There is more than one way to catch a fish, and every one of them is easier than fly-fishing. In the end, though, no other style is more fascinating or spiritually satisfying than catching one on the fly.
Why else would people dedicate so much time learning how to cast a fly rod or tie a fly? Only something that is truly enjoyable would justify going to the effort of studying the life cycle of insects or the diet patterns of fish.
Fly-fishing requires mastering arcane skills and plenty of patience. But, it also offers the chance to embrace nature in a way unlike any other.
Neophyte fly-fishers face the basic challenges of learning the equipment and prey. But what begins as a pastime soon becomes a cause, as these men and women pursue their new passion with large amounts of time, effort, and resources. They are, in fact, starting an endless quest.
In the midst of learning new tactics, they often discover a rare sense of accomplishment. The pursuit is so intriguing that even days of little or no success on the water can be filled with enthusiasm and an eagerness to return.
In a 1958 Post article, Corey Ford describes the peculiar pleasures he found in fly-fishing.
“His satisfaction lies in dropping cocked at the head of run, and watching it ride back down the swift current, bobbing lightly over a riffle, gliding around a boulder; reversing its course and halting poised for an instant in a back eddy under the bank. If a trout happens to share his enthusiasm for the fly, well and good. The angler plays his adversary on a taut line until the fish is exhausted, and leads it carefully to shore. Then he kneels beside it and grips it firmly around the body—first wetting his hands so he will not damage its protective oily coating—and removes the barb from its upper lip. He holds the trout facing upstream a moment longer, until its gills begin to move regularly, and then he spreads his hand and watches it dart back into the current with a farewell flick of its tail.
“…the dry-fly angler does not come home empty-handed. His creel may be barren at the end of the day, but be brings back other things; the sound of running water and smell of wet rocks, the memory of a grouse drumming on a log, a beaver’s v-shaped wake as it crossed the pool, the sudden skirl of a kingfisher, like a winding reel. They will last longer than a fish curling in a pan.
“A friend of mine, an ardent purist, was challenged once by a golfing acquaintance as he turned loose a large trout he had just netted. ‘Why go to all that trouble to catch a fish,” the exasperated golfer demanded, ‘if you don’t want to eat it?’
“‘Do you eat golf balls?’ my friend inquired pleasantly.”
Fly-fishing is best known as a method for catching trout and salmon, but it can also be used for catching a wide variety of species: freshwater fish such as pike, bass, panfish, and carp, and marine species such as snook, tarpon, bone fish, and striped bass. A growing number of fly-fishers are broadening the number of species they pursue, using cold- and warm-water techniques.
Whether you are an amateur or an expert, the goal is not to catch the most fish. It is to gather rich memories and sharpen skills that apply to everyday life, like thought, planning, and dexterity.
Fishing has changed monumentally since the days when standard fare was a bamboo pole with a worm-baited line tossed into the water, “a jerk on one end of the line waiting for a jerk on the other,” as the sport has been playfully described.
Thirty years ago and more, locating fish required ingenuity and luck. Jerry Hayenga, a 74-year-old Minnesota fisherman, remembers how his teen buddies hooked a headlight to a car battery and rowed it out in a boat at night. “They shoved it under, with a funnel over the headlight to direct the beam, to spot walleyes in the shallows.”
Jerry Carlson’s grandfather found fish by “reading the wind.” The freelance writer and fishing columnist recalls that wind direction and the number of consecutive days blowing informed his grandfather where to set his line. “Rarely did we not have good success that way,” he says.
But today, the 59-year-old former fishing guide says you don’t even drop a line down unless you “see” fish. “You cruise the area first, watching the electronics — the fish finders, or sonars, as we prefer to call them — to determine if fish are there and how deep.”
Electronic fishing aids have become increasingly sophisticated. Sonars now include GPS (Global Positioning System). “When you find a good spot, punch a button, and you can save the location accurately within 3 feet,” Carlson says. In addition to boat location, sonars indicate water columns, bottom terrain, and water temperature; suggest trolling speed; provide views of fish around the boat; and offer weather threat matrix, a feature that allows sportsmen to fish longer with its “angler-friendly interpretation of weather conditions in your area.”
The electronics do pretty much everything except put the hook in the fish’s mouth. “It used to be that we might catch a couple of fish here and there,” Carlson says, “but with the new sonars, over a period of a few hours, we can pick up our limit of fish. [Yesterday] I watched my electronics and saw that the fish were at 15 to 17 feet near the weed line, which usually means they’re more aggressive. We caught our limit early and went home. The sonar makes one huge difference.” Only the fish don’t approve.
Poles, Rods, and Reels
Bamboo poles were the old rods of choice, cheap and long enough to allow anglers to toss a bobber out 15 to 18 feet from shore. Early manufactured fishing rods were merely 4-foot-long pieces of thin steel, recalls Ned Kehde, columnist for In-Fisherman magazine. “Those early rods and reels were not very castable. It took a lot of dexterity, and when you’re 8 years old, you aren’t very deft. My mother and father spent a lot of time taking backlashes [tangled lines due to spool run over] out of my reel.” Bait often was flung free of the hook, soaring far out into the lake.
“The rod was just stiff steel with no sensitivity at all,” Hayenga recalls. “Fighting a big fish was tricky, and you could get busted up or bloodied knuckles.” In comparison, modern rods and reels are ultra light with hugely improved casting ability.
Today’s rods are mostly made of graphite and designed to take tension off the line. Rods come in differing lengths and strengths: short and stout for trolling big-game fish; short and flexible for areas with limited casting (under trees); and long (up to 12 feet) for casting greater distances.
Reels come in spincast, enclosed to prevent backlash (one turn of the handle brings in several feet of line quickly); spinning, excellent for casting light lures and bait; and baitcast, used when heavy cover is targeted. The reels have centrifugal or magnetic drags to prevent backlash. Some are equipped with line counters so you know how much line is out.
What’s Your Line?
“In the old days, all we had was heavy, black, braided line the fish could see,” Hayenga says. “But you still caught fish.”
“You could catch big fish with it, but you couldn’t lift them out of the water,” Carlson says. Today, with the right line, you could reel in a 100-pound fish, and the choice of line can get complicated. Monofilament — clear or green — is the most common line and can be used anywhere. Super lines, fusion, and braided types are smaller strands put together to make one stronger line. Thin super lines are much stronger than monofilaments of the same thickness, and they have little stretch. Fluorocarbons look like monofilaments, but are all but invisible underwater. With very little stretch, they lead to better hook sets (lingo for hooking a fish).
“Fish have microscopic vision,” Jerry Carlson says, “so you can never entirely hide what you’re doing. But the less you show them, generally, the better success you’re going to have.”
Taking the Bait
“Fishing is the sport of drowning worms,” an unknown author once penned. That might have been true in the strictly-live-bait era.
“Bait was basically worms or minnows, but mainly worms,” Hayenga recalls. “You got worms or grub worms from manure piles and any kind of little minnow you could get, often little perch.”
“We seined minnows — just about as much fun as fishing — always found a few frogs, and went fishing,” Carlson says. Nightcrawlers were always good bait, and, in the 1970s, leeches made huge inroads. Still-popular baits include crickets, grasshoppers, salmon eggs, fish pieces, corn kernels, hot dog pieces, cheese, and dough balls. Meanwhile, artificial baits designed both to trick fish and to lure fishermen to buy them have proliferated. Among the hottest are scented bait, with lure manufacturers vying to produce the smelliest concoction.
“The scented baits are very innovative,” Carlson says. “Plastic worms or spinner rigs impregnated with a little scent are wonderful for attracting walleyes. When I took kids fishing at the lake, I gave them each a bottle of Gulp! which has 400 times the scent of PowerBait. I think it works better than the real thing.” Gulp! advertises several delicious (to fish, at least) flavors, including crab, squid, sandworm, shad, shrimp, mullet, grub, and leech.
And then there is Eurolarvae, an exotic term for colored maggots. “It’s wonderful bait, and cheap,” Carlson says. “Fish love them because they smell like food and move and wiggle. They are propagated in chicken guts, and when the chickens are fed certain dyes, they come out red, green, or yellow.”
Though most aspects of fishing have changed over the years, the essential core has not: the art of stalking the fish and the desire (some say obsession) to nab the finny devils.
In Fisherman’s Luck, Henry Van Dyke wrote, “No amount of preparation in the matter of rods and lines and hooks and lures and nets and creels can change its essential character. … There are a thousand points at which fortune may intervene. The state of the weather, the height of the water, the appetite of the fish, the presence or absence of other anglers — all these indeterminable elements enter into the reckoning of your success. … When you go a-fishing, you just take your chances. … You try your luck.”
Fishing is a love affair, Kehde says, like falling in love with your wife. “It’s all the mysteries of life combined, an uncontrollable passion.”
“Fishing may have changed,” Hayenga adds, “but it still is wonderful. Any day on the water is great.”