Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Defining fly-fishing and drawing lines.

Defining fly-fishing and drawing lines.

We all draw lines. It is an inevitable part of how we go about forming our identities; our concepts of ourselves and our place in relation to others and our surroundings. This is true of our fly-fishing as it everything else in life. Where we draw these lines often changes with time and maturity. Taste also plays a part, as do aesthetics. What we consider sporting definitely applies.

If we go back in time to the essence of fly-fishing, what do we find?

First off, we may look at the word ‘fly.’ Fly-fishing originated, as far as we can tell, by imitating hatching insects in a body of water. In Macedonia as well as England, and other areas in-between, the sketchy historical records agree on this one point; mayflies, wasps, aquatic moths, caddis or sedges.

Presenting an artificial fly, or even a live fly on a hook in order to fool wary fish took special equipment. Until the 18th century, there were few records of winches or reels. Rods were commonly switches cut from bushes and trees such as yew. Dame Julia made hers a composite. The line had to be delicate in order not to spook the fish. Silk and horsehair were used, as well as other materials. It is doubtful if the flies actually floated. More likely from historical documents, the flies were ‘dappled’ into the water where the fish were rising or eating bugs.

Thus, if we take matters to their absolute essence, fly-fishing is a way of delivering an artificial fly imitating some sort of hatching insect to the fish.

This leaves much of what we call fly-fishing today outside that first boundary-line.

If we stop here, most fishing for bass, steelhead, Atlantic salmon, warm water and saltwater fish is not really fly-fishing.

Interesting, but rather pointless, unless we now add technology to the equation, and the resulting changes in technique that result.

Let’s fast forward to the present.

Today we have flies that look like crank baits, lines that sink to 30 feet, bead-head nymphs, and every other possible advantage to allow us to pursue species in places and ways never before possible. Technology has expanded our horizons, as well as opening up fly-fishing to the masses.

Somewhere in all this freedom and hybridization of fly-fishing, we draw our identity lines or fences. We will or will not cross these lines. Some anglers draw no lines at all, and anything goes. Spinning reel and mono on a flyrod? Bring it on! Fifteen weight shark rods? Lets Go!

Other anglers draw a line in the sand sooner or later, as to what they will or will not do. Much of this is species specific. One may only use dry flies for trout, but see nothing wrong with using foam poppers for bass. Some of us may only use un-weighted nymphs and no indicator, while others have no issue with attaching split-shot, running multiple nymphs deep where allowed, and using a balloon bobber. Some fly-tiers will not use artificial materials outside of tinsel, while others of us consider anything fair game as a material. Some anglers use only gear and pawl reels, while others use only large-arbor disc-drag models. Some casters only use long-belly or DT lines, while others praise the ease of shooting heads and attached mono. Some anglers refer to insects with their Latin names, in effect becoming amateur taxonomists. Others know them as “those little cream bugs.”

Most of us fall somewhere in between, comfortable to just catch a fish.

The drawing of lines and distinctions as to how we pursue game, (for that is really what we are doing, despite catch and release) can also become platforms of refinement.

We fly-anglers often think of ourselves as more refined that the guys in the BASS tourney.


Perhaps it has to do with the inherent limitations in our tackle. No sonar detectors or depth-finders for us. Limited casting distance. No corporate logos. No motors or noise. No tourney $$.

But what about the persons who limit themselves to casting with a cane rod and a silk line using dry flies only? Do the limitations he constrains himself with make him a better angler per se? Alternatively, is it the skill that it takes in order to consistently catch fish this way that elevates the approach? Good questions.

Let’s take this analysis out of fly-fishing for the moment in order to make it clearer and remove it from our own feelings on the subject.

Deer hunting. Let us imagine a set of hypothetical hunters pursuing deer. The hunters are all skilled, and each kills a deer. Each is a humane hunter, and is skilled enough in technique to make a clean kill.

The first hunter fells his prey with a wooden bow that he made himself, a bow-string that he made from the sinew of a deer he shot, an arrow he hand fashioned, and an arrowhead he made of bone.

The second hunter uses a commercially made wooden longbow, and commercial wooden arrows.

The third hunter uses a fiberglass bow and aluminum arrows.

The fourth hunter uses a compound bow with optical sights and a stabilizer.

Which is the best way? The easiest? The most effective? The most refined? Which method takes the most skill?

Now lets add in the method they got to the woods. One used his own two feet, one a horse, one an ATV, and the last was driven in by the guide he hired.
Where does fishing with glo-bugs or indicator nymphing fit in this hierarchy? Does it matter?

Does the end justify the means, in that fishing is just catching fish, or is there some sort of journey of maturation in technique?

When it comes down to it, this is just a brain exercise to make us think.

I don’t know. I still get crap for not owning a cane rod.


  1. You have to be careful with the hairshits. Being ethical and learning from others are two things that will complement the journey we all take as anglers.

  2. Will,
    Yup. actually ethics and appreciation, being kind to others and learning are the most important. I agree!

    I just like to question stuff and make people think.

  3. Excuse my typo, I meant "hair shirts"

  4. "Hairshirts"
    Makes more sense that way.

  5. Hairshits are completely different....

  6. great article...

    and yeah, you really do need to get yourself a bamboo rod. I fish them all...graphite, glass & bamboo...I like them all, for different reasons. But, when you have a fish on on the bamboo, you'll understand.

  7. Erik, Some random thoughts here.

    One difference in your analogy is that you mention "deer hunting" then only give examples of "bow hunting for deer," that's like saying "fishing" as opposed to "fly fishing"--there is a definite difference.

    I'm certainly a line drawer (a hairshit, as it were ;-) ) when it comes to fly fishing. I'm a pretty hardcore dry fly fisher. Unless I want to keep and eat the fish, then I just might take my spinning rod if the fish aren't rising. I think that what you want to get out of your experience should dictate your methodology.

    So, if what I want out of the fishing experience is to hook into a big fish, and enjoy the fight, I should use whatever means has the greatest chance of producing that result. Say I'm at the local river (pond, lake, etc.). I've got my fly rod with a two nymph rig and strike indicator. But I'm not catching diddly (or maybe a couple of little planters). The folks all around me are reeling in 15"-20" fish. I find out they're using worms or Powerbait on a bait pole. Shouldn't I switch? Why don't those fly anglers who are in it for the big fish and the fight use the most efficient method--why stick with the fly rod if it isn't working? Is there some kind of machismo (or whatever) at work here?

    Now, if the angler's purpose is to enjoy the physicality of casting, then maybe they choose the fly rod over the bait setup.

    Or if the angler enjoys watching fish take on the surface they might choose a dry fly. Or maybe a popper on a spinning rig.

    My brother-in-law enjoys ice fishing: sitting around a hole for hours on end doing nothing except freezing his keister off. At least that's the way I feel about it the several times I have gone. But he likes the camaraderie of hanging out with someone else. The cold air. Whatever--he finds joy in the process, not just the results.

    I like 1) the action (both physically a) the rhythm of moving my arm/body and b) moving through the rushing river), 2) the top surface take and 3) the mountain scenery and 4) the look of cutthroat trout--those are *some* of the things I want out of my fishing experience. What methodology will get me there? A spinning rod can get me all of those except #2 (although I could rig it up with a bubble and fly) and possibly #1a. Bass fishing with a popper can get me #2, but it might be hard to get the others. Etc., etc. You get the idea.

    Same for deer hunting. If I enjoy the stalking experience, I will probably choose a weapon that requires me to get closer to the deer. If I enjoy the thought of killing an animal out of something I made, I might opt for the homemade bow or possible a black powder rifle I assembled (or maybe even forged).

    I want to experience what Randall is alluding to with the bamboo rod. Kind of like my last post about the things men have made, and the life that is in it. Bamboo rods are pretty much handmade--I want to feel that life that the maker has put into the rod.

    I'll shut up now--sorry for the hijack. Thanks for the provocative post.

  8. Randall,
    I will work on 'da 'boo.

  9. Scott,
    Thanks for all the excellent thoughts and points.
    I think the fundamental problem with this essay was that I was trying to provoke thought regarding limitations of gear and technique and the skill needed to become accomplished in this way, and somehow sort of hopelessly obscured it. The deer hunting analogy was used to take it out of context. Technique and skill vs. equipment shortcuts/choices/ etc. Most 'effective' technique vs. some measure of restraint.

    Numbers vs. art

    In the world of fly fishing for steelhead, some of the techniques used are becomming so blended as to confuse the viewer as to what the angler is actually doing.

    You put it well when you said, "What you want to get out of the experience should dictate your methodology."

    Your comments and thoughts are allways welcome.

    How cool is it that we can all have discussions like this? Can't find this in any of the magazines.



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