Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Bell Curve of Fly-Fishing, a life (and gear) Journey

There is a famous story I like to tell from time to time about a day on the water Joe and I spent with a young guy we had never fished with before.

We were rigging up in a parking lot when this guy, obviously very excited (you could almost hear him vibrating, and his boots where hovering an inch off the ground) asked us to check out his fly boxes to see if the patterns were O.K. He extracted four large streamer boxes stuffed to the brim with flies. “Do you think these will be enough?” he asked genuinely. I took my eyes away from tying knots and fiddling with my bootlaces and took a wider view of him. He was covered in gear from head to foot, and looked like a tackle merchandising display. He had (I am not making this up), a backpack full of equipment, an attached chest pack to hold even more, and anything that wouldn’t fit there, like say… a spare set of fondue forks, or a muffler repair kit, or two thousand more flies, were stuffed into a fanny pack. He wore a base layer, a puffy outer layer for warmth and had a rain jacket attached to his backpack just in case. He reached around to try to find something in the backpack, a spare reel or something else he didn’t need, and nearly toppled over.

I looked over at the bushes our equipment was leaning against. We each had one box of flies, mine stored in a battered and dented aluminum clip box, Joe’s bamboo spey rod with 1918 Perfect reel, my short 12’6” light graphite spey rod with an old sort of St.George or Dingly reproduction. We each had an old fleece jacket, mine sporting food stains and a hole, and Joe’s with not much nap left after 16 years in Alaska. My Filson jacket had seen better years too, probably when America still made cars that worked. Other than the rods, all our equipment together would fit into this guy’s backpack. Looking back at him again, he was still trying to find something or other, and had begun to disgorge an entire tackle shop onto the grass. We had to wait for him by the river.

I began to ponder this, and came up with a definition for this phenomena of acquisition of gear and the amount we carry with us, and how we approach the fishing, ‘The Bell Curve of Fly-Fishing.’

All we need is a little trip down memory lane to see it in effect, and how it emerges.

When we took up the sport of fly-fishing, we most likely purchased a rod and reel first. We went fishing with a few flies and wet-waded until, as our next purchase, we bought a pair of waders. Then a vest came into the picture, and with it lots of pockets for more stuff, and we began to fill the pockets. Then we added a pack for additional gear, and slowly, but with great fortitude, went about acquiring things to fill it. Once that was done, we realized we had become a bit silly. After all, why carry that box of poppers on the trout stream when we didn’t need it? So, we bought another sort of pack and vest thing to store the warm-water gear, then the salt-water gear, and the steelhead gear too. One day we went into the closet where all the rods were stored in their cases and attempting to root around and find a jacket we hadn’t seen in awhile, managed to disgorge the rod tubes and send them clattering over the floor. Picking them up while uttering oaths, we found, to our horror that we had over 30 fly-rods in there, several of them duplicates, and one which we swear we never saw before.
How the heck did this happen?

New stuff is fun, and as equipment advances and technology and innovation allow us to be (in theory at least) more efficient and comfortable, we tend to buy into this. The pack replaces the vest or vice-versa, a new stiffer rod replaces a rod which was stiffer than the one before, we get a new titanium floatant holder to save 1/16th of an ounce, little sticky dots with fly pictures on them to tape our tippet against our reel, and an aquatic entomology kit that leaks formaldehyde onto surrounding objects. We acquire a new large-arbor reel, because it is shiny, a nifty sink-tip storage and sorting bag, a cool large rigid rod and reel case, and a smaller case which (how cool is this?) fits neatly into the larger case so that now we can be even more organized. We drink the marketing Kool-Aid and buy a bunch of leaders with built in rubber shock absorption which cast like a drunken bungee jumper. We add to these furled leaders, braided leaders, mono leaders, fluorocarbon leaders and a nifty case to separate all those leaders.

We try to be prepared. We carry a can of bear spray in our vest, even though there are no bears on the river we are fishing. Same thing for that box of kitchen matches. That way when we trip and fall, the bear spray can go off while the matches flare, and we can have a really good ‘No shit, there I was’ story for the guys down at the corner pub when they ask you what the hell happened to your hair and eyebrows. Besides, if there actually was a bear, in your panic you have about as much chance of actually dousing yourself with bear spray as you do in squirting Old Smokey.

We want to look like we are fly-fishermen. We want to look cool and hard-core. That’s why, with all that new stuff we just bought, we look like every other fool on the river, identical hat worn just such a way, the new ‘in’ rod, newest puffy jacket, and one eye cocked toward everyone else on the river, wondering if we are doing it right and looking cool. This is called ‘Individuality’.

We want to catch more fish too. That’s why we have all this stuff isn’t it? The ads promised us more fish… That is why we have the new pocket fly steamer, the portable cigar humidor and the heated mat for our wading boots. We want to catch more and bigger fish, so we buy the magic beans. Years ago I was giving a seminar of presentation and technique when one of the audience interrupted me and said “Hey Erik, can you kind of skip to the part where I can learn to catch more fish?” I thought that was what the seminar was all about, but I forgot the instant gratification powder at home. Well, if it isn’t technique, reading water, presentation, casting ability etc. that advances us to a state of ‘fishiness’ where we can pull an Atlantic salmon out of a desert, or a bluegill out of our ear, it must be something else? Something that takes no learning, and leads to profit and you parting with your wallet, but without, and this is the key, expending time and energy gaining wisdom. Could it be….MORE STUFF?

Is that why I have all these rod cases and gear cascading around my feet and rolling around on the floor?

We have reached the apex, the zenith of the Bell-Curve. Everything is down-hill from here.
This usually begins rather subtly, often inadvertently. We may be digging through a pack or vest in the trunk of the car while gearing up for an evening on the water, and spying something poking out of a pocket, can’t remember the last time we used it or indeed, even needed it. We take it out and leave it behind. That’s a dangerous move folks, because there is no stopping the downsizing when it starts. We begin to ask ourselves “Do I really need this?” remembering suddenly how we hated our Dad saying that to us when we had something in our hand at the variety store. We begin to give things away to newer anglers and friends. We throw things out. (Gasp!) Yes, those rubber band leaders get consigned to the trashcan. One day while pausing, out of breath and on rubber legs, while climbing out of a river canyon, the cigar humidor, the fly dots, and the portable steamer go cartwheeling into the bushes. We sell a few rods here and there too, wondering why anyone would ever need nine 6-WT fly-rods. We move three large plastic bins of fly junk to the garage for eternal banishment, but make sure to label each box ‘Old Underwear’ so the spouse won’t peep into them and than start something best not started at all.

This is the Bell Curve, a journey where less becomes more, then more, and then less and less, and then less but more. This can relate to gear, approach to fishing, hours spent fishing, etc. That final less but more part may be the key to understanding in whole our place in the curve, and then we can proudly claim the title ‘Wise old fart.’

I should explain this by breaking it down and making it needlessly confusing and obfuscated, so here goes…

If fly-fishing is a journey analogous to life, then the analogy works well with the stages of life. Imagine the stages of childhood, a young man, marriage, new home and children, grandchildren, a rummage sale and moving to a smaller home, and finally moving in with the children in old age. The things we acquire and our outlook, the breadth and shape of our world vision, expansive or myopic are in a curve. Our world begins so small with explorations of the carpet and crawling under the table, expands to its apex in middle age, and finally we are back to examining things in a smaller scale, this time the couch and searching for the T.V. remote. Fly fishing is like this too. Gear is only part of it, so is approach. At first we are just overjoyed to fish, then as we progress, we want to catch more and bigger fish, do it in exotic places, do it in specific ways, etc. Finally when the curve returns back to near the starting level, we may re-discover that first rod and an old box of flies, and instead of buying a new in-vogue hat, just sport the one that the dog chewed on, even if it has a hole in the brim. We might troop not to the rivers of Tongo-Tongo to pursue elusive Big-finned Farting Fish, but down past the rotting shed to the farm pond where we began, and find out that less can be more, and a Bluegill can provide an afternoon’s good sport. And if the farmer sees us and sniggers at our dilapidated, stained and chewed hat, we can mutter “I don’t give a damn.”

For when the curve returns to a point somewhere where we are comfortable with our gear, our approach, and instead of having all those ambitious plans all mapped out for us, instead just let our feet lead us where they want. Somewhere in here, we may also recognize something we missed while the curve did its thing… Fun.

Then we can break free of the curve, the desire to constantly prove something and acquire more stuff, and discover freedom.
Freedom is the ability to honestly say, “I don’t give a damn.”

I went though the curve myself. I remember a dozen or so years ago taking the first drive across the country to fish for steelhead in Washington State. I made a list of stuff to take which included a giant backup box of 100 hand-tied steelhead flies, a backup rod which was never used, two pairs of jeans that never got worn, a sportcoat, (Have no idea what I was thinking there), 27 pairs of underwear and socks, camping gear for a brigade level campaign, and gobs of other crap. I know what I took because I recorded it in a notebook, and every year crossed off the stuff I didn’t use. By 2013 the list of gear fit on one page and physically into a large roller duffle and a carry-on bag. This suffices for two weeks. That first trip was for only one week! Sometimes I wonder that I didn’t include a pith helmet and safari jacket on that first trip.

Then last year I was fishing on a local river for smallmouth bass with a 20 year old fly rod and a reel that was missing most of its teeth in the gear mechanism. I landed a nice fish, sat on a log and pulled off my hat. I bought a wax cotton canvas sort of cowboy hat with a huge brim two years ago because I am getting older and I don’t want skin cancer. It has been through rainstorms and seen copious sweating, and the wax has sort of formed an alliance with the sweat and merged into a sort of goo stain intermingled with squashed bug remains. It used to look like a western hat, but now looked like something Clint Eastwood’s horse trod on and for added effect did his business on. Lil Abner would be jealous of this hat. “Well, it’s functional anyway” I thought, “Besides,” I added as an afterthought, “I don’t give a Damn!”