Joe Humphreys Is a Big Hit with An Odd Line: Showing Penn State Kids the Deeper Meaning of Fly Casting

updated 05/02/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 01:00AM

It is a balmy April day and so the students in Angling 109 have all gone fishing. They are clustered on a bank of a stream just off campus, studying such niceties as how to plunk a Crest Bug onto the water so softly that the most skeptical of trout would swear it was the real thing. But these Penn State students aren't playing hooky. They're getting their first field—or stream—trip to apply what they've learned in one of the nation's oldest college fly-fishing classes, which they are taking for credit, and the lesson is proving taxing. Not one of them can land anything. Worse yet, they have to look on as Prof. Joe Humphreys, delicately casting a series of feathery, furry flies on the waters, hauls in one fish after another. "See that one?" Humphreys whispers, watching the stream like a hungry heron. "Notice how he's holding in the current and moving toward the bank to pick off feed?" He aims—and misses. "Whoops, I'm a nickel late," he says. He casts once more and reels in a new trout. "Hey," he beams, "this is kind of fun."

Easy for him to say. After 19 years of teaching Principles and Techniques of Angling, Humphreys, 59, is the Arnie Palmer of fly-fishing. He holds the state record for brown trout with a huge, 15-lb. beauty he landed in 1977. His 1981 Joe Humphreys' Trout Tactics is to trout what Moby Dick is to whales; it has sold more than 20,000 copies. When President Jimmy Carter couldn't catch a thing during a fishing vacation in 1981, he got lessons from Humphreys and promptly started reeling 'em in. So many students sign up for his course that Humphreys can admit only one in three. "Joe's maybe the best teacher I've ever had," says Ken Anderson, a senior who signed up five times before getting in.

Such plaudits have made Humphreys one of the two biggest fishes in Penn State's pond, the other being football coach Joe Paterno. "You can't go anywhere without running into fly-fishermen who ask about Joe Humphreys," says Bob Eisenbraun, a Penn State administrator. "I recently met the president of a major Midwestern university, and the first thing he said was, 'Do you know Joe Humphreys?' "

The 25 students who get into the 15-week courses that Humphreys gives each semester are taught what he calls "the meat and mashed potatoes" of fly-fishing. In lectures and trips, he teaches them how to tie flies and dupe a wily trout into mistaking a hook with feathers on it for a live meal. Humphreys' course isn't demanding, academically. He assigns no homework, gives just one quiz plus a final exam and gladly passes any student who attends regularly. "Fishing is a way to keep your sanity in a stressful world," Humphreys says. "And what these kids learn they can enjoy the rest of their lives."

Growing up near the Penn State campus, where his father worked in the bursar's office, Humphreys caught his first trout at 6, using a lowly worm for bait. A few years later he discovered the joys of fly casting and was hooked. "After school we'd jump on our bicycles," he recalls, "pedal down to Spring Creek with our fly rods over our handlebars and fish from 3:30 until dark." After four years as a fireman in the Navy, he enrolled at Penn State, majoring in phys ed, and earned letters in boxing and wrestling. He also took the fly-fishing class with "my hero and mentor," George Harvey, who founded the course in 1934. After spending seven years as a high school phys ed teacher, he came back to Penn State in 1970 as Harvey's assistant and took over the course in 1973, when Harvey retired.

"Fishing was life to him," says Humphreys' wife, Gloria, of the days when her college classmate courted her by showing her how to catch fish. A part-time ice-skating teacher at Penn State, Gloria no longer fishes, and the Humphreys' daughters, Dolores, 25, and Johanna, 24, don't either, but Joe's passion hasn't abated. Although he also teaches bowling and skating, he manages to wade into a stream 200 times a year, often at night, and he even goes scuba diving to ogle the trout in the stream—"my laboratory," he calls it—behind the renovated 1822 gristmill where he and Gloria live. "I want to be on the stream all day, every day," the piscatory professor says, "so I can really start to learn about fishing."

—By Michael Small, with Jim Merritt in State College

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