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WNY native turns fly fishing into a soul endeavor

“Gone fishin’ by a shady wady pool (shangrila, really la)

I’m wishin’ I could be more than kind of fool (should I twist your arm?)

I’d say no more work for mine (welcome to the club)

On my door I’d say hang a sign

Gone fishin’ instead of just a-wishin"  -- Gone Fishin’ by Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby

Fly fishing is more than just a method or approach to catching fish. It’s an attitude, a mindset. It’s an art form. For some, it can even be a way of life, a spiritual connection with nature that can help guide you as you travel down your journey through the years.

For Jerry Kustich of Charlestown, Md., fly fishing has been all of that through most of his 72 years. He started out living a Huck Finn kind of life on Grand Island, bumming around on the river with his cousin Paul. His parents were from Riverside in Buffalo and they moved out to Grand Island at a time when the water was far from holy. Despite polluted conditions, there were still fishing opportunities available. It served as a foundation for the next phase of his life.

“I used to read outdoor magazines and my favorite writers were Ted Trueblood, Ed Zern and Pat McManus growing up,” said Kustich. “However, it wasn’t until I read the famous fly fishing writer Joe Brooks in the 1970s that I decided to follow in Joe Brooks’ footsteps.”

In the mid-1960s, Kustich went to Seminary School in Maryland. For eight years he attended college to become a Catholic priest. He taught in Utah and ended up back in New York for a short time before he moved out to Idaho. He met another guy who was fly fishing in the same area and by the late ‘70s he was fly fishing more and lure fishing less.

Kustich has a rod shop in Maryland. He's been making rods for a long time.

It was around this same time in the ‘70s that Jerry’s younger brother Rick, 14 years his junior, was starting to get into fly fishing, too. “We both evolved around the same time,” said the older Kustich. “I had moved to Montana and Rick was still in Western New York.” Two decades later they would be co-authoring “Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead.”

“After living in Western New York and spending quite a bit of time fishing all around the Great Lakes, I think we take this outstanding fishery for granted,” says Kustich. “The water has improved so much.”

For 30 years, Kustich lived in Twin Bridges, Mont., building fly fishing rods, both cane and graphite. It was in 2006 that he joined up with famed rod builder Glenn Brackett to form Sweetgrass Rods, a custom bamboo fly rod operation. Along the way, he continued to fish every chance he could. From the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia for steelhead to Newfoundland for Atlantic salmon. He also lived a year in Mexico. His life revolved around fishing.

“Fish as much as you can,” insists Kustich. “It will help you on so many levels – physically and mentally. It helps to keep you grounded. Fly fishing is a great hobby, but it can be so much more if you let it. It can be a wonderful thread that can help keep your life on track and focused.”

“Of course, if you want to fish a lot, you must have a life that is very organized. You must take care of your daily responsibilities first. I’m always thinking about where and when my next fishing adventure will be.”

“Fly fishing has given me so much, I’m always trying to give back to the environment. That’s important. It’s also a great family activity. There’s nothing better than going fishing with dad when you are a kid. If I were to utilize my schooling to give a sermon on fly fishing, these are some of the points that I would be making.

“Fly fishing also gives you a sense of accomplishment,” says Kustich. “You might build your own rod or tie your own fly. Then you have to go out and test these things on the water. The better you get, the more you will enjoy it – and the more you will want to go fishing. The more you jump into it, the more it captivates you.”

Jerry is also an author (like his brother Rick). His most recent book “Holy Water – Fly Fishing Reveries and Remembrances” is excellent. The Bishop Duffy (in Niagara Falls) graduate is a master storyteller, weaving his yarns like an intricate fly pattern on the vise. Each chapter is a different story about important parts of his life. When I finished, I wanted more. The good news is that he has three other books that will help quench my thirst for more. His other books “At the River’s Edge,” “A Wisp in the Wind” and “Around the Next Bend” are all set up similarly and I can’t wait to start from the beginning.

The most important thing that this book did for me is that it gave me the burning desire to take up fly fishing again. There was passion in every word as he gave his sermon of sorts on leading a fly fishing life.

It was the 1992 movie “A River Runs through It” that really helped to increase the popularity of fly fishing. “That movie put fly fishing into the mainstream,” said Kustich. “It had an appeal as an activity. You didn’t have to catch fish. It was more about the spiritual connection that it presented to people. Getting back to my roots as an "aspiring" Catholic priest, my niche is that I hope to inspire people to fly fish. And once you start, it’s addictive. The better you become, the more you will enjoy it … and the more you will go fishing.”

“As solitary as fly fishing can be, it’s also a social event by belonging to clubs, attending trade shows and advancing knowledge through other educational opportunities. Places like the Orvis store are great gathering locations for special events and instructional classes.”

Check out www.orvis.com/buffalo. Local clubs include the Western New York Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Lake Erie Chapter of Fly Fishers International. They both offer regular meetings, instructional speakers and workshops. Be sure to check out The News' Outdoors Calendar every week for fly fishing information on all of these opportunities. There are also books, videos, YouTube and so much more.

Yes, fly fishing can be a way of life and it’s worked out well for Kustich. He considers all water holy. Some is just a little holier than others.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” -- Norman Maclean, “A River Runs through it.”

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