As someone who’s been on more than his fair share of fly fishing excursions, Andrew Ortiz saw his passion as a golden opportunity to engage young people from the Land of Enchantment.
“A lot of times we go to areas like Sipapu Ski Area. There’s a campground there and kids are always watching us fish. They’re sitting there not fishing … They’re not fly fishing, that’s for sure,” Ortiz said. “They get excited when they see us catch fish. I thought it would be a nice thing to teach them.”
That observation ultimately led to the launch of Fly Fish NM, a nonprofit organization that provides youth from the state with opportunities they might not otherwise have had due to lack of access or economic disadvantage. In addition to learning about different species of fish, the food they eat, and the importance of preserving the environment, participants get to keep the equipment they use.
“We want to try to make them good stewards of the outdoors because they’re the future of this state,” said Ortiz, who is the director of Fly Fish NM. “We make them pick up trash in the surrounding area. They partner up and get a bag and bring some trash back, and then when you hand me your bag of trash, you earn your rod kit. And it’s yours for good. After we have them do that, we teach them how to assemble, casting techniques. We make sure they understand safety. We teach them how to throw the fly on the water.”
“Soon they catch fish, and you should see their faces when they do.”
Fly Fish NM doesn’t succeed without help. For example, national entity Together Outdoors, a coalition of more than 100 outdoor recreation organizations, recently awarded a grant to Fly Fish NM that will help the nonprofit purchase as many as 40 to 50 fly rod kits for program participants.
With the money the organization receives from grants – or from its GoFundMe page – Ortiz goes online and bids on the best deals for necessary equipment. To set up outings, he reaches out to various groups throughout the state, targeting organizations where kids are plentiful such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America or local YMCAs. The location of the trips depends on the season and the circumstances.
For example, a fishing trip this summer helped a group of kids from Mora take their minds off the fires that ravaged their hometown earlier this year.
“It burned a lot of their properties and houses. It devastated their school year,” Ortiz said. “In the summer, you have these kids that are kind of in shock from what happened to their community. (It meant a lot) to see their faces, to get out there and enjoy something. We ended up doing two programs because it was just so popular up there.”
Fly Fish NM typically includes kids ranging from 6 years old through high school, and excursions can have as many as 20 participants each trip – depending on available funding and equipment. In many instances, Ortiz tries to bring groups out for a second time to keep the skills learned fresh in their minds. After all, fly fishing isn’t an activity for the impatient.
“That’s the whole thing is to teach those types of skills: patience, leadership, confidence, teamwork,” Ortiz said. “Some kids help the others get rigged up – the older ones help the younger ones. When you’re out there instructing them you tell them, ‘You’re gonna miss more fish than you’re gonna get.’ It’s just a matter of timing. When that fish comes up, you’ve got to time it right to pull that hook. It gives them more confidence and it’s a challenge.”