Introducing Fly Fishing

Hypnotized by the seeming endless flats

May 22, 2002

There was a man with a stick… and water. I think.
No, first there was the water and then a man… with a stick. Yes, with a stick.
The man waved the stick at the water for a while and then gently touched the water with the tip. The water parted…
After a while the man stopped running and yelling and acting crazy. He walked out of the water, which had long since closed again. How did he do that, I wondered – part the water with a stick?

Saltwater fly fishing is like that. It’s weird and wonderful, and before all the Saturday morning TV shows, YouTube channels, blogs, pod-casts, and Fly Fishing Video road shows about it most people just wondered why we were waving those sticks at the sea. “Dude, there are no bugs in the ocean.” Fair enough (even if not strictly true); after all, fly fishing had its origins on English streams and the quarry there was trout. Cold, beautiful, spotted trout: the stuff of dreams. The thing is, they eat bugs. Well, they eat other things too, including smaller trout, but there seems to be times when bugs are all they’ll eat. And of course fishermen had to figure how to catch them at those times. I imagine it began when some enterprising soul caught a bug, stuck it on a hook, and flicked it out where the fish were rising and bang. Fish on!

Eventually other materials were tied to the hook instead of actual bugs, and anglers could then catch several trout before adding more “bait”. These counterfeit bugs were called “flies” and for several hundred years were commonly made of fur and feathers, and the rods were solid branches, more poles than rods. These evolved into split cane bamboo rods, silk lines, and “cat gut” leaders. In contemporary fly fishing culture (vintage minded, bamboo slinging aficionados aside) these primitive tools have given way space-age graphite rods, PVC lines, rust proof composite alloy hooks, polypropylene dubbing, and a whole plethora of angling paraphernalia to help us catch a few fish… and then gently revive and release them.

Now that I come to say it, I guess that is pretty weird.

For the beginner, the total neophyte, the whole thing can seem incredibly complex – like you need a Masters Degree in fly fishing just to understand the language. Walk into the average fly shop and you’ll find hooks from size 32 to 6/0 (guess which is bigger), rods from 1 to 16-weight, floating, wet-tip, intermediate, and fast-sinking lines to match, UPF 50+ shirts to protect your back, Kevlar boots to protect your feet, and $300 impact resistant polarized glasses to protect your eyes, and a smorgasbord of gadgets and gizmos limited only by the fisherman’s imagination (which, judging by the stories they tell, is pretty damn large). By the time all’s said and done, it seems that you’ve got to carry more gear than the average Marine. Of course, you don’t actually need all that gear, and I think that in the end fishing is as simple or complicated as you make it. Stick a few spare flies under the sweatband of your cap, roll up a few feet of spare leader, and you can while away an afternoon on the flats, uncluttered by excess junk. Sadly, we fly fishers suffer from the same affliction that makes all anglers compulsively collect more gear than they’ll ever need. I’ve never known one that could leave a fly shop empty handed… and I’m no exception.

At its core, however, fly fishing should be less complicated than its relatives, not more [1]. Take the basic gear, for example. There’s a rod, reel, and line. They may be an expensive rod, reel and line, but that doesn’t change the fundamentals of the whole thing: it’s still basically a stick, a spool and some string. That’s it.

If you’re starting out or thinking about getting into fly fishing (and assuming this little essay doesn’t turn you off completely), all you need to know about rods is they come in different sizes and casting one takes some learning – whether it costs five hundred dollars or fifty. Choosing a rod when you’re starting off can be tough. The most common piece of advice regarding choosing a fly rod is to go out and cast it (which is hardly useful when you don’t know how to cast). This may take some trust on your part; just try to stop short of breaking the bank or letting the fly-shop guy convince you that more expensive is the same thing as better. The main thing is to pick a rod that matches the conditions and environment you’ll be fishing in. If, like so many, you’ll be starting off on your local stream or river for bass or trout, then a five-weight is probably about right. It’ll easily handle the small flies you’ll be casting for those fish. If, however, you’re starting out on the salt (or you’re looking to take a salty expedition to the coast somewhere) you’ll likely want an eight-weight, which will help you handle the bigger, heavier flies you’ll be throwing for redfish, bonefish, stripers, or snook – the typical fare of most marine fly fishing.

Lines also come in different sizes or weights; just match yours to your rod. Again, this can get pretty complicated if we start discussing grain weights and shooting heads and what have you, but basically you want to match the size of the rod with the line. An eight-weight rod takes an eight-weight line, and so on.

The reason fly lines come in different sizes isn’t because you need different lengths, but because you need different weights [2]. Unlike conventional gear – “normal” stuff like spinning reels or baitcasters – where the weight of the lure pulls line off the reel, in fly fishing it is the opposite: the weight of the line is what takes the lure out. This is because instead of the heavy lures or baits of typical fishing, flies are practically weightless (consisting, after all, of little more than a hook with a few bits of fur, feathers, or plastic sparkle lashed to it). Most of what you’re casting is the weight of the hook, which you could barely cast a couple feet on the lightest spinning rig. So, fly lines are much heavier than the practically weightless monofilament fishing lines you’re used to. In fact, they’re heavy enough to bend your fly rod when you make a cast. In point of fact, the line itself is what you cast in fly fishing. The fly just goes along for the ride. The reason there are different weights of line is to bend different size rods. Each weight rod has been designed to bend optimally under a certain amount of weight, which corresponds to the weight of a matching line. You get the idea.

Today’s fly reels are amazing. Most are machined (CNC milled) from solid aluminium bar-stock and boast composite drags, corrosion resistant anodized surfaces, large arbors, and a host of other advances over their twentieth century counterparts. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, they are still the simplest of tools: a spool with a handle. Turned the handle and line wraps around the spool. The opposite is true: when the line is pulled off the spool the handle spins in the opposite direction [3]. The retrieve ratio of your standard fly reel is 1:1. This means that there are no gears involved with retrieving line – one turn of the handle equals one coil of line retrieved. This is a major difference from spinning and bait casting reels, whose innards are loaded with machinery that gives retrieve ratios as high as 6:1. Most of us would know as much about the insides of these contraptions as we would about the transmission on the family mini-van.

Here’s the snag in all this, though. I’ve been spending the last few paragraphs (ok, pages) trying to convince you how simple fly fishing is. Thing is, though, simplicity aside, it’s much harder to master than regular old, dunk-a-worm, toss-a-lure fishing. But we’ll get to that in a moment. I want address the aura of sophistication and general high-brow attitude we fly fishers are accused of. What makes fly fishing seem more complicated to the layman is the regrettable tendency of some of its practitioners to use language that renders the whole exercise inaccessible. It’s what gives fly fishing the unpleasant glaze of elitism, or snobbery, if you will. While the rest of the world is just going fishing, with maybe a few worms or shiners for bait, fly fishers are discussing the scientific name of the bugs the trout are eating today (whether it’s the Ephemeroptera Drunella grandis or Ephemeroptera Drunella dodsi), whether they’re a #16 or #18, a pale greenish gray, or a bluish, rusty gray and what dubbing would best represent that – muskrat or leech yarn. The average angler overhearing all this says, “Come on. Let’s just go fishing.”

Well said.

Now, back to that aspect of fly fishing that I mentioned as living up to its reputation for difficulty: the cast. New casters are bewildered by the thick, ropey line that fly casters whip back and forth. Though the principle is simple, for most of us making the smooth effortless casts like the professionals on Saturday morning ESPN (or even the guy behind the counter at the fly shop) can seem about as feasible dunking a basketball or hitting a fast ball from a professional pitcher. Something so physical is extremely difficult to effectively explained with words, so I’m not going to even try. Just remember: you don’t cast a fly line, you unroll it. Just meditate on that for a while.

Also remember that casting is fun, and gives you something to do between bites. So long as you’re casting you’re fishing, at least theoretically. The feeling of the line in the air, floating, hovering effortlessly, and the rod as it loads and unloads in your hand is reward enough for the first few days on the water. Catching a few fish becomes a bonus [4]. But, you have to be able to cast at least a little in order to fish at all, and that means you have to get instruction somewhere. No worries, though, that same fly shop guy who helped you pick out your rod will gladly sign you up for a few casting lessons as well. Or, you could watch pixelized YouTube® video tutorials for free, drop like 20 dollars on an instructional DVD, (or use Jedi mind control on the fly shop guy so he throws in a few casting lessons gratis… which he’s much more inclined to do if you spring for one of the high-end sticks). Whatever the case, just get out there and go at it. After that it’s merely a matter of practice… so you’ll have to go fishing a lot.

Now, between that moment when you’ve finally “got the hang of” basic fly casting and the moment when you catch your first actual fish a lot of time can go by. So, it’s not surprising that you might be drawn into contemplating what it means to actually be fishing. I mean, here you are with a rod, line, lure and hook out on the water and (as far as you can tell) you’re performing the act of fishing. But if you’re not catching fish (like at all), then what are you really doing? Most types are fishing are simply about catching fish. That’s it. Anybody can pick up a spinning rod and send a lure or bait a hundred feet. With a little practice one can even do that with some accuracy. I mean, most of us have been throwing things since we were children, and that’s basically what spin casting is: throwing. The difference between an expert caster and a beginner might be great, but the beginner can usually still get the bait to the fish. If the situation is right, say soaking shrimps for redfish in a channel, anybody can catch fish. All they have to do is get the bait far enough from the boat. After that it’s up to the fish to find it.

Fly fishing is based on a different premise. Merely catching fish is not the ultimate goal. It seems to me that what modern fishing technology has done is take much of the activity of fishing out of the way of simply catching fish. The sport itself, the practice of fishing, has been reduced to filling a cooler or bag limit, or getting the hero-shot photograph with that big, dripping lunker. I think fly fishing tries to reinject fishing with that lost quality that is arguably the most desirable: experience. In fly fishing the focus is wider, broader than merely catching fish. It is not simply a matter of you and the fish, but also of the cast (back-cast and fore-cast with an eye on the shrubbery or people on the beach), the vagaries of current and tide, the behavior of the bait (which you must imitate from several meters away by imparting the precise series of twitches, hops or jigs to your fly), and fighting the fish if you do hook up. Each challenge is an opportunity to deepen and widen the experience of fishing.

After a while you begin to notice something strange: catching fish has become a secondary consideration to fishing well. How you stalk, cast to and play a fish provides enough incentive to keep you coming back. In the end you find that your best days on the water are no longer measured by how many or how big, but by how well. And we find, if we’re lucky, hope: hope that someday we might become that guru, that sage of the rivers or seas that can part the water with a stick, and find the mysteries inside.
1 It’s noteworthy that the average fisherman, however, can’t seem to see beyond the vague patina of elitism that seems to overlay the entire sport. I mean, while everyone else is just going fishing, fly fisherman are arguing about the Latin names of the bugs they’re trying to imitate, or debating the virtues of a Huffnagel knot versus a Double Blood for a tarpon leader. I think you’ll admit that’s a pretty far cry from “I just stuck a bug on a hook and flicked it out there.” [back]
2 In fact, fly rods, reels and lines are often referred to by weight, as in: “I was fishing a six-weight at the time, which in retrospect was a little light for the monster bones they’ve got over there. Every time I hooked into one it felt like I’d snagged a windsurfer… fun’r’n hell, though.” [back]
3 This means the handle rotates and fingers should be kept out of the way. A mathematician friend of mine once calculated the rpm’s of a three-inch diameter reel with a bonefish running flat out on the other end at something like 2,500 rpm’s. A guy could lose a fingernail or explode a knuckle on something like that. The only exception to this is with anti-reverse reels which, depending on who you talk to, are either the greatest or worst invention ever to hit fly fishing. [back]
4 This is where I’m starting to lose you, right? Please, just don’t even say it. Of course catching fish is the explicit purpose of fishing. Just keep reading and I’ll get to that in a minute. [back]

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