling programs, students from the inner city are exploring an outdoor environment foreign to them and learning new skills.

The students, most of whom have never fished before, are taught the basic principles of fly-fishing for trout. They then have an opportunity to practice their newly learned skills on an area trout stream through a class proposed and supported by Jesse Arnelle, former president and current member of the Penn State Board of Trustees.

The project, now known as the Arnelle Fly Fishing Initiative, is a spin-off, or in fishing terms, a cast spin-off of the core fly fishing course that has introduced thousands of Penn State students to the sport over the last 70 years.

"In our rural setting, we have a tremendous outdoor environment available to our students," said Mark Belden, assistant recreational sports director and instructor in kinesiology, who teaches the course. "It is one of the crown jewels in cold-water trout fishing in the east, with many top-level fly-fishing streams within 15 miles of the campus.

"Jesse Arnelle took a fishing lesson and field trip from now-retired instructor Joe Humphreys and wanted students of color who have not been exposed to this environment to have an opportunity for this type of experience. We are using fly-fishing to involve the students in an environment that they had not experienced in the past. We hope they learn some lifelong skills and will continue the activity."

The course is being offered each fall and spring and is open to all students. The first class was held last fall and 12 students were enrolled in the second class offered this spring. Throughout the classroom sessions and a field trip, the students are teamed with a mentor, who has completed or is a student in the Masters of Fly Fishing class offered in Penn State's angling program.

In the classroom meetings, the students are exposed to the principles of fly-fishing, including an understanding of how trout live, tying flies and casting. Belden explains the needs of trout as comfort, safety and protection.

"You need to analyze a stream, have confidence in what you've learned, and experiment with a plan in mind," he told the students. "If you do this, you'll start to catch fish."

In a final class session in the main gym of Rec Hall before heading out to the stream, Humphreys, author, columnist and trout-fishing expert, demonstrated techniques of fly-casting. The students began casting from their knees with their elbow locked in so they don't move their arm. "The arm is out; the wrist is in," he said. "By using the wrist, you can shoot the line anywhere."

On a bright, sunshine-filled, spring afternoon, the novice anglers, accompanied by their mentors, plied their new skills at the Wayne Harpster farm on Spruce Creek, an environmentally friendly trout stream area often fished by former President Carter.

Terrell Jones, vice provost for educational equity and an avid fly fisherman himself, served as mentor for Sylvia Alvarenga of Washington, D.C., a freshman majoring in political science. Alvarenga, who was fishing for the first time, became very excited when she caught a fish.

"It was a cute fish," she said. "It was small but cute."

Jones, whose office provides some financial support for the program, said that for many of the urban students the Spruce Creek outing was their first time in such a setting.

"It's an entirely new experience for most of them. And it's another means of building community. We have lots of people from different backgrounds working together on one goal -- catching fish."

Cyndie Rochelin of Philadelphia, a freshman pre-medicine major, had never fished before, but heard about the class from friends in her residence hall.

"It sounded interesting," she said, "and it has worked out well. I've learned a lot."

Her mentor, Vincent Norris, professor emeritus of communications, spent time showing her how to run a line through the rod loops and tie the leader and hook.

"She's doing fine and has learned to be a good caster," he said. "We'll find out if she can catch fish."

Allen Phillips, professor emeritus of biochemistry and a masters class student, was mentor to Larry Murray of Philadelphia, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering.

"Larry has taken to fishing well and has developed a good casting technique," he said. "What we need to do now is begin to figure out where the fish are and what they want to eat."

The biggest thrill of the afternoon came when Humphreys, to the delight and squeals of the interested anglers, landed two trout on one line while demonstrating casting techniques.

According to Belden, the Penn State angling program got its start in the 1930s when a faculty member, George Harvey, began teaching a fly-fishing class. The class has since been taught by Humphreys, Vance McCullough and now Belden, who also teaches the masters class and an Introduction to Casting course. The core course, now Kinesiology 004, Principles and Practices of Fly Fishing for Trout, satisfies general degree requirements. Belden said five sections are offered each year and they are always filled.

One masters class student has produced a video on fly-fishing that Belden uses in the other classes. Another is working with Pattee Library to develop the George Harvey Fly Fishing Literature Collection. A major component of the angling program, Belden noted, is an active student fly fishing club, monitored by Greg Hoover, senior Extension associate in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"We get calls from colleges and universities throughout the country inquiring about the program," he said. "We emphasize to our students that fishing is fun. We don't want to reshape them, but we want them to see that fly-fishing can be enjoyable, particularly in stressful situations such as we now face with the war on terrorism. Our goal is to get them interested to the point where they want to learn more."

The Arnelle Initiative students apparently reached that goal on their fishing trip.

"All of the students either caught a fish or had one on the line," Belden said. "In the classroom, they looked skeptical, but out on the stream, they had a great time. Many may not fish again, but some probably will as a result of this experience. This trip gave them a better feel for the outdoor environment and a greater respect for the activity."

In a more typical fish-story fashion, Jones offered that he landed a 14-inch trout. Observers were quick to point out, however, that it was no more than half that size.

For photos of the trip, go to

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009