Monday, February 10, 2020

The Stuff of Confusion

Copyright 2020 Erik Helm

The other day I was reading an article in a fly-fishing magazine that was proclaiming how much easier it was to get started in the sport today than it was in the past. The argument as stated could be paraphrased as: ‘Today we have better and more availability of gear choices, and information is easier to come by.’

I found myself laughing a bit at this, for truth be told, a case can be made that it is both easier and yet more difficult to begin in this fine sport due to exactly the same reasons stated. Follow me as I explore this a bit…


Back when I took up the sport there were admittedly less gear choices available…. a lot less choices. In some ways, this worked in our favor, since we had fewer decisions to make, and spent more time fishing. I asked a number of the finest anglers I know about their path into the sport, and the answers all shared common themes. We went to a fly-shop to purchase a setup, were gifted basic equipment, or assembled the necessary gear ad-hoc after much research. Since we were beginners, and there were fewer choices available, we were less confused about our gear. We simply had what we had. One of us had a double taper line and a Shakespeare Wonder Rod, another of us had a new graphite rod and a weight-forward line and we all thought he was the king of the river. Then we went fishing.

My initial setup was an eight-weight rod that I purchased as a blank and hand-built into a finished rod. I still have it. That rod served me for steelhead and bass in my local river for three years before I purchased a five-weight for smaller quarry. For those initial three years, it was my only rod. A lack of financial means when on one’s own after college did lead to a rather necessary frugal approach, but I never felt lacking. Instead, I went fishing… sometimes up to five times a week. The other stories were the same. One friend had his mother sew pockets onto his old hunting vest, turning it into a fishing vest. Another friend used an old candy tin as his first fly-box, and still has it somewhere.

Not to seem like one of those dour “Back in my day” types, but the reality of it was that the choices we had were easier to make because the market was smaller, and more simplified.

For example:
To carry our gear into the river we had a choice between an assortment of vests or possibly a canvas stream bag. Today we have chest packs, myriad sling packs, fanny packs, hip packs, backpacks, packs that transform and convert, packs that attach to other packs to form modular ‘Tactical gear storage solutions,’ and everything in between. I saw an angler recently on our local spring creeks who was so top-heavy and over-loaded with packs and storage solutions that he was having trouble walking on the bank. The variety of choices is an improvement, but not if it hampers our actual fishing.

For fly rods back in the day, we had several large manufacturers out there like Orvis, Fenwick, Garcia, and the first Sage rods as well. Here we had what we thought were a myriad amount of choices; more than enough for our needs depending on our budget. They were easy to understand as well. Marketing was less sophisticated, and seemingly tried to simplify the process of selection instead of confuse us. Today we have dozens of major manufacturers marketing rods with odd but trendy names. Some rod companies claim they make and sell over 150 different rods, each for some ethereal but very narrow purpose. Given their similarity to each other, the beginner can hardly tell the difference. Add in online companies not represented in reputable fly-shops who mass-market rods made in China at cut-rate prices, and it becomes apparent that any on-line forum with a classified section has a massive amount of gear for sale with the description “Cast twice,” or “Fished once.”

Confusion leads to an unending cycle of buying and selling in the quest for an illusory magic bean. Less time is spent fishing, and more time spent on gear acquisitions and unending debate and questions. Arguing with fellow anglers about which sling-pack is cooler or better may have replaced the time we used to spend absorbing the lore of the sport through literature or by getting our proverbial feet wet.

The ultimate complication and confusion poster-child may be fly-line.
In the past we did have choices between a number of brands and categories: double-taper, weight-forward, floating, full-sinking, sink tip and specialty lines such as saltwater, bass, and shooting heads. That would make up around 90% of lines available at the time. A new line needed to purchased when the old one wore out, or when a new type of fish or fishing necessitated a different line. The labels were rather easy to read and differentiate as well. For example, Cortland had a package labeled ‘444 Fly-Rod Line: WF Floating.’ It doesn’t get much simpler that that. Garcia had their Kingfisher line, and Orvis sold their own ‘Flyline.’ What was lacking then versus today is the hyped-up marketing which has turned the entire fly-line industry into a specialized marketing engine designed to get one to not only purchase the ‘New’ thing because it is better than the ‘Old’ thing from the same manufacturer that you bought last year and fished with once, but to get the average angler to have a fly line for every river, day of the week, or lunar cycle. No wonder new and even experienced anglers are confused.

A quick browse through catalogues and websites shows us both the diversity and the confusing over-abundance of lines marketed today.

Here are just a few random examples:

‘Hi-Performance Fly-line’ (vs. what… like Low performance fly-line?)

‘Pro’ fly-line (Apparently for professionals… not amateurs, which explains its $98 price.)

‘Frequency’ fly-line (Does it vibrate differently by weight?)

‘In-Touch’ (vs. what… out-of touch?)
‘Nymph Taper’ (Because we need a different fly-line every time we switch from a dry-fly to a nymph, even though thousands of us have been using a standard taper WF floating line for both applications for years…)

‘Euro Nymph’ (Take your choice: either a line allowing competition angling with multiple nymph rigs, or a ‘Sprockets’ like line that comes with electronic techno-pop music and allows the user to wear skinny black turtleneck shirts while fishing…)

‘MaxCatch’ (Now I understand why I never catch my limit every day… I guess I was using a MinCatch line all these years…)

‘Fairplay’ (I just want to find an ‘Unfair Play’ line… That sounds so much better to me…)

‘Clearwater’ (Apparently only to be used when no rain or runoff starts to dirty the water…)

‘Precise Finesse’ (A must-buy for those of us currently using an ‘Imprecise Clod-Hopper’ line…)

‘Creek’ fly-line (What about a river… or a brook… If we call it a ‘Crik’ do we need a different line or a jar of moonshine?)

‘World Class’ ( Perhaps not the best for anglers traveling to 3rd world nations for fishing adventure…)

‘Cheeky’ line (Reminds me of a quip I uttered at an attractive blonde back in college that earned me a kick in the shins…)

‘Technical Trout’ (Apparently all this time I have been fishing to ‘Non-technical’ trout…explains a lot.)

‘Amplitude’ (Must be similar to ‘Frequency’, but this one vibrates at the maximum frequency… wonder if it can be programmed to play distortion guitar?)

The reader gets the point… so enough already.

All humor aside, tapers do matter in a fly-line, and one does need different lines for different applications, but this has gotten downright silly.

Worst of all are shooting heads, especially those designed for Skagit-style casting and involving separate heads and running lines. When this started out, we had a choice of two or three brands of heads and running lines to match together. Within several years of the industry seeing the benefit of floating and sinking heads and running-lines sold separately, everything exploded. The most common question on online forums (see next section on information) was “Which running line should I pair with a given head?”
I know anglers today that actually carry with them on the river something like twenty different head and running line combinations. They must spend the entire fishing day farting around with their lines…

So what do I have against innovation and choices? Nothing. I just miss the clarity and simplicity that fly-fishing is supposed to be.

It also insults my intelligence… Since I spent fifteen years inside the industry at independent fly-shops as well as corporate giants, I can tell you a little secret… Ready for it?

The confusion is deliberate.

Marketing performs its job when it makes us want things, or desire to replace things we already own with a ‘newer’ or ‘better’ model. It does this by appealing to both our baser instincts, as well as to our desire to ‘Keep up to date.’ ‘New’ equals good, and anything you have that is old (ie: not current) is bad, or outdated… and how many of us want to be accused of being outdated?

However, this only goes so far. By saturation-bombing our different choices and making things unduly complicated, (you need a specialty rod to fish for Small-mouth Bass, not the standard 9 foot 6,7, or 8 wt., or if you are casting streamers from a boat then you need a rod specific to the purpose with a proprietary fly line to match and a separate running line and special nano-friction backing,) the industry maximizes its dollars per angler, and in a limited market, that is a desirable outcome for the corporations. Never-mind that one in five anglers will give up fly-fishing because it finally seems to get so complicated, an outcome the article cited at the outset claimed was the opposite.

In some ways, it benefits some of us older and wiser coots. We no longer need to pay full-price anymore or buy anything new since the biggest market for fly tackle in all of history sits before us in the guise of things purchased and now for sale second-hand with little use at all…

I just feel sorry for many of the new anglers that never had the chance to see what the world of fly-fishing was like when we had a chance to go to the river without so much confusing stuff.

Information overload:

The second part of the claim is that there is more information available today. That is something that I don’t think any angler would argue with.

However, it is the source, and medium of the information that can cause problems and resulting chaos and confusion.

Many of us took up the sport in the P.I. epoch… (Pre-Internet)
Because we actually read books and magazine articles that were written by experts and professionals, we were steered in straighter pathways than today. Read a copy of Bergman’s Trout, Schwiebert, Atherton, or other authors that explained the nuances and broke down the mysteries and necromancy of fishing with a fly in chapters rich with information and expert advice, and one was primed with knowledge before questions arose.

Then the internet came along, and to our happy surprise, we discovered like-minded anglers of all experience levels sharing information on various websites and online forums. The world opened and good solid information flowed back and forth over the modems of the pescadors. Bytes were exchanged for more bites. I was there as one of the first users of the new technology and access to the libraries of wisdom out there…

Everything changed within ten years. I stopped even accessing the forums I used to avidly participate in because as time passed, and new anglers came online, the same questions badly framed and poorly asked again and again overwhelmed and eclipsed the solid information shared and traded.

“What’s the best five weight rod?”
“What grain head should I use when the water flow increases by 3 feet per second and my fly-rod is green in color?”
“Which sling-pack is the coolest?”

It was a sign of the times… Then came social media, and the whole world of information overload and confusion reached critical-mass and detonated leaving mere fragments of typing left to fall like a fog over the unread books.

I joined a few social media forums in the past year to see how the questions were asked and answered: it caused laughter and cynicism in the same moment.
Many of the answers were contradictory or self-serving. Even thoughtful responses to questions or inquiries only lasted a day or so, and then someone asked the same question again, getting a different answer.

Then the inherent problem occurred to me.

Not only were the internet and social media venues not durable as far as a source of information such as a book, it was that by attempting to crowd-source the answers that the questioner ran afoul.

The person answering the query could be a knowledgeable angler with vast experiences, an open mind, and with good critical-thinking skills… or it could be some dude who caught a fish and now thinks he is a guide. The answers could come from independent sources unbiased as to brand, or from somebody with a brand entanglement such as the ubiquitous ‘Brand Ambassadors,’ or ‘Pro-Staff.’ Believe it or not, some companies actually pay people to provide gear advice on social media forums. It goes without saying that the answers are not unbiased, and the employing company’s brand is recommended each and every time. The worst thing is that the beginner, without a foundation of knowledge, can’t tell a good answer from a bad, inaccurate, or misleading one.

Do an experiment. Join a social media forum on fly-fishing and ask a ‘newby’ type question. Save the good, the bad, and the ugly answers you get. Now wait a week and ask the same question again, perhaps in a different way. Note the answers, and compare them with one another.

I bet my oldest and stinkiest fishing hat that you will shake your head.

That is what new anglers are facing if they don’t get their gear from a reliable flyshop after asking appropriate questions and doing a bit of homework, and staying away from the noise of confusion. If not, they might become one of the competitors in a fly-fishing team competition recently held. Two of the anglers spent twenty minutes arguing about whose fly-rod was better. Then one broke his rod while the other one dropped his tactical modular gear storage system into the river.

My advice to the thousands of anglers I have taught to cast and fish a fly has always been this:


“Go to a flyshop. Get a matching rod, line and reel, a few leaders and a box of flies and go fishing for God’s sake. Put in your time. Stay off the internet and don’t look at any ads. Less information in the short-term will benefit you in the long run. Learn to walk first in your diaper stage before you get all tangled up in the underwear of too much confusion and stuff, and end up placing your new outfit into the closet along with all the other abandoned dreams…”