Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The evolution and de-evolution of fly fishing

Perhaps it is that I am just getting older, but I am questioning more and more the direction that fly fishing seems to be headed. I am certainly not alone, and this blog post is the result of long conversations with some of the finest anglers, rod builders, and sportsmen that I know. Each conversation has turned slowly but inexorably to this subject. Have the new emerging technologies and the demands that fly fishing extend to places never touched before, and that ease of casting, presentation, etc. allow anglers to fish with ease without having to gain expertise through time on the river?
Or, maybe I am part of a growing movement of backlash against what many see as a highjacked sport. Call us the “Misanthropic anglers.”

Here are the opening remarks from The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane:

"The sport of angling used to be a genteel business, at least in the world of ideals, a world of ladies and gentlemen. These have been replaced by a new set of paradigms: the bum, the addict, and the maniac. I'm afraid that this says much about the times we live in. The fisherman now is one who defies society, who rips lips, who drains the pool, who takes no prisoners, who is not to be confused with the sissy with the creel and the bamboo rod. Granted, he releases that which he catches, but in some cases, he strips the quarry of its perilous soul before tossing it back in the water. What was once a trout-- cold, hard, spotted, and beautiful--becomes "number seven."

I am bringing up rhetorical questions here. I am guilty of using some of the gear and tactics I am questioning. I don’t have the answers, just the questions. The answers lie in ourselves. Nor should the questions I bring up be considered my opinions. I know I am going to take some heat here, so remember that these are just thoughts.

Is the aid of technology turning fly fishing into baitcasting? Shorter and shorter shooting head lines allow us to cast easier and farther and throw ‘flies’ that have evolved into massive things that resemble lures more than they do anything even seen on the end of a flyline twenty years ago. What is worse is that this has taken over the world of steelhead fly fishing so completely that some people think that they can’t catch a steelhead using any other technique, as if the great pioneers of our sport never could catch a fish. Thinking and adaptation are a natural progression. Throwing out the baby with the bath-water is not.
When does a flyline stop being a flyline and become a bait-casting line? When will anglers lose the ability to cast and instead just chuck it out there? If we design a flyline that is just a two-foot blob of PVC, but weighs the same as a conventional line, is it a flyline? Where is the line drawn? Is there a line? Does the casting define fly fishing? What if we use a flyrod with monofilament line as is done here in the Midwest? What if we use the latest super compact flylines to throw small spoons or spinners? Does the fly make it flyfishing? One thing is for sure, If we ran into the ghost of a great angler of the past century while wandering the river, the ghost would not recognize some of what we do as fly fishing.

Spey rods are getting shorter and shorter and now ‘switch’ rods are all the rage. These are used to throw Skagit lines and giant ‘flies’ made from materials found at craft stores. The proliferation of compacted heads of less than thirty feet with slick running line make it possible for even Elmer Fudd to hit the other side of the river. (I should know…I cast like Elmer Fudd) Some anglers have never used any other system and have never learned to cast even a mid-belly speyline.
Once again, I must stress that I am being rhetorical here. I use Skagit lines too, especially in spring when the water is high and cold. It is so easy it isn’t funny. I started worrying that it might cause me to lose my actual spey casting technique.

Fly fishing has become the newest generation X/Y adrenaline sport, especially in the language used to describe it. Words like “Thrash”, or “Shred”, and “MoFo” are used to describe a day on the water. Gone is the eloquence and the appreciation of nature. Catching fish is the be all and end all. Restraint has been left on the wayside along with everything else from the sporting tradition inherited from the past. Some of these new ‘dudes’ act like they invented fly fishing sometime in early 2000. Perhaps it is the rhetoric and the accompanying tone that is the real problem. As Shane at the quiet pool blog has described it “Screw everyone else, I gotta get mine!”

Online publications such as “This is Fly” read more like a snowboard magazine. I can’t even follow what the hell they are writing about.

A sporting tradition by definition is about restraint, appreciation, and a fair game between you and your sporting quarry.

By adapting fly fishing through application of new technology, we can catch fish where we could not catch them before. Deep runs are conquered with application of deep sinking tips such as T-14, or the addition of split-shot and bobbers. Increasingly powerful graphite rods allow us to cast much farther, and may diminish our ability to stalk and read water. Is this a good thing? Is this evolution natural? I don’t know…

Vast new ranges of rods and lines available guarantee that many of us seem to spend most of the time obsessing with our gear instead of exploring new water, or just being happy to be out there. Some anglers think they can’t catch a ten-inch stocker rainbow without a super fast action $700.00 rod and matching high tech. Large-arbor disk drag reel.

One thing that seems to be lacking in the new generation of “Thrash” fly fishermen is a proper foundation in the sport. As I have written before in this blog, I divide angling into four stages: Desire to catch a fish, desire to catch the most fish, desire to catch the biggest fish, and finally the appreciation to just go fishing. Much of what I read from many online boards and magazines seems to indicate that increasingly the new wave of anglers out there entered fly fishing at stage two or three, and will forever be stuck there. Stage one is the all-important step. Learning by being skunked. Learning to read water, learning to appreciate nature. Learning to make gear a non-issue when on the water. Reading and learning that the things you have learned were also discovered by anglers in the past. The whole process of becoming a fly fishermen is key here. It is a long and winding road and really should not be hurried or cut short. Entering the angler’s progression in the middle with gear that allows one to cast and fish every run like never before without really knowing why or what one is doing is like running before learning how to walk. You may be able to run really fast, but because you never learned how to stop, stand, or walk, your journey will inevitably end when you fall on your ass. Without the proper foundation (which is disdained) when the adrenaline is gone or the envelope pushed to its limit, these anglers will have nothing to fall back on, and will move on to the next cool and popular extreme sport.

Another thing that is lacking is restraint. Fly fishing should not be about enhancing your own ego through rippin’ lips. Sometimes that fast deep slot that holds the 20 inch brown nicknamed “Bullwinkle” should be left to dusk and big drys instead of adding sixteen splitshot to our leaders and dappling along the bank with a bobber. Restraint can apply to our limitations as fishermen and sportsmen. It can apply to the accepted limitations of our equipment. It can apply to how we approach the water and the fishing experience. It can apply to how we approach life. Sometimes there is such a thing as “Enough.”

Another casualty seems to be courtesy. When one wants to own the river stretch and catch every fish, hang out with their buddies that look, dress, and talk like they do, and scorn anything different, then the mind begins to close. A closed mind and lack of foundation lead to a lack of courtesy. It amazes me how many times I cannot get the ‘time of day’ from someone in the river. We all seem to guard ‘our territory’ like so many adolescent baboons. The people who I do have good conversations with inevitably are open minded and courteous. They do not low-hole other anglers, hog runs, make fun of others, etc. There is mutual respect for the river, the fish, and other anglers. Respect. Giving and not selfish.

I don’t have the answers, but perhaps I can spur some thinking…


  1. Excellent observations Erik! I am troubled by what I am seeing in the world of fly fishing.
    You expect this kind of chest thumping testosterone driven stuff with the bait and gear guys but that attitude is permeating fly angling.
    This week in Portland they are having the big Sportsman show. This orgy of angling self gratification verifies everthing you wrote in this post. A large Portland area fly shop is selling cheap rod/reel combos and putting more pressure on fewer fish while not teaching anything about ethics or tradition. Are you and I the dinosaurs of the sport? Can anyone become a fly angler these days without paying homage to tradition and those greats of the past?
    Scary to say the least!

  2. Erik,

    I think 'enough' will happen when the last wild steelhead river is closed due to ever dwindling runs.

    Gotta love the generation gap.

    Sadly step one of the four step program has been out the window for about 15 years. Everything 'needed' to consistantly catch fish 'like a pro' is sitting in your wallet. Corporatized and boxed for the consumer to purchase. Two years later (if that) a new website pops up offering guided trips to nirvana.


  3. Shane;
    Boy...I hope we are not dinosaurs. I rather think we are not. Instead I see all of us that have built a foundation and have respect and restraint as surviving and outlasting all this nonsense. Long after the newest wave of "Thrash" anglers have left the water, there we will be, plodding along, pausing to peer under the rocks of life, appreciate a sunset, and catching a memorable fish...if there are any left to catch...

    Sometimes I feel like the outcast intellectual hobos in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451; the ones who memorize the books so that knowledge, literature and critical thinking can survive the current disdain of knowledge in general and book burning.
    We must remember...

  4. William;
    I fear you are right with the "Enough" quote. I think Shane would agree. Sad.
    And you are so correct that the industry is either behind this progression and raping, or at least along for the ride as a willing dance partner, head strong follower, and whore.

    Without step one, there is nothing.
    My mom used to say that she never regretted not getting a full degree in art. When she studied art at Layton in Milwaukee in the 1940s, she was taught nothing but technique by master artists. She learned to mix her own mediums and paints using rabbit glue and other things.
    This 'foundation' lasted her the rest of her long life.
    Today artists are taught self expression first and foremost, and told to find their own voice...without (I would argue) a sound grounding in fundamentals.

    I think it comes down to appreciation. If one cannot fully appreciate something at its elemental level, then one can thrash it in the sort of hip-cool grunge disrespect reserved for everything traditional, proven, or older than we are. Unfortunately...this includes the last wild fish too.

  5. Erik,

    Bravo. You certainly raise some excellent points. Makes me all the more grateful to learn from you, "dinosaur" or not. I certainly think that you will still be there after all the "dudes" and goobers are long gone. Keep on keepin' on.


  6. What about the companies that are putting out new long-belly lines and the resurgence of the popularity of traditional and spey flies? And the great article I just read on Bob Clay's bamboo two-handers? All is not lost. I'm not trying to get into an argument here, but I have read too many posts like this on various sites that make it sound like all flyfishermen in that 20 to 30 age range are know-it-all, don't appreciate nature and the rhythm of casting, loud music listening, drink too much, unappreciative, poor excuses for fishermen. There ARE anglers out there that are poor examples of the rich tradition and heritage that this sport embodies (or tries, sometimes too hard, to embody), but this is nothing new. Industry and technology are not going to be stopped. So called "improvements" in gear and trinkets just need to be ignored. I say appreciate what we all know and cherish the memories of how we all got to where we are as anglers. We are all different. No one person is right or wholly wrong. I am just shy of 30 years old and have already seen the decline of some of the trout streams I cut my teeth on almost 20 years ago. It IS sad, but it's also reality. I say help out in any way we can and remember that when you're on the water, it should be a time to appreciate the fact that you're there, waist deep, doing what you love, not worrying about the guy across the river. He may be donning $700 waders and $80 gloves, but that doesn't always mean that he's not there for the same reason and just as passionate. My 2 cents. By the way, great looking flies.

  7. Anon;
    Thank you for the comments. Yes, you are right. As far as anglers are concerned, one should judge each person separately and openly and not be prejudiced.
    Thank you for appreciating the sport, and the debt and respect we owe those who came before us.
    The problem as I see it is not that the whole generation X/Y is disrespectful, but that the poor tone and rhetoric seems to come mainly from this age group. And, Some of the best anglers (respectful, skilled, inspired) I know fall into this age group I have criticized. BTW I am only 43 years young.
    Being 30, you can help by encouraging others to "tone it down" a bit. Nobody listens to me any more :)
    But.. as I wrote, you (as a dedicated angler with experience and appreciation) will be roaming the streams and rivers long after all the "Thrash" has disappeared along with the individuals that spew it.

    Lets hope that there are still some fish left.

  8. Good stuff Erik, we all know that there plenty of tools on the water. Just as annoying to me is the way the sport is marketed to the wealthy retired types who think that it's the new "golf". I hate the way they can make our sport seem like a elitist country club sport. Sometimes I think that there is no in between either a punk or some rich, crusty turd.

  9. Hey Anonymous,

    If you're going to say "Once again, idiot" why don't you post with your name? Perhaps you are the "idiot"? You may not agree with what Erik says, but at least he is putting it out there... and claiming ownership. Way more than anyone can say for you...

  10. Thank you anonymous for your comment

    "once again, idiot"

    and for illustrating my point ;)

  11. Excellent observations Erik. As well as most of the others who responded. You raise a great many points that unfortunately transcend fishing with flies. Materialism, greed, narcissism, and the multi-media have stepped into the driver's seat--and it doesn't always look good; Be that as it may, the bright side is very real. Yes we are in an era of kicked hats, hoodies, PBR, one-hitters, and egos the size of a bright skeena buck; however, for every (unfortunately) 20 of those dudes kickin' up gravel, there is still one soul roller, up to the waist day in and day out, not talking the talk, but proving an ideal by keeping his/her mouth shut and fishing as it should be done. Said angler may be flopping dead bunnies on newfangled lines, but midspeys and longbellies have not been forgotten--in fact, our hero still worships the idea of fishing summers on small flies attached to a line not requiring 487 strips from one poke to the next. I admire your voice, and believe we can have faith that our type of sticks are out there, keeping this thing many of us hold so dear from becoming an x-games event. Aside from that though, I have spent some time in runs with young guns, and fashion differences aside, the passion remains the same. I've even accepted a cold PBR tallboy at the end of the day.

  12. Erik:

    I just stumbled across your blog and let me say that this thread is a breath of fresh air. I have been thinking a lot of this very subject the last few weeks, as right now it is fly fishing "movie tour" time and I have been inundated by ads and e-mails for the various "extreme" fishing movies coming to town. I am sick of seeing these Warren Miller style fly fishing movies. Lets face it, fly fishing is not an extreme sport, not should it be about self promotion or greed. Most of the D.B.s in these movies are trustafarians who don't have to work and can afford to travel to remote locations where the fish are plentiful and easy.

    I also agree with you about fly fishing becoming a lost art the emphasis on numbers and " catch 'em at any cost" attitudes that are so prevalent today. I think its all part of the "just add water" society we live in today. People don't want to pay their dues for anything, they just go to the internet and get instant information or buy their way to success. Just go to websites like and you'll see what I mean.....guys using tons of lead, "spinner blade" flies, skagits with heavy flies during prime conditions in the summer when they are not needed, etc.

    I'll be the first to admit I rely on technological advancements in rods and lines to help me catch more fish, but the most rewarding fishing to me is, when I catch fish the using traditional methods and patterns.

    I fish because I love being in nature and I love the chase. If I get a fish it’s just icing on the cake, and not just another notch in my belt. I think a lot of people are missing out on the best part of fishing.....which to me is just getting away from it all, visiting beautiful places, kicking back and soaking it all in. It's really pretty sad and probably doesn't bode well for the future of our sport.

  13. Anon and cphatts;
    Thank you for your very well written and thought out comments. They were a privilege to read.
    There is so much more to state about this. The Warren Miller like productions comment and the Trout Bum Diaries trustafarians...
    Fiddling with and debating gear endlessly while the waters and fish disappear...
    One thing is for sure, There are many like us who care deeply about our sport and its directions.
    Thank you for visiting.

    If you have not already read the essay I wrote entitled "Why? A philosophical look at flyfishing" from October of 2008

  14. Another great read Erik! I too fall in the younger generation of fly fishers and two handed casters. I will say there is hope! Its blogs like yours and Essays of a Steelheader and some others out there that definitley influence , at least me, to question modern methods and the ethics behind them.


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