Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Lore of Fine Gear

The lore of fine gear

Many of us that fish with flies love nothing more than to touch, discuss, and dream about the fine tackle of our sport. Meet another angler on a stream, and the talk will assuredly turn to gear sooner or later. We ask each other: “What rod is that?” “Which fly are you using?” or state our appreciation of the other’s fine fly reel. In winter when the snow and cold threaten to overwhelm us, conversations around a warm fire in a study discuss the finer points of gear and pawl checks, and the big one that got away. Cognac, a fine cigar, a Leonard rod…

What is it about the equipment of fly-fishing that so appeals to us? Is it something to do with being men? Is it similar to a bunch of guys admiring power tools?

The equipment itself has very few concrete properties: metal, wood, thread, etc. We assign or ascribe the romantic characteristics ourselves. Aesthetics. So, there are inherent properties vs. ascribed properties and human imagination. These work together with our sense of history and adventure to form what we feel when we look at fine tackle. I call this lore. Lore can be defined for our purposes here as the process of ascribing abstract properties and romantic notions, nostalgia and learned history to concrete items.

How would different people or creatures react to viewing a beautifully tied fly? A non-fly fisherman might see a metal hook with feathers and fur attached, and have some slight sense of intended use, but that is all. A space alien might ponder the utility of the object to the human race as an anthropologist would. A cat might wonder if it is worth its time to chase the thing. A fish might see something that triggers a feeding response.
Therefore, the uncarved block views the gear of fly fishing in an innocent and ignorant way. They may recognize some inherent aesthetic beauty, but cannot without extensive experience relate abstract qualities to the equipment. They would be incapable of placing the objects in proper perspective within their lives. Romance could not then be assigned or imagined. Lore would not be felt.

Human beings have a natural sense to appreciate beauty of form. Most people, even having little exposure to art or architecture, would appreciate a sculpture by Michelangelo, a painting by Vermeer, or the classic lines of an ionic column. This might be true of a full dress salmon fly or a Quill Gordon, but most would say “It sure is pretty, but what is it?” Knowing the intended use and the tradition behind it allows us to ascribe romantic properties.

Then comes the act of anthropomorphism, or assigning human-like traits, qualities, or even sex to our equipment. Reels sing, loops sizzle, rods dance, and we refer to our rod as ‘she’ or ‘he.’

We are not alone in our desire to find lore in our equipment. Upland game hunters have fine double guns, bait-casters a myriad of exotic plugs, and fencers their fine foil, epee’ and saber.

Would we have it no other way? What if an object was just that… an object? With no assigned aesthetic qualities, characteristics, romance, or lore? What a boring and sterile world we would live in. A sort of dream-deprived state. All romance dead. An Orwellian world of pseudo sensory deprived autism.

Romance, legend, lore, and tradition all enter our conceptualization of our sporting experiences, both real and imagined. The equipment becomes part of the story. Our story. His story. History.

Ask yourself this: why does it infuriate you when someone refers to your fine early 20th century bamboo trout rod as “That fishing pole?”


  1. Erik,

    I do remember a time many years back, early in my steelheading experience, where somebody pretty much chewed my behind over using the word 'pole'. Being a bit fiesty (ok still am) back then pretty much let him know the use of 'pole' was nothing but a TIC comment. Relax man. To be so darn uptight to correct somebody to properly use 'rod, these are rods' was a bit different 'to us hilljacks'!

    To me fine equipment needs some soul. At some point a truly caring and skilled individual must be involved in the process. I love to look into the rod, reel, or fly (or whatever) to see the skill involved. Mesmerizing to me.

    Keep up the great writing. Helps to pass the doldrums...waiting...waiting before that bowling ball sized hole is left in the surface with a mooseturd gone and 15#'s of angry wild fish prepare to leave one shaken, breathless, and awestruck.


  2. William,
    The pole comment is interesting. I thought it was a good way to sum up. It really is just a pole or a rod or a stick or a piece of plastic, graphite, whatever. It is the lore that we assign to it that makes it something more than just an object.

    Thank you very much for the writing compliment. Cannot wait for that first fish on a Dunt! Going out to practice now...

  3. I find it interesting, the many different ways in which we assign value/asthetics to something. I've always been something of a blue collar fly fisher simply because I can't afford the really nice stuff. (I did have a modest collection of "blue collar" cane for a while, a few Grangers, a Heddon, and my grandfathers Edwards-era Bristol, but an economic downturn forced me to liquidate most of it. In other words I was broke and needed cash.) Anyway I tend to find beauty in the way a piece of equipment functions. I've seen the most beautiful reels, made to the highest tolerances become nothing more than expensive paperweights when a drag failed, or a small part was lost while attempting to remove the spool. By comparison, my old Gunnisons and System II's have been faithfully stumping along for a lot of years with no hiccups of any kind. They're not pretty, but to me they have more soul than the "high end" stuff. That's why I really appreciate the Hardy Marquis and the Lightweight. Utter simplicity and reliability combined with a pleasing subtle beauty. I still have a pre Wright and McGill era Granger that is a delight to behold. Yet compared to the later Heddon Model 17 I had, it cast like a pig. The Heddon wasn't nearly as well made nor as pretty but to me it had more soul. I have a spey rod that is truly, astonishingly ugly, but lord does it cast! On the other hand, I make a point of fishing my grandfathers bamboo rod at least once a year, and even though it is a pretty poor fishing tool, the paradigm shifts ever so slightly when I'm astream with it. I take pleasure from fishing with the same rod that my grandfather prowled the streams with all those years ago. Sort of a link to the past. Not sure where I was going with this, but to me I guess a fine piece of tackle is first and foremost one that works, or there is an emotional connection to someone or something. As you said, the lore we assign to it.--AJ

  4. AJ,
    Good points and thank you for the comment. It is really neat that you are fishing with your Grandfather's cane rod. Bit of a legacy.
    Yes, expensive reels can fail too. I have gotten to a point where simple gear and pawl reels are nearly all I fish. They don't have to be expensive either. I think that a Pfluger medalist has style...
    As to the ugliness of the spey rod... Last year several companies tried to copy the burnt cork inserts of the Burkheimer and Meiser rods, but instead of doing it with taste, actually made the rod truly awful looking. They look like some sort of post-modern sculpture.

  5. Erik, good point on the Medalist. I recall a story wherein Ross was working on one of his first reels and he and some others had taken a number of prototypes down bonefishing. After a couple days of roasting drags, the "backup" Pflugers came out of the duffels... Don't know how true it is but let us not let too many facts get in the way of a good story.
    I was looking at an Echo DH series rod at Poppys yesterday, and the cork looked like something the dog left in the yard...


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