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Merwin: Flippancy in Fly Fishing

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November 30, 2009

Merwin: Flippancy in Fly Fishing

By John Merwin

Is flyfishing getting too dumbed down? Some of my friends who are longtime anglers think so, and I’m starting to agree.

A great deal of what passes for flyfishing media these days seems more related to a happy-go-lucky angling lifestyle than to genuine technical progress. It’s become a lot easier to gaze at one’s navel while pondering the philosophical implications of sport than to pick the right fly pattern.

Back in the 1970s, we had men such as ...

... Carl Richards, Doug Swisher, and Ernie Schwiebert refining stream tactics and angling entomology and fly patterns to a huge degree. Among anglers, the pace of learning was dramatic. It was at times technically difficult and often challenging. As it should be.

Too often these days, a woolly bugger, a parachute adams, or a beadhead nymph under a strike indicator are seen as universal answers to a needed skill set on the river. Much of the time, they work. Sometimes they don’t. And when they don’t, too many anglers are left gasping like a fish out of water.

The young fly fisher--and there are many of these--who has learned to nymph fish only with a strike indicator is one example. There are dozens of nymph-fishing tactics that evolved over decades in the pre-indicator era, honed and explained by men like Frank Sawyer and Jim Leisenring, and which younger anglers don’t bother to research and learn. Expediency rules the day.

It sometimes seems as if real research and resulting insight--whether into angling entomology, trout behavior, or any other technical flyfishing topic--has fallen by the wayside. As Schwiebert once quietly complained to me, “a time in media when flippancy is substituted for genuine knowledge.”

Comments (15)

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from Koldkut wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

I see bobber(indicator) fishers all the time on the river, in fact, about 90% of them are doing this. I first used them on a guided trip, once after that and gave them up. As is stated in your post John, there are tons of ways to skin cats, but it would seem that "Cat Skinning for Dummies" is on the New York Times Bestsellers list.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from earlyriser81 wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

Not taking sides, but as a rookie to fly fishing, it is hard finding someone who has a vast of knowledge on all things "fly" that doesn't want to charge a small fortune for instruction. I am not letting that slow me down however thanks to the how to videos on line by such greats a Lefty. I am trying to learn the fundamentals now, but I'm sure that when the time comes I will be on my own to figure out the hatch. But I will figure it out. All and all I am probably one of the worst fly fisherman that I know but I have fun trying.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

I don't think most people have the time or are willing to take the time to learn the art of fly fishing. Over the years fly fishing has lost a lot of romance with the introduction of stike indicators and stocked fished. Let's face, how much do you need to know to catch a stocker?

On the flip side, I sure do love fishing with the young kids and showing them how it's done.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from rob wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

A lot of this has to do with the instant gratification generation. There is more good info now on fishing, insects, etc., than ever before, but all people want to do is get numbers of fish to the net. It's available on video, book, internet, fly shop, guides......but heaven forbid you actually have to go look and learn something.
I always tell people that the best money they can spend when they start fishing is to get a guide, and get a good one, not the kid in college who can't tie a blood knot. Most people object, saying it's too much money, but a day with a good guide, focusing on FISHING, not CATCHING, will take years off your learning curve.
Casting lessons are invaluable as well, but again, from a knowlegeable instructor. So many "Guides" and "Instructors" these days aren't that far ahead of their students in these areas.
The bobber has been the bane, and the boon, of fly fishing.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ruckweiler wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

Saw the movie "A River Runs Through It" years ago and understood the magic and almost religious fervor emanating from those who are passionate about fly-fishing. I got the sense that proper fly-fishing is celebrated in a natural cathedral. Don't fly-fish but appreciate those who do. Good article.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from coho310 wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

I 100% agree with ya' but it's better than these youngsters to be out on the river than inside, glued to the TV. I don't use strike indicators because 1. they're too easy and 2. when the fish are deep in the Boise river (at least in my honey hole) all a strike indicator is is a barrier, the whitefish and trout move around along the bottom, into pockets and along rocks and make for great sight-fishing.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from MLH wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

Simple gets people to take that first step into the river, which is the way it should be. They have a darn good chance of catching something with just basic knowledge and flies.

One day on the river the fish will explode all around them, but they won't catch a one, and they won't understand why. Hopefully, they will then experience an epiphany, and give it up, since they don't want to do anything that requires effort or learning; accept their fate and live with limited ability; or seek knowledge - through books, videos, experienced teachers, or even on their own.

Flippancy only gets you so far. I thank the people that did the groundbreaking research for us and passed it along. But even armed with their knowledge, one has to apply that education locally, sometimes to overly educated fish, and within one's own constraints - physical, mental, monetary, and so on. There is always more to learn. Seeking to understand the fish, the bugs, the environment, and the equipment is a lifetime challenge. When an old fisherman dies one
grieves the loss of a friend as well as his knowledge.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from wgalliso wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

A thirty minute show on entomology would bore most people who are not serious fly fisherman, I think that is why it is kept to book media. It would not really create interest in the sport, and advertiser don't make money off of knowledge they make money off of culture. Most younger fisherman are not as experienced and would like to catch fish. So they buy flies, and use simple methods. If you take a six year old fishing, you usually use live bait, and target panfish with a push button right? Are you not part of the media? Why don't you do a blog on entomology, such as southern Appalachian winter entomology? Sorry, I don't mean to be rude but you have an outlet to change media culture. I am a young fisherman, and I would love to find some great books on techniques and stream knowledge. Could you suggest some?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from softhackles wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

I find it interesting that we young anglers are labeled as the "instant gratification" culture. I don't see any greater instant gratification than the victim of midlife crisis who drops three grand in the local Orvis shop to get outfitted to the hilt and then drops another two-four grand a year on guided trips and lodges.

That's obviously not every middle aged angler. Much of what I've learned over a decade in the sport has been from men thirty and forty years my elder. To label their entire generation by the Orvis adorned yuppie that flails their helios with a hyper wrist driven cast is unfair.

It's equally unfair to fit our generation into a box. Many members of our generation of fly fishers are the ones who will hike for hours to explore a headwater or spend countless nights at the bench trying to fine tune an emerger pattern for a hatch that kicked our tails. There is no shortcut to understanding what is happening in the water around you. There is just putting in time on the water. Paying your dues. Listening. Watching. Adapting.

In the time I'm off the water I would rather read the "philosophical implication of sport" than the traditional fly fishing media which reads like the literary version of an infomercial for lodges, gadgets and the newest, shiniest, most expensive, aerospace engineered, make you cast 20 feet farther fly rod.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Woodstock wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

Fippant?? Not fair. You don't have to look very hard to find plenty of recent innovation in fly-fishing.

The widepread use of spey rods and casting techniques, switch rods, articulated streamers, stinger hooks, new fly-tying materials, beads and flesh flies, specialized lines, and the pursuit of saltwater species that were previously caught almost exclusively by gear fishermen...sheesh, that's just a start.

I walk into my buddy's fly shop and the vast majority of the flies and equipment, and many of the techniques used to deploy them, barely existed 10 years ago.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from jps wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

Some parts of this piece are to be commended. Yes, too often classic flies represent some anglers’ only solutions or sole knowledge of entomology. And I suppose one could say that because of magazines (or “e-zines”) like This Is Fly who emphasize the alternative culture, so to speak, that often accompanies contemporary fly fishing, the sport is diluted by some people who have become so obsessed with the fact that they fish that they’ve forgotten how to do so.
On the other hand, as a sport like this evolves, there must be some “pondering [of] the philosophical implications.” Fly fishing, as many of us would and should agree, can be a somewhat spiritual experience, and should also be intertwined inextricably with conservation and with fine art.
It should not be a surprise that some people don’t approach fly angling with quite the right attitude. One should let them be, and focus one’s own knowledge, expertise, and learning process. Additionally—I would be careful, in a piece such as this, when separating the young anglers from the old—a rampant, unfounded, and unpleasant tendency in fly fishing is to regard it as a sport exclusively for older generations. One should be careful not to fuel the age-related elitism in fly fishing.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from rdorman wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

I live near penns creek, those patterns do work...but, the fish can be very picky, and it's more fun to visit local fly shops. Look around(dream around at times), and talk to your local expert. I pick the brain of anyone who wants to share. A lot of the fishing is done without indicators. They don't work well with the classic penns drift.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from rdorman wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

i do carry those flies however...they are my o **** i brought the wrong box glad i have these in my truck flies

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from mdmnm wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

Not to take away from Schwiebert and Richards and the technical guys- they learned a lot and taught a lot too, but a soft hackle, parachute Adams, and wooly bugger (or a bead head under an indicator) will generally get you into fish and, if fished creatively, can take fish in all sorts of circumstances. These things seem to go in circles and I see a four-fly arsenal as sort of a welcome return to the simplicity I read about before the hyper technical aspect of the sport came forward. Stomach pumps for trout and hours trying to match just that genus of mayfly are interesting, but not the core of flyfishing.

As for the guys left gasping when the couple of techniques they've learned for quick and easy fish catching don't work, they'll either do like the rest of us and learn some more or stick to situations where they do work.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from morphius wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

see, when it comes to me with strike detection, I want to learn how to detect strikes without the indicator. I am just a beginner (2 years) and for some reason my floating fly line sinks when i add a heavy fly and short leader. So, in order to detect a strike i need one in ordere to keep my line above the water in order to detect a strike. I also understand some of the aforemetnitoned points like it is all about the grattitude. When I first began, it was the same. I only wanted fish and that's it. Now, I realized that after my first steelehad on a fly, that it is not all about the fish, but the experience. In fact, that's why i got into it. Also, i have used leisenrings tactics, but where i live i fish big streams which is very diificult to detect a strike from 30 ft across. So, thats my 2 cents worth

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from MLH wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

Simple gets people to take that first step into the river, which is the way it should be. They have a darn good chance of catching something with just basic knowledge and flies.

One day on the river the fish will explode all around them, but they won't catch a one, and they won't understand why. Hopefully, they will then experience an epiphany, and give it up, since they don't want to do anything that requires effort or learning; accept their fate and live with limited ability; or seek knowledge - through books, videos, experienced teachers, or even on their own.

Flippancy only gets you so far. I thank the people that did the groundbreaking research for us and passed it along. But even armed with their knowledge, one has to apply that education locally, sometimes to overly educated fish, and within one's own constraints - physical, mental, monetary, and so on. There is always more to learn. Seeking to understand the fish, the bugs, the environment, and the equipment is a lifetime challenge. When an old fisherman dies one
grieves the loss of a friend as well as his knowledge.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

I don't think most people have the time or are willing to take the time to learn the art of fly fishing. Over the years fly fishing has lost a lot of romance with the introduction of stike indicators and stocked fished. Let's face, how much do you need to know to catch a stocker?

On the flip side, I sure do love fishing with the young kids and showing them how it's done.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from rob wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

A lot of this has to do with the instant gratification generation. There is more good info now on fishing, insects, etc., than ever before, but all people want to do is get numbers of fish to the net. It's available on video, book, internet, fly shop, guides......but heaven forbid you actually have to go look and learn something.
I always tell people that the best money they can spend when they start fishing is to get a guide, and get a good one, not the kid in college who can't tie a blood knot. Most people object, saying it's too much money, but a day with a good guide, focusing on FISHING, not CATCHING, will take years off your learning curve.
Casting lessons are invaluable as well, but again, from a knowlegeable instructor. So many "Guides" and "Instructors" these days aren't that far ahead of their students in these areas.
The bobber has been the bane, and the boon, of fly fishing.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ruckweiler wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

Saw the movie "A River Runs Through It" years ago and understood the magic and almost religious fervor emanating from those who are passionate about fly-fishing. I got the sense that proper fly-fishing is celebrated in a natural cathedral. Don't fly-fish but appreciate those who do. Good article.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from coho310 wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

I 100% agree with ya' but it's better than these youngsters to be out on the river than inside, glued to the TV. I don't use strike indicators because 1. they're too easy and 2. when the fish are deep in the Boise river (at least in my honey hole) all a strike indicator is is a barrier, the whitefish and trout move around along the bottom, into pockets and along rocks and make for great sight-fishing.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from softhackles wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

I find it interesting that we young anglers are labeled as the "instant gratification" culture. I don't see any greater instant gratification than the victim of midlife crisis who drops three grand in the local Orvis shop to get outfitted to the hilt and then drops another two-four grand a year on guided trips and lodges.

That's obviously not every middle aged angler. Much of what I've learned over a decade in the sport has been from men thirty and forty years my elder. To label their entire generation by the Orvis adorned yuppie that flails their helios with a hyper wrist driven cast is unfair.

It's equally unfair to fit our generation into a box. Many members of our generation of fly fishers are the ones who will hike for hours to explore a headwater or spend countless nights at the bench trying to fine tune an emerger pattern for a hatch that kicked our tails. There is no shortcut to understanding what is happening in the water around you. There is just putting in time on the water. Paying your dues. Listening. Watching. Adapting.

In the time I'm off the water I would rather read the "philosophical implication of sport" than the traditional fly fishing media which reads like the literary version of an infomercial for lodges, gadgets and the newest, shiniest, most expensive, aerospace engineered, make you cast 20 feet farther fly rod.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from jps wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

Some parts of this piece are to be commended. Yes, too often classic flies represent some anglers’ only solutions or sole knowledge of entomology. And I suppose one could say that because of magazines (or “e-zines”) like This Is Fly who emphasize the alternative culture, so to speak, that often accompanies contemporary fly fishing, the sport is diluted by some people who have become so obsessed with the fact that they fish that they’ve forgotten how to do so.
On the other hand, as a sport like this evolves, there must be some “pondering [of] the philosophical implications.” Fly fishing, as many of us would and should agree, can be a somewhat spiritual experience, and should also be intertwined inextricably with conservation and with fine art.
It should not be a surprise that some people don’t approach fly angling with quite the right attitude. One should let them be, and focus one’s own knowledge, expertise, and learning process. Additionally—I would be careful, in a piece such as this, when separating the young anglers from the old—a rampant, unfounded, and unpleasant tendency in fly fishing is to regard it as a sport exclusively for older generations. One should be careful not to fuel the age-related elitism in fly fishing.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from mdmnm wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

Not to take away from Schwiebert and Richards and the technical guys- they learned a lot and taught a lot too, but a soft hackle, parachute Adams, and wooly bugger (or a bead head under an indicator) will generally get you into fish and, if fished creatively, can take fish in all sorts of circumstances. These things seem to go in circles and I see a four-fly arsenal as sort of a welcome return to the simplicity I read about before the hyper technical aspect of the sport came forward. Stomach pumps for trout and hours trying to match just that genus of mayfly are interesting, but not the core of flyfishing.

As for the guys left gasping when the couple of techniques they've learned for quick and easy fish catching don't work, they'll either do like the rest of us and learn some more or stick to situations where they do work.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Koldkut wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

I see bobber(indicator) fishers all the time on the river, in fact, about 90% of them are doing this. I first used them on a guided trip, once after that and gave them up. As is stated in your post John, there are tons of ways to skin cats, but it would seem that "Cat Skinning for Dummies" is on the New York Times Bestsellers list.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from earlyriser81 wrote 4 years 20 weeks ago

Not taking sides, but as a rookie to fly fishing, it is hard finding someone who has a vast of knowledge on all things "fly" that doesn't want to charge a small fortune for instruction. I am not letting that slow me down however thanks to the how to videos on line by such greats a Lefty. I am trying to learn the fundamentals now, but I'm sure that when the time comes I will be on my own to figure out the hatch. But I will figure it out. All and all I am probably one of the worst fly fisherman that I know but I have fun trying.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from wgalliso wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

A thirty minute show on entomology would bore most people who are not serious fly fisherman, I think that is why it is kept to book media. It would not really create interest in the sport, and advertiser don't make money off of knowledge they make money off of culture. Most younger fisherman are not as experienced and would like to catch fish. So they buy flies, and use simple methods. If you take a six year old fishing, you usually use live bait, and target panfish with a push button right? Are you not part of the media? Why don't you do a blog on entomology, such as southern Appalachian winter entomology? Sorry, I don't mean to be rude but you have an outlet to change media culture. I am a young fisherman, and I would love to find some great books on techniques and stream knowledge. Could you suggest some?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Woodstock wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

Fippant?? Not fair. You don't have to look very hard to find plenty of recent innovation in fly-fishing.

The widepread use of spey rods and casting techniques, switch rods, articulated streamers, stinger hooks, new fly-tying materials, beads and flesh flies, specialized lines, and the pursuit of saltwater species that were previously caught almost exclusively by gear fishermen...sheesh, that's just a start.

I walk into my buddy's fly shop and the vast majority of the flies and equipment, and many of the techniques used to deploy them, barely existed 10 years ago.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from rdorman wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

I live near penns creek, those patterns do work...but, the fish can be very picky, and it's more fun to visit local fly shops. Look around(dream around at times), and talk to your local expert. I pick the brain of anyone who wants to share. A lot of the fishing is done without indicators. They don't work well with the classic penns drift.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from rdorman wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

i do carry those flies however...they are my o **** i brought the wrong box glad i have these in my truck flies

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from morphius wrote 4 years 19 weeks ago

see, when it comes to me with strike detection, I want to learn how to detect strikes without the indicator. I am just a beginner (2 years) and for some reason my floating fly line sinks when i add a heavy fly and short leader. So, in order to detect a strike i need one in ordere to keep my line above the water in order to detect a strike. I also understand some of the aforemetnitoned points like it is all about the grattitude. When I first began, it was the same. I only wanted fish and that's it. Now, I realized that after my first steelehad on a fly, that it is not all about the fish, but the experience. In fact, that's why i got into it. Also, i have used leisenrings tactics, but where i live i fish big streams which is very diificult to detect a strike from 30 ft across. So, thats my 2 cents worth

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

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