Casting for Souls

A dedicated nun spares not the rod (nor reel) in helping youngsters straighten up and fly right

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Sister Carol Anne Corley was displeased. "Mr. Gary," she called out in a voice that sounded all the more intimidating for its evenness, "would you please ask your young men to step out of the van and line up?"

Brian Gary, who is the size of an NFL lineman and is the director of the Boys Shelter, a juvenile group home in Fort Smith, Arkansas, smacked the side of the van with a ham-size hand, practically setting it on two wheels. "All right, listen up!" he barked at his dozen teen charges. "Get off the bus. I want a single file line. Move it!"

Within a few seconds, all the kids were shuffling across the parking lot. None of them were hard cases; they were just teenagers whose troubles sprang from broken homes, lousy attitudes and too much free time.

Gary had brought them here to the NorforkRiver in northern Arkansas to learn fly-fishing from Sister Carol Anne Corley and businessman Terry Looper. The pair founded the U.S. Youth Fly-fishing Association in 1999 to interest young people in the sport.

On this afternoon, Sister Carol Anne, 57, is dressed not in a habit but in dark brown neoprene waders and a floppy hat covering her white hair.

"Gentlemen, I hope we all had a good time fishing today," she says, addressing the youths in the parking lot. "And I hope some of you will continue to fish. But first we have a problem we need to solve." She holds up a Sage fishing rod in her right hand. "I have here a rod that was returned without anyone telling us it was broken," she says, frowning. "Now, I know you all feel that if you admit something, you’re going to get in trouble. You won’t. But I need the person who broke this piece of equipment to step forward. Do you know why? Because this sport isn’t just about catching fish. It’s about fairness, and sportsmanship and honesty."

Sister Carol Anne is not exactly a drill sergeant for the Lord, although her nickname at St. Edward Mercy Medical Center in Fort Smith, where she was director of home health care services, was Sister Rambo. When the guilty party finally came forward, she treated him gently but firmly.

A fly-fishing nun is no anomaly. More than 500 years ago, in fact, the first book on the sport, The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, was written by an English nun, Dame Juliana Berners. It describes 12 different flies she cast on streams around the abbey where she lived in Hertfordshire.

Sister Carol Anne believes casting a fly has a spiritual power that rivals prayer, and says that the countless hours she has stood waist-deep in rivers watching trout rise to her flies have enriched her soul. "At times on the river, it is prayer," she says. "It is a way of praising God for this incredible gift."

Her passion for the sport caught the attention of the national fly-fishing community, and over the past decade Sister Carol Anne has been a featured attraction at fly-fishing convocations. She is a contributor to the book Late Show with David Letterman."

Carol Anne Corley grew up fishing—with bait. The youngest of five children in a prominent St. Louis family (her grandfather founded the economics department at WashingtonUniversity), she recalls a "very wholesome and all-American" childhood. Her parents took their rambunctious brood to the country most weekends and often went for aimless drives.

"It wasn’t long before we’d find a stream and stop to have our picnic and fish all day," she says. In 1963, at the age of 19, she joined the Sisters of Mercy, a charitable order devoted to health and education ministries, before earning a nursing degree at MarillacCollege in St. Louis. She took her final vows in 1971.

With each transfer to a different hospital or medical facility, she made a point to learn to fish the way that locals did. "When I was in Texas I would go to the ocean piers and use spinning rods to catch speckled sea trout and redfish," she recalls. "In Louisiana, I went out to Lake Pontchartrain and learned to catch crabs in nets, and when I was in Kansas I fished crappie and perch with a slip bobber."

It was in 1985, while working at St. Edward, that she took up fly-fishing. She bought a fiberglass rod for $19 and a reconditioned reel for $5. Many nights after work she would practice casting at a nearby pond. "My deal with myself was that I would fish until I lost two flies," she says. "On a nun’s salary you have to be resourceful."

Her casting style is largely self-taught and unorthodox, but it gets the job done. A couple of years after taking up the sport, she was one of only two women to be invited on a trip with the Fort Smith Flyfishing Club, and she ended up on an unpromising stretch of the Norfork River.

"I started out casting straight in front of me. Wham! I had a big rainbow," she recalls. Over the next hour, she netted and released about 20. "So I turned upstream 45 degrees and wham! I started pulling out brook trout. Then I turned and faced farther upstream and started pulling out cutthroats. Finally, I got so tired I turned all the way downstream and wham! I started catching browns. I got all four trout species, probably more than a hundred fish. It was a grand slam!" Some of her companions suspected divine intervention.

For her, fishing became much more than a diversion after she spent 1993 helping her sister-in-law take care of a brother dying of cancer—the man who taught her to tie flies. Wanting to reaffirm her relationship with God, Sister Carol Anne took a sabbatical and lived for a year at a religious retreat in Louisiana. There she prayed and exercised—and decided to channel her love of fishing and nature into good works.

After the retreat, she approached the principal of a Catholic elementary school in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In no time, she began teaching fly casting for physical education, flytying for art, and even pitched in to assist the science teacher in a water ecology course. Tying flies requires nothing if not patience, a virtue not usually abundant in adolescents, so the experience was trying for students and teacher alike. But worth it. "I have always felt strongly that in order for our planet to survive, children need a means of immersing themselves in the middle of God’s creation," she says.

Three years ago, Sister Carol Anne was approached by Terry Looper, an air-conditioning contractor, to form the U.S. Youth Flyfishing Association. Since then, the pair has worked with groups such as the Arkansas Baptist Boys’ Ranch, in Harrison, Arkansas, the Moffett Baptist Mission in Moffett, Oklahoma, as well as several churches, schools, and the Boy and Girl Scouts.

To be sure, miracles seldom happen. On the winter Saturday that Brian Gary took the Boys Shelter group to the NorforkRiver, about half the young men sent to Sister Carol Anne for instruction wandered off without trying more than a few token casts. But two of the young men took to fly casting like flies to honey. Each caught a dozen fish in a couple of hours.

"You thank God for the kids you get and you pray for the ones you don’t," she says later as she packs up the rods and reels and other gear. "Not all gifts are received equally."

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