EXETER — Mark Foley caught his first fish with a traditional fishing pole when he was just five-years-old.
It would take him 18 years to catch his first fish using a fly fishing rod. But when he did he was hooked.
"My first thought to myself was I get it. I know why people are passionate about this," Foley said. "Mentally it's as technical as chess. Spiritually it helps you relax and physically it helps you de-stress."
Foley, 45, of Exeter became so passionate about fly fishing that he founded First Cast Fly Fishing, with a commitment toward making the sport accessible to everyone who wants to learn, regardless of age or income. First Cast Fly Fishing offers community classes, private classes and occasional youth programs through area recreation departments and operates as a non-profit. There are no set rates for community classes and he asks people to pay what they can afford.
"I love to teach," he said. "I have a strong desire to share this with the community."
Foley's philosophy and approach to teaching and learning fly fishing is based on what he calls emotional intelligence.
"It's connecting the mind, the body and the spirit," he said. "And being kind to yourself because fly fishing is challenging, it is difficult, it is not something you can pick up immediately and be an expert."
Foley explains his concept of emotional intelligence as the student's ability to facilitate knowledge from their past experiences while managing their future expectations so that they can enjoy the intellectual process and experience of fly fishing in the present.
"It's just not about who catches the biggest fish," he said. "Sometimes it's about the day you spend on the water and how you feel."
One of Foley's students Keith Tode, of Exeter, said he found the mentor and instructor he'd been searching for when he connected with him. Tode took his first fly fishing class about 15 years ago through a traditional school program but that approach just didn't click for him. In the years that followed, he fished on his own, learning through experimentation and repetition, until he managed to find Foley.
"There is something special about learning from Exeter's local expert. Mark is obviously a world class fisherman that has guided around the globe, but what sets him apart is how he incorporates that experience into age and skill appropriate lessons and drills both on and off the water," Tode said. "He's the Pied Piper of New Hampshire fly fishing."
The Tode family arranged a family class with Foley that included Keith, his wife Jennifer and their 7-year-old daughter Merrill.
"He was able to explain things for the kids one minute, using fly swatters and a paint brush dipped in water, to get the way the casting arm movements should feel, and then turn towards the adults and explain it in a way where you weren't being talked down to," Jennifer Tode said. "I learned a tremendous amount in a short period of time. Mark is a funny and fantastic guy who obviously loves what he does and that is very contagious."
Foley feels that fly fishing can provide a way for people to be present and reconnect in the midst of the hectic pace of their daily lives.
"People are desperate to get back in touch with something," Foley said. "We're busy and we have to choose how to use the free time we have."
Jennifer Tode agreed.
"There was just something about the rhythm that is very calming," she said. "Even if I never catch a fish it is worth it to get out there and try."
Foley spends about four months each winter in Patagonia, a region located at the southern end of South America, where he leads fly fishing trips, teaches lessons and helps those interested with arranging fly fishing vacations. While in Exeter, he also acts as the advisor to the Phillips Exeter Academy Fly Fishing Club and serves as a board member for the Three River Stocking Association and Great Bay Trout Unlimited program.
Through the Great Bay Trout Unlimited program, he works to bring live trout into the classrooms of the elementary schools in Exeter. The program provides a cold water tank where students are able to observe eggs grow into trout, which they eventually release into area waters.
Foley is also teaching an introduction to fly tying class at Exeter Adult Education starting on Oct. 21.
Foley spends most of his time locally teaching though he does find time to fish for his own enjoyment. But he says that his desire to share the joy of fly fishing with others is what drives him.
"I don't do this to get rich. I'm not doing this for fame or Hollywood," he said. "I'm doing this because I really believe the world would be a better place if everyone could take a little bit of time to go fly fishing or learn how to fly fish."