Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Conventional wisdom

Can be wrong…

Being a professional in the fly fishing industry often exposes me to contact with what can be termed ‘conventional wisdom’. This can best be defined as popular opinion or sentiment relating to the equipment, approach, or techniques of this little sport of ours.
The problem with conventional wisdom is that it is tied to trends and popular movements. These movements gain momentum and voice in online forums, magazine articles, youtube videos, and around the campfire, and are often promoted by tackle manufacturers and guides that want you to purchase their goods and services.

This can, and very often is a good thing. Innovation has played a great part in making this sport more accessible and enjoyable for all of us.

However, sometimes conventional wisdom and trends can become so viral that they obscure or mask the truth.

There are quite a few examples of this, but in the cause of brevity and clarity, I will concentrate on just one.

Conventional Wisdom: Using a 15’ spey rod with a longer belly line will tire you out. It is too much rod to be sporting. It is too difficult. It can’t be used when it is windy. It can’t be used when your back is against the wall and backcast room is limited.

Lets examine this.

First off, this sentiment comes from a trend toward lighter shorter rods using shooting heads and those who prefer to cast and fish with them. Often the conventional wisdom is repeated and proclaimed by those who, when challenged, finally admit that they have little or no precedence for their opinion. They are just repeating what the sheeple say. Going against conventional wisdom is difficult, especially in this day and age of internet informational access. Everyone gives advice and backs each other’s opinions. The trend builds until any one who questions it is laughed at.

Debunking popular opinions can also open up new doors to wisdom. Great inventors and thinkers are always asking themselves “Why?” “Where is the proof?” “Is there a different/better way?” We also have to consider the source of the conventional trend. Where is it coming from? Does someone have an agenda?

Conventional wisdom #1:“Using a 15’ spey rod with a longer belly line will tire you out”

The problem here is not that this is a false statement, but with the word ‘will’ instead of ‘can.’
Five or ten years ago I would have drank the koolaid and believed it. Now…. No.
I remember the shoulder pain and all the troubles associated with my 14’ 9/10 spey rod and an accompanying windcutter line. At the end of the day, I would rub ben-gay on my shoulder. People told me it was due to the rod. It was too big a rod. Lifting it into position and sweeping it back to form the D-loop was just too tiring. So…. I bought a shorter Scandinavian shooting head rod and line and used it for a few years, and was happy with the distance and ease, but unhappy with all the tangles. I was looking for ease, or searching for the magic bean.

Then a few years ago, I tried the big rods again, this time with mid and long bellies and 15’ rods. I hated it. It literally drove me nuts. Then something happened: I learned to cast them properly. In the end, it was easy, with far less effort then any other style of two-handed casting I had adopted. See, it was me all along. Not the rod. Not the line. Me.
So, yes, it can be tiring, but with proper technique, it isn’t. Not at all. What IS tiring is all the practice I put in to get to this point, but I guess I have always taken the path with the most brambles; convinced that on the other side the grass will be greener. In this case, it was.

After all, a little voice in my head kept telling me, “All those old-timers at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th cast rods that weighed ten times as much as mine, were they supermen? Was I and everyone else just too damn soft and wussy? How did they do it?”

I guess the answer is that with the tackle available back then, they just dug deep and learned to cast.

Then I brought shooting head lines down to the river and compared them to longer lines on the same rods. Guess what? What ended up tiring me out was all that stripping of running line on the shooting heads.

So there we have it. Conventional wisdom # 1 debunked. It can be more tiring, but with proper technique, it isn’t. In fact, it can be less tiring as the proper casting stroke makes the rod itself do 80% of the work. What is tiring is fighting the rod itself due to improper form. I still struggle with my technique. Casts are good and bad, but when things go right, it is as easy as buttered bread and as pretty as a sunset.

Conventional wisdom # 2: “It is too much rod to be sporting.”


A long rod acts like the proverbial willow tree. It bends against the force of the wind (fish) and thus, through it’s long flexibility, is an ideal tool for fighting fish. I have had my hat handed to me by fish caught on 15’ rods. Bent to the cork with screaming reel and out of control cart wheeling fish, the rod was not at all overkill. Quite the opposite in fact. Stiff shorter rods in vogue these days offer the angler an advantage in power that has been known for years by musky and tarpon fishermen. Fish are not all the same. Some are logs and some go crazy, and I have caught both on shorter rods with shooting heads, and longer rods with long-bellies. The fish decides the fight.

Conventional wisdom # 3: “It can’t be used when it is windy.”


I used to think this too. I swallowed the koolaid just like everyone else until a day on the river with a gale-force wind blowing upstream. I was fishing with a friend who was using a short shooting head rod. I was using a 15’ rod with a 90’ long belly line. My friend’s running line kept blowing upstream in a huge arc as the cast was made, effectively destroying the cast itself. My longer and more powerful rod was able to drive fishable casts up to 80 feet into the howling wind. The mass in the line lessened the effect of the wind to a great extent. A light bulb went off in my head. Eureka.

Conventional wisdom # 4: “It is too difficult.”

Once again, the problem is with semantics. What is too difficult? What is a challenging path of learning for one person may not appeal to a second person. Difficulty is in how we approach the sport. Some people choose to challenge themselves to the ultimate in fair chase, giving the fish or game an advantage. Others choose to use a difficult tool and enjoy the mastery of it and the challenging efforts that came with it. Some people just want to catch numbers of fish. I expect we could all agree that fly fishing is inherently more difficult than spin fishing or bait casting. Some of us took up fly fishing because we wanted an advantage. Others took it up for romantic reasons. People took it up because for a few years, it was the popular and cool thing to do. Some took it up for its beauty and refinement, and the way it puts us in touch with nature.

Difficulty is on a sliding scale for all of us. The sliding scale also extends to equipment.
Casting a long belly line with a traditional spey rod is NOT easy. However, saying it is too difficult is doing it an injustice. It certainly is challenging, but then, so is fly fishing itself.

Conventional wisdom # 5: “It can’t be used when your back is against the wall and backcast room is limited.”

Actually, a lack of backcast room is what spey casting was invented to solve. Admittedly, this differs with bankside environment. I will be the first to say that short shooting head rods excel over longer rods and long lines in tight quarters. However, that doesn’t mean that the long rods are useless here.

In rivers with overhanging brush and trees, especially deciduous flora, long rods can be a mess. I tested this theory and whacked my rod so many times on twigs and limbs that I came to the opinion that yes, a 15’ rod had no place here. Even 12’ 6” rods struggle in these conditions. However, I also fish wide-open rivers with steep rock banks where wading out even a step more to increase D-loop or backcast room will find one drinking river water. I simply changed the angle of my cast, shortened up my line, or placed my line anchor in a different position. In other words, with the rod in my hand, the fish out there in the river, my back against the wall, and a choice to fish or go back to the car, I chose to adapt and think my way out of the challenge. Was it easy? No. Was it possible? Yes. In certain situations it actually was easier because the long rod gave me much more control over the line.

In conclusion, debunking theories can be a great learning experience. It also can sound preachy due to inherent arguments and counter arguments. In the end we all fish the way we do because we find it fun. One person’s meat may be another’s poison as the old adage goes. One is not better than another. It is just with the endless promotion and justification of the superiority of one’s chosen method over another’s that we begin to mix the koolaid. I don’t care how someone fishes, or what equipment they choose. What gets to me is getting told that I “Can’t do something.” That triggers the curiosity gene and the obsessive-compulsive gene and gets me busy exploring and studying the argument.

Conventional wisdom is a form of dogma. I have found that avoiding dogma sometimes is a path that is worth walking.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The River Tells A Story

During a recent float down the upper Milwaukee River several of my friends and I marveled at the water in places we had never been since dams were removed. Stonefly hatches and crystal-clear water testified to the healing of the river. We found new runs through careful observation, marveled at flocks of buffleheads, wood ducks and a lone owl. Our raft glided silently over the renewed waters.
The river does tell a story.

The story is best read whilst seated by the side of the river, or standing a moment and contemplating. What is the height of the river? What is the temperature? Where would the fish be? What is the story of the day, Mr. River? The story changes every day. The plot meanders back and forth: it wallows, surges, and roars. Somewhere in there are the main characters, hidden in between the words. Did you just flip through the pages, or did you put on a metaphorical bathrobe and with a hot cup of tea, settle down in the couch corner for a good read? If you put on size 13 clown boots with studs and stomp on the pages, you will never understand the words.

We have to stop and slow down to listen. There are words in there, and bits of metaphorical poetry. Passages of Yeats or Frost. Melting snow trickles down from sun-hungry branches and plays a melody on the water. There is not just one story, but many: as many as there are turns in the river, or boulders on the bottom. We must observe with all our senses to absorb all the words. We must hear, see, smell, touch, and feel. We must close our eyes and think as well: observe and process. We must see between the currents, and observe the unobservable.

Then we can wet a line, and angle in harmony. After all, we should not be out to conquer a river, or a good poem, we should absorb it, and make it part of us. Part of our knowledge and love of life… fish hooked or not.