Monday, February 10, 2020

The Stuff of Confusion

Copyright 2020 Erik Helm

The other day I was reading an article in a fly-fishing magazine that was proclaiming how much easier it was to get started in the sport today than it was in the past. The argument as stated could be paraphrased as: ‘Today we have better and more availability of gear choices, and information is easier to come by.’

I found myself laughing a bit at this, for truth be told, a case can be made that it is both easier and yet more difficult to begin in this fine sport due to exactly the same reasons stated. Follow me as I explore this a bit…


Back when I took up the sport there were admittedly less gear choices available…. a lot less choices. In some ways, this worked in our favor, since we had fewer decisions to make, and spent more time fishing. I asked a number of the finest anglers I know about their path into the sport, and the answers all shared common themes. We went to a fly-shop to purchase a setup, were gifted basic equipment, or assembled the necessary gear ad-hoc after much research. Since we were beginners, and there were fewer choices available, we were less confused about our gear. We simply had what we had. One of us had a double taper line and a Shakespeare Wonder Rod, another of us had a new graphite rod and a weight-forward line and we all thought he was the king of the river. Then we went fishing.

My initial setup was an eight-weight rod that I purchased as a blank and hand-built into a finished rod. I still have it. That rod served me for steelhead and bass in my local river for three years before I purchased a five-weight for smaller quarry. For those initial three years, it was my only rod. A lack of financial means when on one’s own after college did lead to a rather necessary frugal approach, but I never felt lacking. Instead, I went fishing… sometimes up to five times a week. The other stories were the same. One friend had his mother sew pockets onto his old hunting vest, turning it into a fishing vest. Another friend used an old candy tin as his first fly-box, and still has it somewhere.

Not to seem like one of those dour “Back in my day” types, but the reality of it was that the choices we had were easier to make because the market was smaller, and more simplified.

For example:
To carry our gear into the river we had a choice between an assortment of vests or possibly a canvas stream bag. Today we have chest packs, myriad sling packs, fanny packs, hip packs, backpacks, packs that transform and convert, packs that attach to other packs to form modular ‘Tactical gear storage solutions,’ and everything in between. I saw an angler recently on our local spring creeks who was so top-heavy and over-loaded with packs and storage solutions that he was having trouble walking on the bank. The variety of choices is an improvement, but not if it hampers our actual fishing.

For fly rods back in the day, we had several large manufacturers out there like Orvis, Fenwick, Garcia, and the first Sage rods as well. Here we had what we thought were a myriad amount of choices; more than enough for our needs depending on our budget. They were easy to understand as well. Marketing was less sophisticated, and seemingly tried to simplify the process of selection instead of confuse us. Today we have dozens of major manufacturers marketing rods with odd but trendy names. Some rod companies claim they make and sell over 150 different rods, each for some ethereal but very narrow purpose. Given their similarity to each other, the beginner can hardly tell the difference. Add in online companies not represented in reputable fly-shops who mass-market rods made in China at cut-rate prices, and it becomes apparent that any on-line forum with a classified section has a massive amount of gear for sale with the description “Cast twice,” or “Fished once.”

Confusion leads to an unending cycle of buying and selling in the quest for an illusory magic bean. Less time is spent fishing, and more time spent on gear acquisitions and unending debate and questions. Arguing with fellow anglers about which sling-pack is cooler or better may have replaced the time we used to spend absorbing the lore of the sport through literature or by getting our proverbial feet wet.

The ultimate complication and confusion poster-child may be fly-line.
In the past we did have choices between a number of brands and categories: double-taper, weight-forward, floating, full-sinking, sink tip and specialty lines such as saltwater, bass, and shooting heads. That would make up around 90% of lines available at the time. A new line needed to purchased when the old one wore out, or when a new type of fish or fishing necessitated a different line. The labels were rather easy to read and differentiate as well. For example, Cortland had a package labeled ‘444 Fly-Rod Line: WF Floating.’ It doesn’t get much simpler that that. Garcia had their Kingfisher line, and Orvis sold their own ‘Flyline.’ What was lacking then versus today is the hyped-up marketing which has turned the entire fly-line industry into a specialized marketing engine designed to get one to not only purchase the ‘New’ thing because it is better than the ‘Old’ thing from the same manufacturer that you bought last year and fished with once, but to get the average angler to have a fly line for every river, day of the week, or lunar cycle. No wonder new and even experienced anglers are confused.

A quick browse through catalogues and websites shows us both the diversity and the confusing over-abundance of lines marketed today.

Here are just a few random examples:

‘Hi-Performance Fly-line’ (vs. what… like Low performance fly-line?)

‘Pro’ fly-line (Apparently for professionals… not amateurs, which explains its $98 price.)

‘Frequency’ fly-line (Does it vibrate differently by weight?)

‘In-Touch’ (vs. what… out-of touch?)
‘Nymph Taper’ (Because we need a different fly-line every time we switch from a dry-fly to a nymph, even though thousands of us have been using a standard taper WF floating line for both applications for years…)

‘Euro Nymph’ (Take your choice: either a line allowing competition angling with multiple nymph rigs, or a ‘Sprockets’ like line that comes with electronic techno-pop music and allows the user to wear skinny black turtleneck shirts while fishing…)

‘MaxCatch’ (Now I understand why I never catch my limit every day… I guess I was using a MinCatch line all these years…)

‘Fairplay’ (I just want to find an ‘Unfair Play’ line… That sounds so much better to me…)

‘Clearwater’ (Apparently only to be used when no rain or runoff starts to dirty the water…)

‘Precise Finesse’ (A must-buy for those of us currently using an ‘Imprecise Clod-Hopper’ line…)

‘Creek’ fly-line (What about a river… or a brook… If we call it a ‘Crik’ do we need a different line or a jar of moonshine?)

‘World Class’ ( Perhaps not the best for anglers traveling to 3rd world nations for fishing adventure…)

‘Cheeky’ line (Reminds me of a quip I uttered at an attractive blonde back in college that earned me a kick in the shins…)

‘Technical Trout’ (Apparently all this time I have been fishing to ‘Non-technical’ trout…explains a lot.)

‘Amplitude’ (Must be similar to ‘Frequency’, but this one vibrates at the maximum frequency… wonder if it can be programmed to play distortion guitar?)

The reader gets the point… so enough already.

All humor aside, tapers do matter in a fly-line, and one does need different lines for different applications, but this has gotten downright silly.

Worst of all are shooting heads, especially those designed for Skagit-style casting and involving separate heads and running lines. When this started out, we had a choice of two or three brands of heads and running lines to match together. Within several years of the industry seeing the benefit of floating and sinking heads and running-lines sold separately, everything exploded. The most common question on online forums (see next section on information) was “Which running line should I pair with a given head?”
I know anglers today that actually carry with them on the river something like twenty different head and running line combinations. They must spend the entire fishing day farting around with their lines…

So what do I have against innovation and choices? Nothing. I just miss the clarity and simplicity that fly-fishing is supposed to be.

It also insults my intelligence… Since I spent fifteen years inside the industry at independent fly-shops as well as corporate giants, I can tell you a little secret… Ready for it?

The confusion is deliberate.

Marketing performs its job when it makes us want things, or desire to replace things we already own with a ‘newer’ or ‘better’ model. It does this by appealing to both our baser instincts, as well as to our desire to ‘Keep up to date.’ ‘New’ equals good, and anything you have that is old (ie: not current) is bad, or outdated… and how many of us want to be accused of being outdated?

However, this only goes so far. By saturation-bombing our different choices and making things unduly complicated, (you need a specialty rod to fish for Small-mouth Bass, not the standard 9 foot 6,7, or 8 wt., or if you are casting streamers from a boat then you need a rod specific to the purpose with a proprietary fly line to match and a separate running line and special nano-friction backing,) the industry maximizes its dollars per angler, and in a limited market, that is a desirable outcome for the corporations. Never-mind that one in five anglers will give up fly-fishing because it finally seems to get so complicated, an outcome the article cited at the outset claimed was the opposite.

In some ways, it benefits some of us older and wiser coots. We no longer need to pay full-price anymore or buy anything new since the biggest market for fly tackle in all of history sits before us in the guise of things purchased and now for sale second-hand with little use at all…

I just feel sorry for many of the new anglers that never had the chance to see what the world of fly-fishing was like when we had a chance to go to the river without so much confusing stuff.

Information overload:

The second part of the claim is that there is more information available today. That is something that I don’t think any angler would argue with.

However, it is the source, and medium of the information that can cause problems and resulting chaos and confusion.

Many of us took up the sport in the P.I. epoch… (Pre-Internet)
Because we actually read books and magazine articles that were written by experts and professionals, we were steered in straighter pathways than today. Read a copy of Bergman’s Trout, Schwiebert, Atherton, or other authors that explained the nuances and broke down the mysteries and necromancy of fishing with a fly in chapters rich with information and expert advice, and one was primed with knowledge before questions arose.

Then the internet came along, and to our happy surprise, we discovered like-minded anglers of all experience levels sharing information on various websites and online forums. The world opened and good solid information flowed back and forth over the modems of the pescadors. Bytes were exchanged for more bites. I was there as one of the first users of the new technology and access to the libraries of wisdom out there…

Everything changed within ten years. I stopped even accessing the forums I used to avidly participate in because as time passed, and new anglers came online, the same questions badly framed and poorly asked again and again overwhelmed and eclipsed the solid information shared and traded.

“What’s the best five weight rod?”
“What grain head should I use when the water flow increases by 3 feet per second and my fly-rod is green in color?”
“Which sling-pack is the coolest?”

It was a sign of the times… Then came social media, and the whole world of information overload and confusion reached critical-mass and detonated leaving mere fragments of typing left to fall like a fog over the unread books.

I joined a few social media forums in the past year to see how the questions were asked and answered: it caused laughter and cynicism in the same moment.
Many of the answers were contradictory or self-serving. Even thoughtful responses to questions or inquiries only lasted a day or so, and then someone asked the same question again, getting a different answer.

Then the inherent problem occurred to me.

Not only were the internet and social media venues not durable as far as a source of information such as a book, it was that by attempting to crowd-source the answers that the questioner ran afoul.

The person answering the query could be a knowledgeable angler with vast experiences, an open mind, and with good critical-thinking skills… or it could be some dude who caught a fish and now thinks he is a guide. The answers could come from independent sources unbiased as to brand, or from somebody with a brand entanglement such as the ubiquitous ‘Brand Ambassadors,’ or ‘Pro-Staff.’ Believe it or not, some companies actually pay people to provide gear advice on social media forums. It goes without saying that the answers are not unbiased, and the employing company’s brand is recommended each and every time. The worst thing is that the beginner, without a foundation of knowledge, can’t tell a good answer from a bad, inaccurate, or misleading one.

Do an experiment. Join a social media forum on fly-fishing and ask a ‘newby’ type question. Save the good, the bad, and the ugly answers you get. Now wait a week and ask the same question again, perhaps in a different way. Note the answers, and compare them with one another.

I bet my oldest and stinkiest fishing hat that you will shake your head.

That is what new anglers are facing if they don’t get their gear from a reliable flyshop after asking appropriate questions and doing a bit of homework, and staying away from the noise of confusion. If not, they might become one of the competitors in a fly-fishing team competition recently held. Two of the anglers spent twenty minutes arguing about whose fly-rod was better. Then one broke his rod while the other one dropped his tactical modular gear storage system into the river.

My advice to the thousands of anglers I have taught to cast and fish a fly has always been this:


“Go to a flyshop. Get a matching rod, line and reel, a few leaders and a box of flies and go fishing for God’s sake. Put in your time. Stay off the internet and don’t look at any ads. Less information in the short-term will benefit you in the long run. Learn to walk first in your diaper stage before you get all tangled up in the underwear of too much confusion and stuff, and end up placing your new outfit into the closet along with all the other abandoned dreams…”

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Some Pheasants

Copyright 2020 Erik Helm

John Phillipson motioned to the waiter at the Fox and Hounds to pour the wine first for his guest. He had chosen the vintage carefully to accompany the lunch he was giving for his young employee Ed, who had been a key team member in the successful conclusion of a major project for his firm. Ed was a software engineer of rare talent. Slim and dark haired with thick glasses, Ed was someone one would pass on the street and not remember seeing, even if the street were otherwise empty. He had worked long hours for the past six months and even took work home with him to his small bachelor’s house. John thought perhaps Ed had worked a bit too hard at times. He needed to get out in the sun more, thus the lunch at his favorite restaurant, and further invitations to participate in activities that would take Ed away from his screen and keyboard.

What made John rather unique, he thought to himself, was that he got to know each and every one of his 92 employees on a personal level. Like a good general, he reasoned, a good manager and CEO should know his assets and how best to keep them active, happy, and even more… know what drove them in life. That last question was one that eluded him with Ed. He couldn’t believe that Ed’s work was his only reward or joy.

“What should I order?” asked Ed, who habitually had a brown bag lunch of a sandwich and a piece of fruit at his desk while he worked.
“I recommend the pheasant’” Phillipson replied. “I have it every time it is on offering, and it is very fresh and well prepared. They serve it with asparagus, wild rice, and a nice herb white-sauce.”

It was agreed, and John toasted Ed’s health, and after the wine was sampled, began to inquire about any hobbies that his valued employee might engage in. After some sundry talk about toy trains and stamps, John asked Ed if he had ever hunted pheasants.

“No, but I do love pheasants,” Ed exclaimed with some passion as the plates arrived with the delicately presented breasts of that most desirable of birds steaming and framed like a work of art with the rice and vegetables.

After the feast was consumed, and the coffee was served, John brought up the subject again.

“I would like to invite you to my home for a little pheasant hunt if you are willing… I have over 60 acres of scrub fields bordered by thin wooded copses that are full of pheasants. A couple of years ago my accountant suggested the idea of reducing our taxes by raising game on our land, so we stocked 25 pheasants and bought several chickens and even a pet goat. The chickens lay a few fresh eggs, and the goat… well, the goat just is a goat, but the pheasants multiplied like rabbits. There must be over a hundred cocks and hens, and I rarely get time to hunt them any more, but now that the project is over and a success, I suggest we take the time this Saturday for a few hours and do some nice upland wing shooting.”

Ed mentioned that back before grad school he was a keen trap shooter, but that his shotgun was back with his parents in Connecticut.

“No worries,” John assured him. “I have a little Spanish side by side 20 bore you can borrow, a spare game bag for you, plenty of shells I got from a little ma and pa sporting goods store that was closing, and anything else you need. Just come as you are, so to speak, and wear some tough pants and a jacket that will stand up to moving through brush, and also a stout pair of hiking boots or something on that order. We will hunt together, and then Ellen, Mrs. Phillipson, who you will meet, will do her magic to the birds. You also will meet my English Cocker Abby, the best bird dog I ever owned.”

“Do you enjoy a fine Scotch, by the way?” John enquired with one raised eyebrow.

Ed agreed he did indeed enjoy a fine malt, and would be delighted to enjoy this adventure offered so kindly to him. The time was fixed at 1 o’clock Saturday the next.

Sometimes fate turns and weaves its lines through the stories of our lives beginning with a little incident. The ‘incident’ in this case was that in un-boxing a fine 12 year old bottle of Speyside Scotch, Mr. Phillipson accidentally dropped it. The tinkling of broken glass and following invective brought Abby to investigate, and the poor dog trod on a bit of glass, cutting her front left paw. There was no other bottle of scotch in the house, and with Ed due to arrive in fifteen minutes, a change of plans was in order. Brandy would follow the hunt, which would now have to be conducted without the dog. More difficult for certain, and lacking in that essential quality of hunting over a champion bird dog who knows more about bird hunting than the hunters ever will, but not impossible he reasoned. The sheer quantity of birds on his land would allow the hunt to continue even without a dog. They would just have to do it ‘old-fashioned style,’ each of them zigzagging and flushing their own birds. He hurried to sweep up the glass as his wife placed a bandage over Abby’s thankfully very slight injury.

Ed was prompt, and Phillipson, upon opening the front door, was greeted by a unique sight. Ed had on a pair of old rubber galoshes complete with metal buckles. For a coat, his guest was sporting a dilapidated khaki barn coat obviously several sizes too big for him, and smelling faintly of mothballs. This outfit was crowned by an eager smile and delivered forward with a warm handshake. John wondered, just a fleeting thought in the back of his mind, if Ed’s hunting attire had come from a short visit to a local thrift store. But then, he recalled, Ed did say he loved his pheasants. Maybe he had no outdoor gear, since Ed seemed to be always working owlishly at his computer, or maybe he had his old hunting kit stored at his parent’s house along with his shotgun. Well, today he would show him a bit of the outdoor life anyway. Perhaps if Ed enjoyed it, Phillipson speculated, he could gift him with some briar pants, a game vest, and even a nice bird gun as an end of year bonus. He was worth it after all… all those long hours…

John ushered his guest into a little sun room located off the foyer that he playfully referred to as his ‘Safari room.’ He seated Ed in a nice leather chair, and took down a canvas gun case from a nook between shelves filled with outdoor books. He unzipped the case, and revealed the soft warmth of a hand-rubbed and oiled walnut stock, and case patterned side plates of the Spanish double. He broke the gun and handed it to Ed.

“This little girl needs to sound off a little. She hits exactly as you point her. You don’t need to lead too far with pheasants, and I think a box each of high-brass number 5s should do us fine today.” Ed was cradling the gun as if it would break or bite him, but Phillipson soon reassured him, and closing the action on empty chambers, executed a few snappy swings. Ed said the drop and length of pull were perfect. John was impressed. His associate knew a few things about guns. This would be a fine hunt, with the slight clouds, little wind, and a half-inch of powdery snow fallen in the pre-dawn darkness.

They began on the edge of a small corn-stand abutting the drive. Each side of the drive was a field, and on the edge of each field were the wood copses.
“Pheasants, like most game are creatures of edges,” John explained to Ed. “Edges and Cover. We will split the sides between us and work the edges of the field and wood. Cover everything in between. Pheasants can be runners instead of flyers, and you want to kick them up into flight. Try not to shoot runners, that can lead to accidents.”

“Good hunting!” he added. “We will meet back here in two hours, so take a look at your watch… I have it half past the hour.”
Ed nodded and smiled, his action broken and cradled expertly in his right arm, and his galoshes clicking and galoshing as he walked.

John turned and strode into the shoulder high grass and weeds, beginning the process of covering ground and every likely lie a bird might favor. After 10 minutes or so, he kicked up his first cock out a sort of snow-covered wigwam of brush. The bird flew straight up and angled right. John swung from behind and touched off the right barrel of his Fox 16 bore. The pheasant dropped in a shower of feathers. It was easy to locate due to the snow cover. It also helped that John had hit it with a headshot, so it never had a chance to run, hide, and slowly die hidden from prying eyes.

Five minutes later John found his second bird. A hen, this crafty gal ran straight away from him and then flew low and flat. He aimed the fowling gun and fired the left barrel, giving the hen a shot-string of full-choke 5s and bringing her down dead. As he retrieved the bird, he wondered at the lack of shooting from Ed’s side of the field. That morning he had spread a large bag of feed around on that side of the drive, and if the past were any experience, the birds would be on the feast pretty quickly. He did want Ed to have a successful and fun day today.

The third bird John flushed required both barrels to bring it down, and as he was searching for it where it fell near the edge of wood, he heard the joyful sound of a distant report followed by a second muffled ‘boom.’ Ed must have found a bird! The day would be a success if Ed could shoot one tenth as well as could write code… but then there were those galoshes… really, what was he thinking? Ed really needed to get out more often.

The next hour saw no more birds located by John, while on Ed’s side of the woods sounded like a slightly excited English shooting party on a driven hunt. No more than ten minutes elapsed between further exclamations from Ed’s shotgun. He must have found the mother-load thought John.

The time came to make his way back to the rendezvous, and as Phillipson approached the little corn stand, a final pheasant flushed and flew left and high. John’s shot was on the mark, and the fourth bird fell fifty yards off as Ed appeared out of the field. John pointed to the bird, and motioned Ed to place it in his game bag, as he was much closer. Ed’s bag, John was very pleased to note, was sagging heavily and very full. The pheasant was added to the bag and the tail feathers stuck jauntily out as Ed smiled.

“Well, how did it go?” John asked with a wink.

“I had the best time ever!” Ed exclaimed with flushed cheeks. “Some of the pheasants flew kind of strange, and one just sat there, and then there was one that perched in a tree, but I only missed a few shots! I even hit a double…”

“Pheasants can be like that sometimes,” John explained as they walked back to the barn to breast-out the birds. “Predictability is not a pheasant’s strong suit.”

Phillipson had a bench at waist-height covered with plastic sheeting and a tin garbage container ready to accept the offal. He reached in his back game pouch and placed his three pheasants on the table. Ed opened the strap and turned out the contents of his bag next to it.

There are moments that time seems to move rather slowly. At this very moment, it crawled in slow motion. The contents of the bag that tumbled out onto the table included in order:

One cock pheasant (The one that Phillipson dispatched)
A large woodpecker.
One pigeon
Two grackles
A starling
One female cardinal
And wearing a rather stupefied expression, as if to say “Now what the hell?” a very dead member of the small Phillipson stock of chickens.

“Well, what do you think?” Ed proudly exclaimed.

The words almost formed in John’s mouth, but both because he caught himself in time, and due to the fact that his jaw was hanging open, only a sort of strangling gurgle made itself heard. He finally closed his mouth, straightened to his full six feet and with his back rigid, and his hand extended, turned to Ed, shook his hand, and exclaimed, “Good shooting!”

As he lined up the birds for dressing and stropped his knife, he reflected that it would not pay to even mention or explain to Ed what he had done, nor to inquire if Ed indeed had ever actually seen a pheasant before, and if he had or had not, what the heck he was thinking…
His knife hovered carefully over the little starling.

Ellen (Mrs. Phillipson) was presented a tray of ‘Pheasant breasts’ in the kitchen with a whisper from John. She arched her eyebrows in reply, and John placed his forefinger to his lips and winked.

Seated in the ‘Safari room’ after being introduced the smiling and lovely Mrs. Phillipson, Ed was offered a large snifter-glass of amber liquid. John proposed a toast, but Ed insisted in presenting a tribute instead. “To my first hunt and your excellent hospitality,” he proclaimed.

“Excellent Scotch,” he added on the subject of the brandy. The best I have ever tasted.”

Both Mr. And Mrs. Phillipson agreed with some shared reflections after dinner was over and Ed had left for home with grateful thanks; these were that the woodpecker was surprisingly delicate and tasty, that Ed had obviously thought of a ‘Pheasant’ as some sort of food he had been served once or twice that formerly had wings and flew a bit now and then, and that above all…. That Ed REALLY needed to get out more…