DESTIN — Watch a fly fisherman unspooling line from a rod, sending it in graceful arcs to place a delicately crafted fly on the water, and it's easy to conclude fly fishing is a mystic art, its secrets revealed only to a select few.
Panhandle Flyfishers, a group of fly-fishing aficionados — saltwater fly fishing, to be exact — exists in part to bring the art and science of fly fishing within reach of anyone wanting to learn. The group meets on the first and third Mondays of each month at 7 p.m. at Buck Destin Park, 724 Legion Drive in Destin.
"You can get in it as deep or as shallow as you want," joked Bill Strietz, vice president of Panhandle Flyfishers.
The first-Monday meetings routinely feature guest speakers who address a variety of fly-fishing topics, and may also include and opportunity to develop, or sharpen, fly-casting skills. The third-Monday meetings are reserved for fly-tying classes, with one member leading the group through the steps of creating flies designed to attract specific types of fish.
Streitz, who has been fly fishing since he was 13 years old, said saltwater fly fishing has only been a part of the fly fishing world for about 30 years. It's such a new branch of fly fishing, he said, that participants are continuing to learn about the habits of the fish they're after.
"Here in Florida, the fever is tarpon," he said. Tarpon inhabit Northwest Florida by the thousands in spring and early summer.
But, Streitz said, saltwater fly fishing doesn't necessarily mean heading out in a boat to chase fish.
"We've caught redfish 10 feet from the beach," he said.
And while there is an art to crafting the perfect fly for attracting particular fish, there's one overriding lesson for people who want to try saltwater fly fishing.
"Anything that will eat a minnow will eat a fly," Streitz said.
Lee Stelter, current president of Panhandle Flyfishers, said he and other members of the group took a slow approach to getting involved in saltwater fly fishing.
"Just about all of us started out as weekenders," he said. But, he added, "Once you catch a fish on a fly you've tied yourself, you're hooked."
Stelter said the good thing about saltwater fly fishing is that there's no real need to worry about what kinds of flies will attract saltwater species.
"The fish are not that particular," he said.
In addition to their twice-monthly meetings, Panhandle Flyfishers does some outreach. The group assists Boy Scouts with merit badge work, and they also volunteer with the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance in collecting water samples and with reef construction.
Panhandle Flyfishers is also associated with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a nonprofit organization that uses fly fishing and associated activities to aid in the physical and emotional healing of injured active-duty military personnel and military veterans.
Gregg Houghaboom, a Panhandle Flyfishers member who works with Healing Waters, said the program teaches injured veterans and active-duty personnel how to tie flies and build fly-fishing rods, with special tools designed specifically for them.
"They come in with a mindset that there isn't anything they can't do," Houghaboom said. "For me, it's very satisfying to help these guys, doing one of the few things I know anything about."
And, Houghaboom said, fly fishing gives the injured veterans and active-duty personnel an outlet they might not otherwise have, in a particularly peaceful environment.
"For me, there's no place more peaceful to be than on the water," he said.