Before Recreation Became Sport
In a world where fly fishing has become a lifestyle rather than a way to catch a few fish, it has become increasingly difficult to cast without casting judgment.
Long before A River Runs Through It ran through our rivers and created a fly-fishing stampede, I had a childhood friend with whom I would walk down to the Yellowstone and cast flies. It was fun, and we caught some fish- mostly whities, but there were no bank-side judges back then telling us only trout were fine fare, nor were there the all-too-common fashion aficionados we have now either. We were just two kids having a good time, catching fish. We donned T-shirts or tank tops and cut-offs; Gore-Tex was a long time in the future, and we were primarily warm-weather dry-fly guys anyhow. A trip to Dan Bailey's was heavenly: a chance to see the fish in the tank they had back then, and enough espionage took place that when we went back home we could tie a few of the patterns we had secretly put to memory.
Life was simple, it was fun, and no one cared whether fish were taken on flies or spinners or worms, like now; as if your seven-year-old daughter's five-pound brown on a fat night crawler is somehow less dignified than a measly five-inch golden from some headwaters taken on a size 22 Adams. Because of this system that judges the stylistic preferences of what is, and will only ever be, a recreational pursuit, my friend can no longer fly fish. Several years back he made it a New Year's resolution along with never drinking another imported microbrew, and he's hooked more fish and had fewer headaches ever since.
I went the other way. I fell in love with the piles of gear for fly fishing. It was like the Simms/Patagonia/Sage/Winston/Clacka Craft/ Ross marketer had painted a premium-priced bull's-eye dead center on me. I mean, if one $600 rod was good, certainly a half dozen must be great, and since you can't wade these western waters as effectively as you can float them, throw in a couple of drift boats while you're at it. Waders might as well come in six-packs, because when you're outside the boat you need a pair for every single weather event and water type, right? T-shirts were no longer acceptable; the only decent attire comes with three-digit pricing. And certainly the fish have evolved beyond slurping those size-12 Royal Wulffs you grew up using.
Today only tiny and $30-a-dozen works. I have never questioned the argument that as many, if not more fish, can be (and certainly are) caught by more people for a hell of a lot less money. Still, I love it. But I can't help noticing a few irritating attitudes, and people for that matter, sharing the water. So to help understand the different quirks and downright feisty sorts that are out there in the world of fly fishing now, I've created a little scale.
The Humble Nymphers
I am, by choice, damned to this lowest position on the scale. There is no intention among members of this level to do much else except try and catch fish; the holier-than-thou thing doesn't work down here. If you cannot relate so far, breathe a deep sigh as you are either a spin fisherman not afflicted with this sickness or you're on a higher, more politically correct fly-fishing plane. The nymph-only guy like me knows dry flies but just doesn't see the need to use them until they really start to produceâ€” Mother's Day Hatch, Salmon fly time on the Big Hole, cloudy April baetis explosions, or the hopper season. Our vocabulary includes some Latin too; we just missed the part where using it became a contest. We also fish all winter long. Enough said.
The next and more enviable level is composed of "noncommittal" fishermen. These guys catch fish all morning long on a double rig, and at the mere rumored sighting of something winged, will switch to a dry. They may not catch another fish all day but will not go back to nymphing. Long, tight loops for the judges and being closer to the fishing gods are important now. These achievers are not committed solely to catching fish; they're also committed to dressing, talking, and being seen as the fly fishing achievers they are. The members of this group catch a lot of fish, but they pass many more over in order to achieve something in the aesthetic realm, or some other completely irrelevant BS.
Another rung up the ladder gets us to the Specialist. Streamers are hot, you say? With deer or elk hair? Is that a PMD? The light grey, or the slightly charcoal? Oh, a heather olive? Don't know what that color is, exactly, but I definitely have it here. A size 24? Even better.
These folks travel and are really at the core of a successful year for any fly shop. If anyone in the know offers any "specialty" advice, these gents purchase the patent. In the bird-hunting world this is the territory where the "pointers only" mentality emerges. The specialists have an ideal vision of what is to take place and strive only for that cast or fish or whatever it is they want to see.
What Would Jesus Fish?
And that brings us to the purest and highest achiever in the fly fishing world, our gold medalist, the elite, the famous "Dry-Fly Fisherman." And by dry-fly fisherman, I mean dry flies exclusively by absolute free and clear choice, not beginner's luck. These guys make me smile and sometimes even belly laugh into the late hours.
Unless there is some awesome prolific hatch, these ladies and gentlemen leave 90% of all fish unscathed, ready to be caught by us lesser souls who enjoy doing so. Don't worry about this group taking up any river space during winter, because that's a barbarous time to fish, and catching really isn't the primary goal at this level anyhow.
Let's face it, these are the people who are better than most of us. Why? It has little to do with money, although the rich are well represented here. Rather, it's evolution. This highest level in the fly fishing world belongs to people who no longer regularly catch fish. They've evolved to a spiritual level above "fish catching" to pure fishing, whatever the hell that might be.
They pay an extremely high price though, because I think I feel their disdain, if not outright hate, as my eight-year-old daughter lands fish on nymphs and less-than-perfect-looking casts while their guides smile and maybe even wickedly laugh inside. And I see a black aura that must reflect the internal anguish from their conscious choice to become god-like while mere mortals catch fish.
But mostly I see a system that sets these higher-ups up to fail. Somehow someone decided that recreation needed to be elevated to sport-sport in the Old World tradition with a self-righteous and pompous air to it all. And the cost was a swift kick in the ass to fishing, because it has lost the innocence and magic it held when we weren't keeping score.
I'm not so foolish to believe that some dry-fly guys don't catch a gob of fish; it's just that thinking you're better because of how you choose to fish is sort of sad and pathetic, and damned funny too at times. Especially funny when those kids just keep on catching.