Midwest Today, July 1992 and March 1994
Fly fishing is beautiful to watch. It is graceful, lyrical - a sheer joy just to do. The long rod is raised, slowly at first and then with increasing speed. A sudden pause sends the line arching past the rod tip and looping far behind the angler, straight as an arrow. Then just as the line extends to the fullest, the forward stroke begins and starts the line moving in the other direction, moving with increasing speed, until it rockets past the caster, turns over, and sets the fly down on the surface of the water as delicately as an alighting snowflake.
After a suitable interval and with a sizeable combination of skill and luck, there is the rise of the fish to a floating fly. It may be a savage swirl or a subtle sip. It may come unexpectedly or only after long observation and patient fly selection. A fish has been fooled with an artifice and cunning presentation, but having achieved and thrilled to the excitement of the strike and fight, the fisherman releases his catch for another matching of wits on another day.
Such are the pleasures and rewards of this haute sport, which has been around since before the time of Christ, was refined by the British during the 19th century, and is being conquered by present-day Japanese with their typical verve. Many upwardly mobile as well as famous Americans, including sportsmen in the Midwest, have developed an intense interest in this type of angling in recent years.
According to one survey, there are about 500,000 hard-core fly fishermen in the U.S., for whom the sport is a way of life. A million more consider themselves "serious" about the sport, and as many as 5 million are "casual" participants.
As any devotee will tell you, fly fishing is not just another method of collecting fish. It has been described as the ultimate movable feast of sport. You can carry its degrees of difficulty as far into the sublime as you wish, all the way to fine cane rod-making or salmon fly-tying. Or you can assume the role of voyeur and travel to exotic locales where the scenery is beautiful and the fish are abundant and easy to catch. You can become a social fisherman if you choose, fishing the pleasant evening rises and savoring steam-side stories over a fine meal in a well-appointed lodge. Or you can return to your childhood - when dunking worms in small brooks for the tug of tiny trout was fun - by fishing small waterways, catching and releasing trout as you go.
Writes Paul N. Fling, author of the "Fly Fisherman's Primer," "Fly fishing is the joy of joys! It transcends all of the societal barriers of age, status and wealth." Or, as Arnold Gingrich once said, it's "just about the most fun you can have standing up."
Yet not all anglers are happy about what they see as the over-refinement of fly fishing. As Stephen J. Bodio writes in "Confessions of a Catfish Heretic": "I fear that my old pastime has become the blood sport of urbanites and vegetarians, so refined that somebody who actually eats fish is considered to be as spooky and recidivist as a cannibal."
Certainly, when it comes to fly fishing, the usual rules of angling just don't apply. Athletic prowess and brute strength do not count for much. Aggressiveness is less important than patience and persistence. Fly fishing is, in many ways, a contemplative enterprise that paradoxically seems to appeal most profoundly to people of action.
Even the most hardened spirit will be refreshed after some time spent in the fly fishing world of cold and pure flowing water, rocks and waterfalls; or quiet streams often nestled in meadows strewn with wildflowers.
Then there are the elegantly-colored fish, their sides flecked with vermilion dots and golden coronas - bright but never gaudy - which nature has blessed with the temperament and instinct that make them challenging.
Fortunately, the skills of fly fishing can be acquired in a short time, and yet you can always improve your technique, no matter how many years of experience you have.
What Is a Fly?
Although the origins of the sport are not clear, it seems obvious that at some point someone saw fish feeding on insects, tried to use the insects as bait, found them too fragile, and decided to tie materials on a hook as a substitute for the real thing.
Thus a fly is a hook around which has been wrapped feathers and maybe fur, in any of about 30,00 proven patterns, which are intended to represent something that fish will think is edible. Since the fly is the thing that fools the fish, it is tied with care and precision. There is an art to it; some tiers have built reputations and their work is collected and exhibited. The flies have exotic names like Gold-ribbed Hare's ear Nymphs, Green Drake Hatch, Royal Coachman, Girdle Bug and the Rat-faced MacDougal! The more successful angles have become interested in entomology and the exact imitations of stream insect life.
There are all levels of flies, including streamers and backtails, plus the two most common - wet flies and dry. (Wet go under water, where fish may mistake them for immature or drowned insects, or small baitfish. The dry fly floats on the surface and imitates a hatching insect. In the pecking order of fly fishers, dry is higher, snobbier, more difficult and more fun).
Since the flies weigh very little, they cannot be cast with ordinary fishing tackle. In fly fishing, it is the line that provides the casting weight (not the spinner, plug or live bait). That's why lines are thicker and heavier and why fly roads are generally longer and have a different flexing action than those used by other fishermen (thus requiring learning a whole new technique).
Because most fly angling is of the catch-and-release variety, certain skills regarding the use of barbless hooks must be mastered. This is to assure that a hook can be slipped out of the trout's mouth without a rough, wet wrestling match that could otherwise injure the fish.
Good anglers also learn patience and approach, never wading out into the current before analyzing a stream - its depth, main flow-path, eddies, submerged obstructions, shallows on the surface, flotsam going by, overhanging banks and foliage, water temperature, levels and fly hatches.
They learn how to "read" the water, and detect the location of fish in such areas as a "shelving riffle," "broken-water run," a "center-current pool," and the "one or two-boulder pool."
Fly rodders also look for the presence and study the behavior of various insects of interest to feeding trout. This requires keen observation because some, such as Pale Morning Duns, are delicate mayflies the size of a grain of rice, which float down-river like diaphanous little sailboats.
Other species of fish have also become objects for the fly angler's interest.
For instance, smallmouth bass, like the trout, prefer swift streams with rocky bottoms and feed freely on insects. Even more than the trout, the smallmouth is an explosive and tenacious battler and its tendency to jump when hooked endears it to fly rodders.
The members of the sunfish and panfish family are also good quarry for the fly rod fisherman. Bluegills in particular are favorites, and they can be caught readily on dry flies. A husky bluegill turning its side to the current can put a good bend in any freshwater fly rod and make for a downright thrill on light tackle. The fine eating qualities make them popular, plus they reproduce so rapidly they can be taken home in large numbers with a clear conscience.
Tarpon, sailfish, marlin and many other saltwater species have fallen to the long rod as well. While saltwater fly fishing usually requires specialized tackle, some saltwater species can be taken on trout equipment. But be forewarned: Charles Ritz, the late chairman of the Ritz hotel, once commented, "Saltwater fly fishing is for men with hard stomachs - like sex after lunch."
A constant search for new fishing opportunities, new trout streams and new game fish to pursue with a fly rod, cause anglers to look upon their sport as something more than a pastime or hobby. To them, it's a calling. Fly fishing reaches out, beyond the hours on the stream, to occupy far more of one's life than other sports. There is the mystique of it all, the beautiful rods and flies, the traditions and the literature, the fellowship with fishing chums.
It's also good exercise. Unlike other fishermen, fly anglers most often fish on foot, and they usually must cover considerable ground.
What you need
Obviously, fly anglers need more than a rod, reel, line, leader and flies to be successful. They need special equipment for wading, and they need various gadgets and accessories that will make their time astream more productive and pleasant. The tools of fly fishing account for another part of its appeal and there is almost certain to be a tackle shop near most major trout streams. At the better ones, there will likely be a fly-tying bench, a place to sit and read a fishing magazine, abundant advice and things for sale.
A fly fisherman doesn't have to wear designer labels or own expensive gear. But an angler who wants the works will need a lot of green. To be appropriately equipped, the discriminating sportsman will want: insulated waders ($100); leather boots, $85; a fancy shirt, preferably in scarlet, with elaborate flies embroidered on the pocket, $45; crimson felt hat crimped at the brim, $30; fly fisherman's vest, $60; graphite fly rod and reel, $80 to $200 or more; aluminum fly rod case, $40; leader material, $18 to $32; floating line, $10 to $30; clippers, $4; flies, $1.25 to $2.50 each (need at least a dozen); fly box, $14; net (for optimists) $14 to $30; bamboo creel, $40.
Still, beneath the fishing gear and techniques of the sport lie many of the feelings and experiences that give fly fishing its appeal. As writer Geoffrey Norman put it, "For all of its immediate payoffs and the many ways in which it satisfies the senses, fly fishing for trout has a way of making the angler consider the future and commit himself to the oldest and best hope of all - renewal. You can't ask more than that of any sport."
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