When broken down to its essence, the aim of any angler is, chiefly, to fool a fish. Whether we use a hard plastic jerk bait, a hand-tied fly that could fit on the head of a pencil eraser, or a chunk of chicken liver pinned to the bottom of a river channel, all anglers are essentially trying to entice a fish to eat not the bait, but the hook. Whether we harvest the fish, mount it as a trophy, or release it to go do more fishy things is inconsequential. We know there are far more effective methods of catching fish; gill nets, traps, even bowfishing all produce more lucrative results. But, there is something about the challenge of tricking a wild animal that we prefer over brute force. In the end, anglers are all pranksters, the ultimate practical jokers. Every fishing technique we learn and attempt to master aids in our ploy. All the expensive equipment, the rods and reels and lines and boats and electronics, are simply part of our ruse. We live for the moment the fish bites, for then, and only then, do we know our prank succeeded. The tug is the drug.
So, in order to discuss what makes fly fishing unique, we must begin with this premise: a fly fisherman must first be an angler, not just a fisherman. This suggests, as stated before, he must first be a person who is most concerned with fooling, or enticing, a fish to eat his hook rather than just bringing it to hand. But to be a fly fisherman (and I will use this term from this point hence, rather than the gender neutral “fly fisher,” not as a misogynistic statement, but to avoid the awkwardness of the pronoun inadequacies inherent in English – “his/her” is so unpoetic), is to be a particular type of angler. This is where it gets dicey. All anglers use rods and reels and lines and baits in their endeavours. This is where the term “angler” came from: it denotes the angle the rod and the line form in relation to the water while fishing as well as the use of a hook to “angle,” or deceive, fish. But a fly fisherman is unique in his methods, in the way he approaches angling. And since it is not the purpose that differentiates him, we must focus on the approach, on the method, on something more practical. We must begin where fish meets prankster, at the hook, the place where the fish gets the point.
To begin, a fly fisherman must use a “fly.” A fly is an imitation of a living food source tied or fastened to a hook. It is primarily made of non-metal materials and is too light to be cast using its own weight to load stored energy in a bent rod. Any metal used, other than the hook itself, is solely for the purpose of sinking the fly deeper into the water or to promote action or to emit sound during the retrieve. And if that is not enough, it is important to note a ”fly” is labeled a “fly” in places called “fly shops” – it is part of the name for Pete’s sake.
It stands to reason that since a fly fisherman uses a fly, he must also use a line specifically designed to add weight so the fly may be cast away from the him and into the area the fish are holding. (These are called “fly lines” and are also sold in places called “fly shops.” See a pattern forming?) And attached to this line is a leader that begins with a thick butt section to again add a stiff, weighted portion to help with casting, and tapers down to a diameter appropriate for presenting the fly to the fish while still being able to fool it into eating.
And, if a fly fisherman is using a fly, and it is tied to a leader which is attached to fly line, he must then use a rod specifically designed to utilize the weight of the line to cast the fly into the fish’s feeding zone. This rod is, again, tapered from thicker butt section to a more supple tip section and flexes in a manner that allows the line to be cast, thus enabling the fly to be presented to the fish so it might be fooled and the prank is successful.
The reel and other gear are all inconsequential to the definition, for their chief function is to simply assist in retrieval of the fish or the comfort of the angler – and there’s also Tenkara, one of the oldest methods of fly fishing, which does not utilize a reel at all. Anything that does not fit this definition is not fly fishing but some other form of angling or fishing. But this does not mean all fly fisherman are the same – no indeed. However, nearly all fly fishermen can be categorized into three distinct groups: Purists, Extremists, and Pragmatists – or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
The Good: The Purist
According to Dr. Andrew Herd, the British author of The History of Fly Fishing, the origin of the sport dates back to 200 AD in Rome where Macedonians attached red wool and feathers to a hook and lured fish in to be caught. The rods were made of solid wood and the line out of horsehair. There was no false casting and all fishing was done entirely below the surface. It was not until the mid-1800s in Great Britain that more flexible ash, willow, and juniper were utilized and “casting” the line came into play. It was shortly after, in the early 1900s, that split cane bamboo and dry fly techniques began to be perfected, signalling the birth of modern fly fishing and the popularity of sport fishing (fishing for the sole purpose of sport). And these men, the ones who were the godfathers of the sport, are the anglers from whom The Purist takes his cue.
The Purist is concerned with etiquette, grace, and style over results. He is more likely to prefer rods made of more traditional materials such as bamboo over graphite or fiberglass. However, if he does choose a rod that is graphite, he will search out the “classics”: a Scott G Series, a Sage RPL, or a Winston IM6. He wants to hold something historic in his hands because it is a connection to the past that he is searching for. He is also more likely to build his own rod – whether the blanks are graphite or bamboo – because he feels more connected to something that came from his own hands than off a rack. He is also very likely to have only one rod that is his prized possession… and he probably names it.
When it comes to flies, The Purist ties almost all his own and makes them out of traditional, natural materials (no foam or rubber here). He fishes dry flies almost exclusively because he knows the Brits and the Scots who defined our sport believed in fishing only on top and presenting flies only upstream. His fly box is generally made of metal and cork; his patterns are few but have stood the test of time – the Royal Wulff, the Coachman, the Adams.
He is the type of fly fisherman who ties his own leaders, wears felt-soled boots, and wears a wide-brimmed hat. His vest is cotton or waxed canvas and his waders, while patched and worn, have spent many years on the river. His vehicle is an old truck or Jeep that is faded and the seats are broken in, but it knows the way to the river. And the river he fishes he considers his “Home Waters,” and he almost never strays from its hallowed banks.
The Purist is no longer in search. He has found. He is connected with his antiquated brethren, those who invented, solved, perfected through trial and error. Through his self-chosen limitations he finds the peace of mind and fulfillment of soul he so desperately needs. And while his kind are becoming fewer and further between, his role is essential. He is the keeper of the traditions, the personifier of lore, and, above all, reminds us to be wary of straying too far from the original methods which gave birth to our pastime in our often lustful pursuit of angling pleasure.
The Bad: The Extremist
What if we just walk around the next bend, over that hill, into that valley, across that field? What if we added a new material to that fly, or got it to sink to the bottom? What if we put a longer handle on the rod, added three feet to it, cast it like this? What if we made that line, that rod, that reel out of this new material? What if we mastered all the techniques and then put our own wrinkle on them? Then what? Would we catch more fish, bigger fish, more exotic fish? Would we have more fun? What our stories be more fascinating? What would fly fishing be like if we pushed the limits just a bit more?
These are the questions that haunt the psyche of The Extremist. Yes, they are the bad boys – as in the James
Dean, Muhammad Ali, John McEnroe, and Kurt Cobain kind of bad. They frustrate The Purist because to him they seem disrespectful, ostentatious, and egotistical. But they are the explorers of the sport. Their job is to break down barriers and forge new territory, to see how far they can push the limits of the sport without sacrificing its integrity completely. They are athletes, thinkers, and they are obsessed.
The Extremist does not see tradition as a destination, yet they are profoundly knowledgeable of their roots. They have read John Gierach and Izaak Walton, they have learned from Lefty Kreh and Joan Wulff, they own copies of every guide book and instructional series they can get their hands on, and will listen intently to anyone who who can speak eloquently about the “Goold Old Days” as long as they can catch fish . However, they look at these institutions like the pebble dropped into the glassy surface of a lake, while they, The Extremists, are the ripples that break the peaceful monotony of the surface, seeing how far they can push before their energy depletes.
These bad boys will fish anywhere, anytime, under any conditions. They take the dare, pick up the gauntlet, and never ask “Why?” The Extremist does not, cannot, own only one rod simply because no one rod has ever been invented that can literally do it all. They will purchase anything from an $800 G. Loomis to a $150 TFO – in fact, they are more likely to own cheaper rods with good warranties because odds are they are going to get broken. They need short 2 weights for hiking into tight little streams with hundreds of brookies; 11-foot switch rods for big, western steelhead rivers; precise 4 weights for dry fly fishing to fish who are a bit more particular; and sturdy nymphing rods for temperamental tailwaters. They must be able to roll cast; Snap T; double haul; and mend, mend, mend. They know their rod and their cast will oftentimes define the limits to which they can go, and limits do not compute.
When it comes to flies, The Extremist is a walking fly shop. One box is never enough. They have representations of every life cycle of every major hatch they might encounter in various sizes and colors. They tie many of them, putting their own spins on traditional patterns, using any materials available – I once saw a friend catch a trout on a house key tied to a streamer hook! However, they find the temptation of a fly shop’s wares far too enticing to pass up. And they love to defy conventional wisdom with their fly choices. If someone says fish in Cheesman Canyon will only eat size 22 RS2s, The Extremist will throw a size 8 Pat’s Rubberlegs on 4X just to prove them wrong. And in the next moment he will use 7X and a size 26 midge emerger to land a big fish in a back eddy.
The Extremist is a gear whore in the end. Because he is fishing in every type of weather during every month of the year and might be hiking or climbing or floating to get to the best fishing spots, he must be well-equipped. The Extremist goes to fly fishing expos to cast all the new rods and to finger all the new materials. He has bookmarked every discount site on his computer and follows all the latest releases of new equipment. And while he is a loyalist to his favorite brands, he is also just as likely to give a newcomer a try “just in case,” for in the end, it is the functionality and price that matter most. And they will fish wherever there are fish. They will venture to famous rivers like The Test, prolific waters like The Yellowstone, and urban junk waters like the South Platte running through downtown Denver. They will fish for steelhead, trout, bass, carp, and pike with equal enthusiasm. Fishing is fishing and they will turn their noses up at nothing.
The Bad: the consummate all-around athlete of the fly fishing world – the mutt. His desires will never be satiated, his thirst for uncharted territory never slaked. He is youthful in spirit, aggressive by nature, and willing to give blood, sweat, and tears to push the borders of his sport. And while his eyes are always around the next bend in the river, he will occasionally glance over his shoulder to find The Purist just to remind himself where his spirit was born.
The Ugly: The Pragmatist
The Pragmatist is the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the fly fishing community. He skirts tradition. He scoffs at custom. He cares not about belonging, about being judged. His goal is simple: catch fish. And while he belongs in the community of fly fisherman, he has barely a foot in the ring. This Ugly cuss of a fisherman is not a sportsman, not that he breaks laws or is unethical. He is a harvester, the keeper of fish, a carnivore with a stick. His desire to fool is only a means to an end. He will use a fly rod and a fly if that is the best way to fill his stringer, but he will also stray into dirtier water.
The Pragmatist has one fly rod and it is cheap. It works. That is the bottom line. It is probably a sturdy 6 weight, an Eagle Claw, Pflueger, or even one of those rods that the grip flips around and becomes a spinning rod. He hasn’t changed his line since… well, ever, because it still is in good enough shape to land fish. His leader may be nothing more than some 12 pound monofilament tied to his line with an overhand knot. He doesn’t care about brand names or new technologies because they are just decoration to him.
And his flies are cheap – probably Wal-Mart versions – and basic. One box, five or six patterns, and he doesn’t know the names (nor does he care to). He has learned what works and that is what he is sticking to. And sometimes he doesn’t even use flies. He might use a soft plastic swimbait and a small jig hook made for casting gear, testing the limits of his rod as he chucks and ducks. He might tie a small spinner on or cast a bass popper. And, in some circumstances, use actual salmon eggs or night crawlers to nymph with or impale grasshoppers on bait hooks and drift them on top. He has no moral compass as long as it is legal and will fill his cooler. In fact he is likely to use a spinning rod as much as a fly rod being loyal not to method or ideology but to the pursuit of food.
He wears jeans and sneakers and a Carhart hat. He eats Velveeta sandwiches by the side of the river and drinks black coffee or Old Milwaukee to wash it down. If he sees you on the river he will most definitely ask you for information, specific information at that. He does not seek your approval or care what kind of equipment you use; he just wants dinner. The kill is the thrill.
And while The Pragmatist gets a very bad rap inside the arrogant confines of prissy fly shops, he serves a very important purpose. In this world where we are forced to make up games to demonstrate our primordial, innate survival skills, he is still an active practitioner. We often reject him because we do not like the cheap, hollow version of ourselves we see reflected back at us when we look at him. When we try to make meaning out of something that was designed to be utilitarian, we often take the shine off it, and the brilliance of fly fishing is not diminished by the pursuit of actual prey.
Yes, these categories are very general and are course descriptions of a very intricate and diverse fly fishing population. You may find yourself somewhere in between the lines. You may realize you are at times one and other times another. You may disagree completely with this characterization. However, it still stands that there are cliques within this community. There are tight circles of cronies who adhere to particular philosophies when it comes to the manner and purpose of fly fishing. But regardless of our approach, as the merry pranksters we are, we will always take pleasure in having the last laugh.
I wonder if in any endeavor we can break the adherents to the same similar categories. That is the beauty of hobbies and sports and activities: There is room for so many people of all levels and interests. What’s funny is the level of judgement that happens between the three.
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It’s also interesting to explore the things that influence why we feel the way we do about certain styles of angling. Why do I find it nearly impossible to harvest a trout, but would have no problem taking a salmon home for the smoker?