George Daniel heads fly fishing program at Penn State University
UNIVERSITY PARK — George Daniel is truly living the dream.
Daniel, who resides in Beech Creek, is the lead instructor and director of Penn State University’s fly fishing program. Toward the end of 2019, Daniel took over that role. Penn State’s fly fishing program is a part of its Department of Kinesiology.
“Penn State was the first university in the country to have a credited fly fishing course. It has a rich tradition,” Daniel explained. “It’s very historic. People come to Penn State and one of the most popular courses at the university is the fly fishing course. It’s just a cool story. It been around awhile and it continues to evolve.”
Daniel is following the footsteps of numerous fly fishing legends. At Penn State, names like George Harvey, Joe Humphreys, Vance McCullough, Mark Belden and Greg Hoover are legendary within the program. He actually learned a great deal from his longtime idol and mentor, Humphreys.
According to Daniel, fly fishing — and fishing in general — is extremely popular right now. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people have tried to find ways to spend their free time and get outside in the process.
“If you look at fishing license sales, I think they went up like 30 percent this year because of COVID. Some of the happiest, most productive people I know usually have some type of lifelong activity. That’s what fly fishing is. Whether you’re working, you’re retired, you need to have something to look forward to each and every day. That’s one of the things that we teach. We provide students with a future lifelong activity,” Daniel said.
While many classes at Penn State are meeting virtually, fly fishing is not. It is truly a “hands-on” course, so Daniel prefers that lessons are not taught over Zoom. Daniel’s classroom is in historic Rec Hall. Due to its popularity, there are several sections of the class, he said.
“I’m teaching five classes and they are full. Five classes with 25 (students) in each. It’s amazing how many students come here because their parents or even their grandparents took this class in the 1930s or the 1940s and they told their kids and their grandkids to take this class,” Daniel explained.
Daniel’s resume is quite impressive. At Penn State, he once served as a part-time assistant to Mark Belden in the same fly fishing and fly tying courses that he is now teaching. Those courses include the Principles of Fly Tying and Fly Fishing for Trout and an advanced-level section through the Enhancing Mastery in Physical Activity course.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has cut into course numbers a bit, Daniel said that the program is as strong as it has ever been.
“I’m doing it in person and the kids love it because a lot of their other classes are bascially remote. This (class) is one of the reasons they are actually on campus. A lot students, if they didn’t have this class, would probably have stayed home and just done things remotely,” Daniel said.
The class, Daniel said, is comprised of mostly juniors and seniors and is typically two-thirds male and one-third female. Because of its popularity, there is a waiting list for the course.
Penn State was the first university in the United States to have a fly fishing program. It was established by George Harvey and offered continuously since the 1930s. Humphreys then created an endowment for the program, which has enabled it to flourish even more.
The Rec Hall classroom is a fully-functional “fly shop,” Daniel said.
“We’ve got rods, reels, equipment, fly-tying tools, things like that. We teach a lot of the skills in class, but we do field trips. Some of the field trips are local, some of the field trips are further away. Because of COVID, we are restricted to closer locations. All in all, one-third of the class are on field trips and the other two-thirds are in class. We give these kids a well-rounded exposure to fly fishing,” Daniel said.
Some of the topics on the syllabus include: Basic fly tying, tying local patterns, conservation techniques, equipment use/care/selection, fly casting, aquatic entomology, stream hydrology, interpretation of fly fishing opportunities, fly fishing-tactics, basic knots and the aforementioned field trips to local streams.
At times, Daniel has to pinch himself to make sure this is real life.
“This has been like a dream job for me,” Daniel said. “When I was 13, I read Joe Humphrey’s book called ‘Trout Tactics.’ As soon as I read it, I said, ‘I want that job.’ I did everything and learned everything I could to eventually get this position. This job means everything to me.”
Daniel belives the future of fly fishing is bright. Penn State’s course is a big part of that.
“People love to fish. It takes them back to their roots,” Daniel said. “There is something about fishing that takes us back to our core. I think the pandemic has been an awakening of sorts for people to get back out there and explore the outdoors.”