Ask a fly fisherman what draws them to the sport and you may get a saccharine, cliched explanation that begins with something about nature, spirituality, and transcendence, then trails off sounding faintly like the voice of Charlie Brown's teacher. I understand the nature thing, though I have had some difficulty in finding nature myself. If I were to distill my attraction to fly-fishing down to one idea, that thing that repeatedly draws me to the water with a rod in hand, it would undoubtedly be the search for the unknown. I'd like to think that I would have had the courage to set off with Lewis and Clark or Magellan to share in their famous voyages of exploration, but that was a different time. Given the current lack of earthbound frontiers, we must now look elsewhere to experience the exultation of discovery. I go fly-fishing.
One of my favorite local fishing spots where I live in central Illinois is a rather unsavory tailwater that you can spit across in some spots. It is at times a multifarious cornucopia of fish species both native and not. Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that I might catch a bowfin, a prehistoric species that can breathe air, or that I might even hook, let alone land, a twenty-five-inch hybrid striped bass on my five weight rod. In rivers like Colorado's Gunnison, where the quarry is much more predictable, it is the potential of catching a rainbow trout over twenty-two inches that keeps me casting until I need physical therapy. Discovery, however, does not come without some low points. Hooking zero fish on an outing is a necessary rite of passage that comes around all too often. After all, it is the thousands of casts that don't produce a fish that make the ones that do that much sweeter.
On the Bighorn River, a storied blue-ribbon trout fishery in the rolling hills of southeastern Montana, I recently found myself unexpectedly and somewhat sheepishly pondering the role of the objects involved in the experience of fly-fishing. Following an early morning drive, I locked my car, zipped up my brand-new Simms rain jacket, and grabbed my G-Loomis rod balanced by a Galvan reel wound with a Rio Gold floating line. I pulled on my waterproof, breathable waders over a Patagonia Capilene base layer. I then donned my Simms wading boots with AquaStealth-studded sticky rubber soles designed to grip the rocks of the river without transferring invasive species to other rivers. Several floating waterproof fly boxes filled my pockets and a handful of specialty tools, fluorocarbon tippet spools, and fly floatant hung from a lanyard around my neck. Not including the flies, because I tied most of them myself, and because they are a necessary expendable item lasting for only a few fish, I began to tally the retail value of my ensemble. Without even including my $50-plus out-of-state fishing license my figure came to over $2,000. To be fair to myself, much of this gear was amassed from various sources, from personal purchases to gifts, and was collected over a period of ten years, but the issue remains.
I like many others, have always maintained that the gear does not make the fisherman, and that the true essence of fly-fishing is, in actuality, the fishing part. After all, the goal on a basic level is to get the fish to take the fly, to engage the fish in a brief battle, and to return it safely to the water. After calculating this rather hefty monetary figure, my first thought was, "I damn well better catch some fish." My very next thought was, "I hope no one sees me not catching any fish," wanting desperately not to be that guy leaving Guitar Center with the sweet vintage Les Paul and absolutely no chops. Although to be sure, most anglers on the river probably had as much or more invested in their gear. I was not alone.
But then my mind went to a much more poignant question. What role does all of this gear, these finely crafted, beautifully designed utilitarian objects, have in forming my experience on the river? Are they supplementary to the experience, an enhancement of sorts that could easily be omitted, or do they perform as a much more integral part of the experience? Of course, one needs certain things to do the job: a rod of some sort, with a line to cast, and the proper fly to match the hatching insects or other local food source. These items are the necessary tools, the essentials that have been used in the sport for hundreds of years, and you really cannot consider yourself fly-fishing without them.
A good rod and a reel are wonderful pieces of design. The rod itself, fashioned from winding a graphite ribbon around tapered metal molds, is designed to flex and bend, providing casting power, while maintaining sensitivity and accuracy. The rod guides, the cork handle, and the reel seat all serve their function and integrate perfectly with the look and feel of the rod. The anodized aluminum reel is balanced to complement the rod and line weight. The reel's most important component, the drag system, is designed to let the arbor spin smoothly without hesitation, as the fish takes more and more line.
Any brief failure in this drag system could result in your fly snapping off and you losing the fish. Entry-level rod and reel kits, sufficient to get you out on the trout stream, can be had for less than $100. High-end graphite trout rods, sold without the reel, can run in excess of $1,000. Retro bam-boo rods selling for over $3,000 are also available for hedge fund managers. All models will catch fish in the hands of an able angler, although, as with most products, there is a sweet spot between value and performance, the place where I'd like to think my gear resides.
Many outdoor sports, particularly individual activities such as rock climbing, road biking, and skiing, produce an individual known as the gearhead. The gearhead is a person that, regardless of skill or technical prowess, has an addiction to collecting the equipment and tools associated with their sport, regardless of their ability to afford them. These individuals cannot function socially without talking about gear, and they would rather, in most cases, go without such essentials as healthy food and clean housing so that they can acquire more. There is a certain breed of gearhead whose equipment is not piled in crates caked in mud, stuffed away with all of the evidence of the day's activities. Rather, it is meticulously cleaned, inspected, and filed in a manner similar to a doctor's tray of scalpels. In an ironic twist, some gearheads don't even use their equipment; having to work so often to pay for their habit, they can hardly get out to enjoy it.
Although fitting none of the classic definitions of a gearhead, I still appreciate the necessity for quality equipment. In my mind this equipment must work perfectly and efficiently in every way, but it should also adhere to certain aesthetic sensibilities. As something of a minimalist (the hypocrisy of which I am painfully aware of in this circumstance), I like my equipment to be relatively unadorned and cleanly crafted. On many contemporary fly reels, for example, holes are placed alongthe sides to allow the line to drain and dry as well as to reduce the reel's weight. These holes, initially included for their function, have become an aesthetic focal point for designers who play with their pattern, size, and shape in order to create a reel with its own unique visual appeal.
As I looked at a couple of rising fish across the mighty Bighorn, I flashed back to a recent family vacation to Mexico. With the sun setting across the bay off Puerto Vallarta, I had watched a man fishing from the jetty, a local whom I figured was getting a few casts in after a hard day of work. His rod in fact was no rod at all; his reel, the bottom end of a one-liter soda bottle. Pinching a monofilament line between his fingers, he swung the weighted lure twice around his head, letting go of it at just the right moment. As the line payed out from the bottom of the bottle, his lure flew far and with surprising accuracy. This remarkably simple and, for that matter, sustainable technique seemed to do the trick, as he hooked a fish that unfortunately got off just as it broke the surface. I can only speculate about this man's motivation for using the gear that he did: perhaps it was for financial reasons or perhaps it was because that is the tradition that he grew up following. Whether his motivation for fishing that day was for food, for sport, or for both, it didn't matter. His method worked, and it hardly cost him a thing.
On the Bighorn that day, I hiked about a mile and a half until I found the place where I wanted to begin fishing. Having asked a few questions at the local fly shop, I knew what to tie on, and did so with fumbling fingers of anticipation. In the first cast, my line moved backward and forward, each time extending my flies farther out over the water. Landing them sufficiently upstream of the most likely spot to hold trout, I let the flies drift down submerged in the current, bouncing along the rocks. At the risk of any further description bordering on fish porn, I am going to cut to the chase. Fish on! Until that moment, my mind was focused on a dance between operating my equipment with skill and anticipating the myriad factors that were out of my control. Now the focus was on landing the fish.
Just then, the fish took a run toward the fast current, a place where I generally do not want them to go, as this greatly increases the likelihood of escape. I adjusted the angle of my rod tip, and made a set of decisions that set in motion the ultimate fate of whether I landed the fish or not. With line peeling off my reel at an alarming rate, I quickly turned the handle to reveal the drag adjustment. Clutching and turning the adjustment swiftly but carefully, I slowed the fish's escape and pulled it back from the edge of the fast current just in time. The drag and the adjustment system performed exactly as I had hoped, keeping the fish from running and from breaking the light test monofilament tippet that attached my line to my fly.
If I were to frame my perspective of this narrative in one image, the picture that has burned indelibly in my memory, it would be exactly what my eyes were seeing in that moment when the fish began to run. It is the image of the tea-colored water, the grassy rolling hills, the rod, the reel, the line, and the fish. If any of these items were missing, it would not represent the experience the way that I saw it, the way that I experienced i t While I have had almost this very same sequence of events occur hundreds of times, what I remember most clearly is not this particular trout, the size and color of which were a dime a dozen in that river. Most of all I remember that green anodized Galvan reel, smoothly spinning in the bright sunlight as the fish took the line.
I remember tightening the drag, winding the fish back to my hand, and feeling glad that my gear performed the way I needed it to in the moment I needed it most. Looking back, I wonder how the man fishing from the jetty in Puerto Vallarta considers his low-tech fishing rig, a setup seemingly ripped from a do-it-yourself YouTube video on how to repurpose an old soda bottle. I sincerely appreciate the gratification one might find from cobbling together a fishing rig from materials that Bear Grylls might have scavenged from that very shoreline. But it makes me wonder whether, in his mind, his gear is purely a means to an end. Ultimately, I presume that, unlike mine, his gear makes little mark on his memory of his fishing experience, though it clearly has affected mine.
The difference, I would speculate, between the $1 soda bottle and my rod and reel has more to do with risk. Standing in the Bighorn, my pricy ensemble might have seemed a bit like taking a cannon to a duel. After all, it stands to reason that investing in expensive, well-designed rods and reels should increase your chances of landing a fish, but it is not that simple. More importantly, this specialized gear allows the angler to push the boundaries of possibility, to take chances in that search for the unknown. This precision equipment permits the use of lighter line and smaller flies, allowing the angler to target the most selective and, by no coincidence, the biggest fish. Though the soda bottle required little if any investment and was simple by design, its performance relied on the brute strength of the heavy monofilament line, providing strangely little possibility of failure. While the end result is often the same, my gear performs perfectly on the thin margin of experience, flirting with the real possibility of breaking the line or landing an epic fish.