Photos by Tom Migdalski
The centerpiece of the room is a long, white table with chairs for 15. A teal bookcase lines one wall; on another are old photographs. Every chair is occupied.
It’s the weekly meeting of the Yale University Fishing Club in New Haven, Connecticut, one of the oldest university fishing clubs in the country. Edward Migdalski, the longtime director of the Yale Outdoor Education Center, founded the club in 1948 and passed the torch to his son, Tom, who has been in charge since 1984.
Tonight, however, Migdalski isn’t running the show; Sean Callinan, a locally renowned fly fisherman, is at the head of the table, and he’s teaching students to tie a woolly-bugger. Callinan, who is 32, is earnest and patient. He guides the students, each equipped with their own vise and tying materials, through every step. “My goal has been to help revitalize the club and get more students into fly-fishing, no matter what background they come from or what corner of the world they live in,” he says.
Tonight is the first in a 10-week series, starting with easy freshwater flies and ramping up to more difficult saltwater patterns, with guest speakers sprinkled into the series. In the spring, the group will practice casting in preparation for their annual intercollegiate fishing tournament.
The crew gathered around the table are mostly undergraduates. They study economics, statistics, chemistry and computer science. One student, a football player, has to leave the meeting early to work out. Another has piano practice. Joshua Perez-Cruet, the club president, wears a Costa hat and a Yale Undergraduate Gospel Choir T-shirt. He walks around the table, answering questions and tweaking his peers’ flies.
Perez-Cruet, a senior, grew up in Michigan and taught himself fly-fishing when he was 12. “Fishing for me has always been sharing time with people in a space where you can express yourself in a different way,” he says.
During the meeting, held in the school’s storied athletic building, it’s clear that the students appreciate fly-tying as a respite from their hectic schedules. “It’s a type of learning that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do in many places,” Perez-Cruet says.
The club fishes Long Island Sound and a trout pond near Yale’s Outdoor Education Center, 50 minutes east of campus in East Lyme, Connecticut. Down a gravel, evergreen-lined driveway is a clubhouse and restored silo stocked with rods and reels that club members can use. Inside the clubhouse, plaster casts of swordfish, mahi and sharks line the walls next to elk mounts. There’s a pool table and plenty of space to lounge. The atmosphere is distinctly Ivy League. The center is primarily funded by alumni donations, with additional money from the university’s club sports program, which Migdalski runs.
Jovial, sincere and deeply invested in his job, Migdalski hasn’t taken a weekend off during summer in 35 years. He says the fishing club’s roughly 25 members appreciate how special the pond and clubhouse are, and he hopes they’ll continue fishing long after graduation.
Perez-Cruet says most new members have never fly-fished and don’t own equipment, so the club’s tackle makes membership more accessible. He has the instincts of a teacher, talking about his peers with respect and an innate understanding of their capabilities. “I’ve become a better caster by showing other people the basics,” he says. “You can never really plateau. There’s always room to learn and become better.”
Perhaps it’s learning with their hands that keeps students coming back, or the break from academics. Maybe it’s Callinan, the way he serves as an older-brother figure. Maybe it’s the pizza. Whatever the reason, it’s refreshing to see a group of people whose social circles might not cross otherwise interact in playful, helpful ways.
No one is more aware of the club’s importance than Migdalski. He worries that outdoor sports are fading in the digital age, and he guards the club close to his heart.
When the fly-tying class comes to a close, the students help put away the materials and snag a slice of pizza on their way out. They chat about fishing plans and a campus event they’re running in a few weeks. Migdalski seems a little sad to see the evening end, but his eyes glisten as he tells the students he’ll see them next week.