Friday, February 17, 2017

A Little Humility

False Dichotomies in Fly Fishing

My good friend Dave has a lot of great tales to tell, taken from a lifetime of fishing his home waters in Northern Michigan, all over the US, and the world. He also dedicated a lot of his life to conservation, in particular through his involvement with Trout Unlimited, having served on state and national councils.

One of my favorite stories Dave told is how TU, at least in Michigan, had started to go off track. A lot of the membership were upset about fly anglers using the Clouser Minnow. This newfangled fly, they argued, was little more than a jig pretending to be a fly. They wanted it literally outlawed, at least from fly water. Dave came in and helped reset the tone and vision for TU- that they weren’t out to define what fly fishing was or wasn’t, but that TU needed to stay focused on protecting and promoting clean, clear water, and wild trout. He saw petty squabbling about which flies were really flies for what it was- a distraction. Something that takes away from, rather than adding to the sport or the conservation mission of Trout Unlimited.

The world of fly fishing is rife with opinions and factions. I’m sure there are some who still dislike Clouser minnows, despite their (and Mr. Clouser) having achieved legendary status among most fly anglers. I’ve heard a variety of statements about different forms of fly fishing such as:

-         Tenkara isn’t really fly fishing. (and proponents insist it is a purer form).
-          If you use egg flies you might as well use bait.
-          Articulated streamers and streamers with multiple hooks are really lures and should be outlawed in fly water.
-          Spey or Skagit style “swinging” for steelhead is the purest way to pursue them. Never mind almost no one had heard of it in the US 30 years ago.
-          Chuck and duck (bottom bouncing) isn’t fly fishing.
-          Nymphing is dirty.
-          Dry flies are the only right way to fly fish.
-          Mousing isn’t fair and should be outlawed.
-          Indicators are bobber fishing and don’t belong in the fly world.

I could probably go on but you get the point.

There is definitely a place for purism in fly fishing. There is nothing more beautiful than having people who are so passionate about the sport, that they take it, improve it, make it even more beautiful than it was before. They focus on one part of the sport that they love and elevate it to an art form.

Consider fly tying. My skills at the vise are rudimentary at best. But there are hundreds of people out there who are passionate tyers, and new and improved versions of flies are coming out all the time. When I see beautiful creations like the shaved deer hair flies of guys like Steven Wascher, or the original work by Northern Michigan tyer John Sheets, I shake my head and marvel. My tying is functional- my flies catch fish. Their flies are an art form.

You can say ditto for all the passionate people out there working at different aspects of this sport. The rod builders, reel designers, artists, gear manufacturers, boat builders, casting instructors, fishing instructors, guides and outfitters. All focused on one aspect of the sport, improving it, making it better because they ARE purists.

There is also nothing uglier than when people are so passionate about what they do and believe in, that they denigrate others who do not do or feel the same way they do. They begin to see their pursuit of the sport as the only “right” way. The others just don’t get it. They snub people who don’t see things their way.

Starting out fly fishing, all of us are excited just to catch a fish, or even to make a decent cast. All of us are in one of these stages of the sport: first we just want to catch a fish, then we want to catch lots of fish, then we want to catch big fish, then we are just happy to be out there.

At some point it becomes easy for us to forget our own arc, our own learning curve, and become critical of how others learn, view, and pursue the sport. No matter how far down the rabbit hole we've gone, we forget all that came in between, the timeline of our own progress. For many of us it didn’t even begin with flies- we were bait fishermen, gear guys or gals. We ate fish. Some of us still do.

What is particularly distressing to see is when we become critical of others engaged in the legal pursuit of fish, whether this means that they still gear or bait fish, take home a legal limit of fish from time to time, or use methods and gear we personally find distasteful. In the age of social media it becomes an occasion to harass or bully people who don’t live up to our personal standard.

I haven’t personally used a worm on a trout stream since I was a kid (I fished spinners for years), but as long as they are legally practicing the sport, I’m not going to criticize bait fishermen. If I want them to respect my pursuit of fish, then I have to respect theirs. There are times when a worm out-fishes everything, but what I’ve come to recognize is that fly fishing is a far more natural way to present an offering, and I believe firmly that on most days I out-fish bait fishermen. But I still respect their legal right and even ethical basis to fish the way they do.

The same goes for eating fish. I have nothing to say to anyone who keeps a fish as long as it is legal to do so. Fish are still good food, and it was the pursuit of food that brought humans to the rivers in the first place. How fishing got so far off-track that some would denigrate others for keeping fish is beyond me. Catch and release fishing can be a powerful conservation tool, but it is no panacea, and not everyone (including the country of Germany) agrees with the ethics of hurting fish for our entertainment and letting them go. We all have to live with ourselves at the end of the day, and if releasing fish makes you feel better, that’s your choice, but it is up to state wildlife agencies to monitor fish populations and set limits. The harassment on social media of anglers who legally keep fish is really ugly, and undermines our sport far more than the fish that angler kept.

Fly fishing has always had a reputation for elitism and purism. For some it is what draws them to the sport, for a lot of other people it is what puts them off. Some come to the sport wanting to challenge themselves, learn new skills, or fish in what they see as a more natural manner, appealing to the natural feeding patterns of the fish rather than just fishing a worm or spawn. Others like the feeling of being in an exclusive club. Whatever your motivations, don’t ever forget your roots, or the roots of the sport. No matter how deep you go into the sport, or how esoteric your pursuit, don’t forget that in the end we’re all just fishing. A little humility can go a long way, especially if we want to promote the sport or draw others to it.

Fly fishing needs that. It needs humility, it needs to continually draw new people. The fish and the rivers need it as well, and in the current climate of political hostility toward clean water, natural resources and public lands, fly fishing needs to link arms with sportsmen and women of all stripes. We certainly won’t prevail if we are taken down internally because of petty squabbles over our personal views of fly fishing, and especially if we think we are too good to show respect to others engaged in their lawful and ethical pursuit of the outdoors.

sometimes what matters are the simple joys of being out there


  1. Well put, Jason. sadly, we need to be reminded all too often.

    1. Yeah, I need it too sometimes. I constantly remind myself it's just fishing.

  2. Jason, I believe that the purest form of fly fishing is when you have gone past the more fish, big fish mode and are just happy to be alive and out there fishing. Nice read because you nailed it.

    1. Thanks Howard. I'm rapidly entering that last phase. Just glad to be out there.

  3. Good post, indeed. As much as I'd like to have the water all to myself it's anglers of all ilk, in numbers, that will work to keep that water healthy and thus we'll all enjoy it. Yeah, good post.