With all the interruptions, this past season has got me thinking: how much fishing is enough to be able to call yourself a fly angler? I guess it’s a different answer for different people. Personality comes into it, I’m sure. Some people love to (or need to) fish at least once a week, and maybe even three or more days a week if they live close enough to the water. For others, fishing is governed by available holidays and long travel distances. But does this mean they love flyfishing any less than the person who is on the water every second day?
An interesting, and poignant example is comparing renowned Tasmanian author, the late David Scholes, with iconic South African angler, Ed Herbst. I’ve read about, and seen photos of, Scholes in his later years, severely affected by Multiple Sclerosis. For as long as he was able, Scholes would still drive his car to the edge the stream if the farm track came close enough, wedge himself in the door frame, and cast to cruising fish.
In contrast, there’s Ed Herbst, who has been prolific in developing flyfishing in South Africa. Herbst has written a great deal, and is featured extensively in the wonderful books of Tom Sutcliffe. But he has health problems and no longer fishes. In Tom’s most recent book, ‘Yet More Sweet Days’, Tom writes movingly about physically getting his friend Ed to the edge of the water, and setting him up on a chair so he could catch some trout, which he ultimately did. But instead of being enjoyable, Ed apparently found it frustrating and harrowing to struggle with something he was previously very good at. Even so, to this day, Ed Herbst remains an active flyfishing thinker, fly developer, writer, and correspondent.
As several writers have expressed over the years, at some point, the existence of fish and attempts to catch them, form the heart of the sport and are entirely necessary to it. But the actual catching of fish doesn’t always happen, and this often spawns the best stories and numerous clichés, including ‘The one that got away’, and ‘That’s why they call it fishing, not catching’. Then there’s Skues’ famous ‘be careful what you wish for’ story (also mentioned by our editor a couple of months ago).
So it seems there is more to fishing than catching, or even the fishing itself! Outside of the actual fishing (catching, or otherwise), there is the pleasure of planning fishing adventures and the subsequent road trips and other travel. It’s interesting too that the worst camping disasters and other woeful experiences make the best stories – at least once the physical and emotional scars have healed!
This brings me to the first of several ‘non fishing’ activities which can be absorbing and enjoyable in their own right: reading. The wealth of flyfishing literature we have available to us is pretty overwhelming. I’m no collector, but when packing my books for our upcoming move to New Zealand, it turns out I’ve somehow acquired around six hundred books just on flyfishing. Even the list of genres is mind-boggling: streamcraft and other ‘how-to’ books; location guides; memoirs, coffee-table books; fly-tying and entomology references; angling history; rod and other tackle making; humour and short stories; biographies of angling icons; fisheries biology; crime fiction, books about books and more!
We’re lucky to have had many excellent anglers who have written about their techniques; but I believe we are even luckier to have had great writers who had fishing as a passion. Names like Nick Lyons, Robert Traver, Harry Middleton, Thomas McGuane and Arnold Gingrich come to mind when I think of this. (That’s not to say that they were bad anglers, just that they were respected independently for their literary skills.) Then there are people like John Gierach, maybe the most successful contemporary author, who, as a full-time angler/author, probably qualify on both counts.
The good news about books these days (at least for those who don’t already have too many!) is that many once extremely expensive and hard-to-get books, now cost a fraction of what they once did. I paid those high prices for much of my library, but I’m philosophical about it. I’ve had all the enjoyment of owning and reading them, and I’m glad they are much more affordable now for those people who want to get started.
Of course, with fishing films, podcasts, and other online entertainment available these days, there is plenty to watch and listen to in addition to old-fashioned reading. Each has its place. A well-made fishing film can be a stimulus for planning a trip… or simply good old ‘fish porn’. I like podcasts when I go out for a walk or when doing work which doesn’t require focus and attention. There are plenty out there and I’ve only listened here and there, but over the years I’ve enjoyed some interesting interviews conducted by Zach Matthews, Tom Rosenbauer and April Vokey. I know there are lots more.
A lot of these interviews are with people from the flyfishing ‘industry’ (whatever that means). I guess I’m a part of that now, having quit my day job over 15 years ago to become a fulltime bamboo rodmaker ‘living the dream’. I can tell you that yes, it is a dream, but there are lots of different types of dreams. When the phone rings at 9.30pm after 12 hours in the workshop, and it’s a supposed ‘prospective customer’ wanting a long chat, which seems to also stray into free fishing reports and tips on out-of-the-way locations, it can feel like a dream I’d prefer to wake up from. If that’s part of fishing, maybe you CAN get too much of a good thing.
Becoming a fulltime rodmaker is a pretty big leap in life, but for the regular flyfisher, other tackle maintenance and wrapping rod blanks can be plenty of fun as an off-season project.
Fly-tying is another pursuit that’s not actually fishing, yet it can be a big part of a flyfishing life. In combination with entomology (a worthwhile diversion itself), it can help to crack the code of a difficult fishery or a specific fishing situation, or it just be enjoyed for the fun of ‘arts and crafts for men’, as my wife calls it.
It’s no surprise that fly-tying has mirrored the diversity and expansion of flyfishing techniques. You can read books, and watch videos covering everything from classic old patterns English split-wing dries, to the latest commando-purple steelhead zombies, and everything in between. And there are plenty of retailers offering all the required materials from the traditional feathers and animal body parts, to ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ wardrobe materials for more modern patterns.
And speaking of retailers, we come to a very, very important part of flyfishing… the gear! I’m half joking of course. Any rod, reel and line that gets you on the water and fishing is a good start. I fished through uni on a tight budget, and my only fly rod was a 6 foot Silstar spinning blank made up as a fly rod. As a fly rod, it was barely passable, but did I miss a single day’s fishing because of it? Absolutely not. Interestingly, in places where the fish are large and prolific (I won’t go as far as to say ‘easy’), some locals use the most utilitarian gear that they can get their hands on, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
However, flyfishing is such an aesthetically beautiful sport, for many (particularly those who don’t get to fish as often as they would like) it’s entirely understandable that they enjoy spending time and money on a dream outfit to complete the experience. As a rodmaker, I can give you the answer to that inevitable question from a non-flyfishing spouse: “How many fly rods do you really need? The correct response is, “Just one… more.”
For me, as much as fishing is about the fish, the experience is elevated with tackle that makes you feel good. That can be the latest and greatest, or something antique that performs beautifully, or an old beat-up and repaired item which has sentimental value and keeps on going. After all, this is recreation and enjoyment, and for me, the winner is the person having the most fun.
As we know though, good tackle is no different to a good golf club. It won’t shoot par (or catch parr) on its own. Perhaps the best place to practice casting is on the water (to fish) but casting in the park, the backyard or anywhere there is a bit of space, is time well spent. I really enjoy pulling out a few different-action rods and cast them side by side, adjusting to the various feels; and always with a yarn fly on the end and a target to aim at.
Tournament casting has faded somewhat over the years, but it’s interesting to note there are whole clubs of anglers dedicated just to fly casting, instead of actual fishing. I’ve cast at some of the Brunn Shield events in years past and found it a lot of fun, if a little nerve-wracking (in a strangely different way to casting to a really good fish). As well as the reward of rising to the technical challenge, the social aspect of meeting up for a day of casting, learning, and talking casting and fishing, is something I recall fondly.
Which brings me to the final non-fishing fishing topic, people. Whether through clubs, with friends on a road trip, or meeting new people at a lodge, sharing the company of others is something to value. It’s true, I really enjoy fishing on my own at times. Without feeling like I’m holding anyone up, I can change flies, rest a fish, wander off and look at some aspect of the countryside, take some photos, or do whatever I please. But equally, I like sharing the experience with others. Watching a skilled angler or someone with a different approach or technique can be a huge learning opportunity too.
Seeing the joy of a newcomer catching their first fish is a wonderful thing, and it can take you back to the early days of your own fishing. Sharing a laugh with a long-time angling friend when one of you (hopefully them) screws up a simple presentation, and then reminiscing about it in times to come, is something to look forward to. And after the season just gone, maybe to take less for granted.