Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Simple joys: less is more

This past spring I was retying a leader while seated on a grass bank high over a trout stream, when I witnessed another angler making his way toward the run directly upstream. He seemed to be encumbered as he walked. He was not old or infirm; he was just overloaded. Every pocket of his vest bulged with gear. In addition, he had both a chest pack and a waist pack, and each of those seemed full to the breaking point as well. He carried a net suspended from the rear of the vest, which kept tangling in the riverside brambles. He reminded me of myself just a few years ago.

It seems to be a common progression as we advance from novices in the world of fly-fishing, and begin to view ourselves as more advanced, that we buy into all of the goodies and gadgets that the tackle industry offers us. Perhaps it is a quest for that magic bean: the tool that will improve our catch-rate. We purchase nippers and pliers, floatant and knot-tyers, tippet gauges, twelve fly boxes, thermometers, multi-tools, zingers, hook sharpeners, laminated hatch-charts, containers of split-shot, a leader tying kit, three different packages of strike-indicators, a leader straightener, magnifier glasses, fly-threader, leader wallet, line dressing, tape measure, catch and release tool, and a partridge in a pear tree. We then buy various hip and chest packs and a vest to store all of this stuff. We cannot leave home without carrying every last scrap of fishing tackle that we own.

I remember fishing an area trout stream for the first time a number of years back. I had a full vest, a rain jacket over it, also with stuffed pockets, and a large canvas shoulder bag crammed to the brim. I could have outfitted three complete anglers. Why I was carrying an extra reel and an extra fly line I will never know. The canvas bag contained enough food and water to keep a small African village well fed for a week. I was like a reality version of a Dungeons and Dragons adventurer, carrying forty weapons, sixty pounds of gold, a suit of armor or three, a library of magic books, and every other conceivable item around on his back. Speaking of backs, mine began to ache that day on the trout stream. As I fished, I had to drop the canvas shoulder bag off and then come back for it.

Was all this necessary? The answer would be yes if I was backpacking for several days in the mountains, but since this was a stream an hour from home… no.

Then I fished with an acquaintance that was a real veteran, having spent years fishing all over North America for multiple species of fish. He carried in his minimalist vest only the essentials: a nipper and forceps, a spare leader, two tippet spools, one fly box, floatant, a plastic bag containing two strike-indicators, a granola bar, and a small notebook and a pencil. All this was stored in pockets with the exception of the forceps. He traveled light.

I began to notice what other anglers carried on the river, and their experience level. Sure enough, in most cases, the more experienced the fisherman, the more pared-down was his or her gear. The neophyte was always the one saddled like a pack-mule.

I dumped my vest and packs next to the car and proceeded to remove anything that I deemed non-essential to the day’s fishing. I was now around twelve pounds lighter.

So, why do we so encumber ourselves while fishing? I think it has something to do with wanting to look like we know what we are doing. The guy with the ratty plaid shirt and an old fiberglass rod can’t be much of a fisherman; he just doesn’t have enough cool stuff! On the other hand, the guy with all that shiny new equipment who looks like a walking tackle catalogue must know what he is doing…

It also might be due to some latent boy-scout tendencies that whisper to us “If you don’t take it along, you will surely need it.”
Back on that stream, I had finished my recollections and musings as well as the new leader, when I noticed a fly box float past me. That was followed by a package of strike indicators. The source was obvious; it was the other angler upstream of me, who was now seated on a midstream rock, furiously rooting through his various bags, pockets, and packs in search of some item or another. His flotsam still had the price tags attached.

Perhaps less really is more…


  1. Erik,

    Ah yes, the days of "bring-it-all-baby!" I remember them well. For me personally, I don't think it was because I wanted to "look" like an angler, I just wanted to make sure I was prepared (being an old Boy Scout and all). The longer I fished, the more I realized I hardly ever used most of the stuff, so I could jettison 75% of my junk.

    But it is funny how there is the bell curve going on (at least for me): almost no gear when I started, ramping up to overstocked after I'd been at it a few years, then back down to limited gear now.

    You said: "The guy with the ratty plaid shirt and an old fiberglass rod can’t be much of a fisherman." That reminds me of the first time I ever fished at a "popular" place: Henry's Fork. I had my dad's old Garcia glass rod and a cheap (Rimfly?) reel. He also had this box of "pretty" flies (you know, the kind you get at the drugstore in the packs of 10 or 20 that have decorative colors. It was shoved in a shirt pocket and was the only "gear" I had, other than this: I didn't own any waders, so I borrowed my brother-in-law's rubber hip waders (the kind used for duck hunting).

    I was standing at a nice stretch early in the morning (I was a bit embarrassed to be seen, so I was hoping to beat the crowds). About five other guys showed up in pretty rapid succession. In about 90 minutes, one of the other guys landed 1 fish and I landed three. (Granted, it was pure beginners luck because I had no idea what I was doing.) I remember feeling pretty stupid because of my outfit, even though I was outfishing the other guys. I do remember I wanted to look better, so maybe my earlier statement about "being prepared," should be peppered with a little vanity too.

    Nice piece! Thanks for the memories.

  2. Scott,
    Thank you for taking the time to relate that very charming story. The thought of you with that dime-store collection of Japanese flies on the Henry's Fork is precious.

    My father never fly-fished, but when I took up the sport he managed to unearth a small plastic box full of flies. He gave them to me with the instruction "Take care of these, they are valuable." He must have thought that if fly-fishing was an elevated way of angling, then all its gear and ephemera must be valuable.

    The box had purple flies with orange wings. White flies with red ribbing, green flies with stripes, etc. All tied on goofy hooks and using some sort of proportion out of the fourth dimention.

    I used them on some bluegills (which will eat anything) and caught fish, but the darn things fell apart after a few casts.

    Your point about the n'bell-curve' is excellent. It really is a curve that most anglers experience in maturing.

    If you still have those bad dime store flies, you should take a picture of them. Younger people today would get a kick out of the crappy gear we had to put up with.

    Thanks again,

  3. Erik, I've got all of the pics and a short piece I wrote about it the summer before last here:

  4. steelhead fishing can be like wading through a nightmare of gear to find just the right stuff to go light .here on the west coast it could be sunny one minute and raining the next .I have yet to find a simple bag that will keep my gear dry all day .Ive tried a few !At this point ive been trying to come up with my own .I carry two fly boxes ,a leader wallet (holds sinktips and long leaders )a head lamp three spools of tippet material ,and some lunch .The biggest problem i have is that my bag isnt large enough to hold my rain coat comfortably .there are no waterproof bags out there that work !all the fanny packs are two small !I have messenger bag which works but gets in the way when I try to open my rain coat .I do think a fanny pack is the best idea but no one has one that is waterproof that is the right size .downsizing can be difficult and keeping thing dry is a whole other ordeal.

  5. nutman, having grown up in Southeast Alaska, (where it's been known to rain) I would suggest forgetting about finding a water proof pack. Instead find a back pack/fanny pack that holds what you want and pack anything that needs to stay dry in Ziploc bags. Even if you go swimming and your pack ends up immersed, your gear will stay dry. We have some goofy weather as well here in Idaho. One minute it will be a bluebird spring day, and the next you are huddled under a tree trying to recall how long a cubit is. I bought one of those "packable" rain jackets, and while its pretty light and not what I'd choose for an all day frog strangler, it works well, and squishes into a very small package.

    I must admit fellas, that I fell for a truly yuppie artifact a few years ago. I do a lot of back country fishing, and keeping stuff organized and accessible while wearing a back pack was a real pain. So I purchased one of those fishing lanyards. It is one of the few pieces of gear I own that really does make a difference. One fly box in the pocket of my shorts, tippet, floatant, forceps, and a hook hone on the lanyard. Paradise!--AJ

  6. i will agree with you on the lanyard for trout fishing it is great and keeps things handy .As for the weather proof gear I hear you on the bag i just have to have something that works for this !
    Today it was so warm at 630 am i was sweeting bullets ,so i had my rain jacket in my (recycled bag )which isnt even close to waterproof !and what you pay for this stuff is crazy .I got one of those yuppie packs to (when it rains it turns into a hundred pound mess ,try hiking up a trib with that on (anyone want a heart attack).Sage just came out with a bag that is supposed to be water proof ,guess how much that costs OUCH!
    I just want something i can hold my gear in keep it dry and go for a walk,i have been looking at the filson bags which go over your shoulders one in the back one in the front .I think it is oilskin cloth which i know works and it will keep the stuff up off the water .that has a high price tag to but not like the sage .I try to do the (kiss) method when ever possible. when it comes to gear !


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