Fishing The True Cast

The True Cast: Is fly-fishing an “elitist” pursuit?

Okay, so as we shove this “True Cast” column/ship off the dock, we may as well start with a doozie.

Every now and then, I get a nastygram telling me I focus too much on fly fishing, that I should get off my high horse, and run more stories about “conventional” tackle, and that fly fishing is only for stuffy old codgers.

That hurts. 

Because I grew up a “gear” angler on the shore of Lake Michigan. I was a fishy little dude from the onset. So much so that I often pedaled my Schwinn Stingray bike to the local pier, before school, to chuck Johnson spoons with my Zebco setup. And every now and then, I’d land a salmon or trout, sling it over my shoulder, and pedal back home… just in time for my exasperated mother to do her best to wash off the fish slime and send me to the bus stop.

The truth is that I didn’t really embrace fly fishing until half-way through college, and I only took it up then to impress a girl I was dating.  She invited me to meet her family on a river in Michigan. At the time, I had absolutely no appreciation why any family would have a cabin on a river instead of a lake, but I played along. And as soon as I arrived, her father and grandfather (who were mad about fly fishing) put me in some Red Ball waders, handed me a Fenwick rod, and sent me downstream with a handful of Mickey Finn flies. 

A couple hours later, fearing that I might be lost in the woods or curled up in the fetal position under a wad of ferns somewhere, the girl’s mom sent her out on a rescue mission to find me, with a sandwich and a can of Coke in a brown paper sack. When she found me, I was hooked into a trout, beaming, and I shouted up at her on the river bank, asking, “Do I have to come back yet?”

She set the paper sack on a tree stump, slunk away, and eventually told her dad what I’d asked. And right then, I suppose, he figured I might be “the one.”

She and I have now been married for 33 years.

Fly fishing isn’t about the gear you use.  It’s about family.  It’s about traditions. It’s about nature, and the places you experience, and the people you meet along the way.

Fly fishing is about puzzles, and problem solving. How am I going to get that fish, hidden behind that rock, to eat this artificial bug? And how am I going to land it if I connect? This is no different than conventional fishing. We just go about the puzzle solving with different tools.

That’s a brain-trigger that appeals to a certain type of personality, but I’ve never bought into the notion that it’s “elitist,” probably because I’ve never been super wealthy or considered myself “elite” on any level.

Oh sure, there are exclusive clubs, and exotic trips, and expensive gear and all that.  But that’s true with a lot of sports.

At its core, fly fishing is about simplicity.  It’s a stick and a string. It’s basic. And despite all the jargon, all the sales pitches about space-age graphite in fancy rods, despite the complicated lessons when it comes to casting… fly fishing is primal. That’s what flips my switch, and I hope it never turns off. I’m never going to stop loving fly fishing. And yes, I think trout and fly fishing are a match made in heaven. 

The thing is, any true fan of fishing in general (or wild rivers, clean lakes, etc.) should never have to choose between the gear and fly worlds. I resent it when people force that agenda.

I’m not the least bit hesitant to say that I am absolutely fascinated with flipping and pitching for largemouth bass. Some of my favorite trips and stories as a professional writer revolved around the Bassmaster Classic. And believe it or not, many of the pro bass anglers dig fly fishing, because they learn a lot—especially about reading currents—when they fly fish. I learn a lot that I apply to fly fishing when I use a casting rod or spin tackle.

I am also enamored with trolling in saltwater, and have even learned lessons that I apply to trout rivers while chasing tuna on the ocean. Fish like changes—whether you’re looking for weed mats, drop-offs and blue water (color changes) in the Gulf Stream, or color changes, structure, and drop-offs in the trout stream. This past summer, I honestly spent more time trying to figure out how to fish diving crankbaits for northern pike than I did matching hatches for trout. Want to get good at streamer fishing for trout? Learn how to throw crankbaits at pike.

Fishing is fishing.  And all fishing is good.

Now, some truths. Over 90 percent of TU members profess that fly fishing is their favorite way to fish, so it makes sense that we lean toward fly content.  And a lot of people have a hard time reconciling treble hooks and conservation. But I think we have an obligation to point out another truth that the person who hammers 50 trout a day, day after day, is making a bigger dent on the resource—even if a catch-and-release angler—than the person who throws a Panther Martin and keeps a couple for the smoker where that’s permitted.

I think if we all spend more time focusing on truths and figuring out ways to best share the resources and inspire interest and engagement among younger generations rather than criticizing each other for things as trivial as the gear we prefer, we could get a lot more done.

After all we’re all in this together.  We all have bigger challenges to face. There are so many important debates to be had regarding habitat, the future of fishing, and wild places… what type of rod you fancy most should not be one of them.