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Fish and Let Fish: The State of Modern Fly Fishing

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

Anyone who knows me well knows I’ve been fishing a lot less lately. I went out less than ten times this whole season. People have asked me to fish with them and my first instinct has been to say no, and it’s taken me a bit to figure out exactly why. It took me a bit longer to realize its not the actual act of fly fishing that I’ve become disagreeable to; its the minutiae of the hobby and the culture surrounding it that has started to make me want to stay off the water.

The Crowds

The crowds on some of my favorite local rivers have gotten pretty crazy. On what I would call my lifetime home river, the West Branch of the Delaware, the drift boats, guides, and foot traffic on any given day all fishing season long has increased drastically. The few times I went out, I had 7-10 drift boats within my sight at all times, and this was on random weekdays. Seeing more people on the river is one of those catch-22 situations with outdoor activities that I think many of us feel: you want more people involved, but you want them to fish, hunt, or hike somewhere else than where you like to go. There’s no worse feeling than hiking in to a favorite spot, only to find five other people there already. I’m happy more and more people are getting involved with fly fishing. I do agree with the sentiment that the more people involved in the sport, the more people protecting the waters and trout we love. But I’ve always preferred to be relatively alone when I fish or to be on the move instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of people, and probably always will. I know I can hike in somewhere, explore new water, and walk a bit more to escape some of the crowds, but I can’t help but feel a little contemptuous about having to do that on rivers where I used to not.

More Assholes

The amount of assholes I run into fly fishing seems to have grown along with the crowds, which makes sense statistically speaking, but some of the things I’ve seen lately on the river are just plain awful. (I’ll leave the Salmon River completely out of this discussion for reasons anyone who’s ever fished there understands.) A couple years ago, a guide WITH a client threw rocks at my 70 year old father for walking through the only wadeable chunk of a piece of a popular river that they were fishing more than 50 yards below in, yelling that he “ruined the spot for them.” My dad answered smoothly that him screaming and throwing rocks was what actually ruined the spot and walked away. Adults screaming at each other over spots on a public river is ugly and asinine. This is not just in New York, where there are inarguably more assholes than most places. My father and I fished all over Montana and Wyoming and met an asshole seemingly everywhere we went, giving us unsolicited advice on just about every river we fished. One guy on the Yellowstone asked if we fished the Bighorn before coming out to the Park and asked how we did. I said we had a great day and caught fish on almost every cast on streamers for most of our day. He said if we used a heavier sink tip we would have caught more fish. “More than every cast?” I asked him, a bit confused. He answered, “Yes,” then went on to explain sink tips to me as if this was the first time I was hearing about them. That same trip I got screamed at for “low holeing” a guy by fishing about 70 yards below him. His six buddies that had locked up most of the good stretch of the river, which is why I went so far downstream to fish to begin with, but the guy screamed he was “Just about to fucking fish that.” All this begs the question: how much of a public fishing area do you believe you are entitled to? At another spot, my father and I had another banner day catching what seemed like endless cutthroat on big streamers. We were down river a ways from another guy dry fly fishing, who on the way back to his car informed us that the “good pool” is actually up where he was and that we were wasting our time down there. I think we landed 50 fish that afternoon and we told him that. “Down there?” he said and shrugged, as if to say we must have been confused. This guy leads me to my next point.

What “Real” Fishing Is Nymphing isn’t fishing if you use an indicator. Czech nymphing is real fishing though because its more technical and requires a specialized setup. Dry-fly fishing is the only real fly fishing, but only if you cast when a fish is actively rising and during a hatch, or that’s not real fishing either. Streamers are the realest form of fishing to people who are obsessed with it and considered an amateur way to fish to everyone else, especially to dry fly fisherman. Even among streamer fishermen, some people give others flack about swinging flies rather than stripping them. Some folks don’t consider casting upstream at a fish to be proper fly fishing. Using beads is cheating to everyone who doesn’t use beads, but people who use beads will tell you that its more ethical and easier on the fish to be caught that way, usually citing that many trout suffer from lockjaw after a good fight if hooked on the inside of the mouth. Want to really upset everyone at once? Throw a 5-inch mouse pattern at a pool of rising fish and see what happens. Want to upset that guy? Throw on a fat chunk of powerbait and cast to that fish and see what happens. I’ve seen fly fishermen scream at people bait fishing in stocked rivers where all the fish die in August every year anyway, to “go to the fucking grocery store if they want to keep fish.” Everyone wants to tell you that their way of fishing is the best way, and that all other ways are the wrong way, but we’re all doing the same thing out here. Do you honestly believe a fish prefers to be caught by a dry fly than a chunk of a worm? Why can’t we just enjoy that there so many different ways to catch these damn things instead of pretending there is only one way to do it? Who cares how you do it as long as its legal? This is tough to hear for the catch and release folks, but the truth is, if its legal to keep fish, that doesn’t mean you get to scream at people who keep fish because you personally disagree with it– nor will doing that change anyone’s mind about the practice. In fact, it seems to only entice folks to kill more fish while you watch.

The Gear Obsession

You don’t need a $3,000 set up to catch a trout. The fish don’t care. This may be tough for some of you to hear, but they don’t. Yes, some gear is a bit better and costs a bit more. The rest is marketing and companies capitalizing on the increased interest in the sport. Having more expensive gear doesn’t make you a better fisherman, although the gear may last a bit longer. How do I know? I’ve been using cheap gear for years and have caught plenty of fish, to the dismay of some of my friends who openly express disgust at me being unwilling to go broke for a fishing setup. The idea you need to spend that much money just to start fishing also keeps people away from the sport. I remind people often that human beings have been catching fish, hunting, and hiking for quite a long time and very successfully before the advent of modern gear. Remembering that when you’re at the fly shop about to be talked into a $1400 Sage when you have four other 6 wt’s already could save you quite a bit of cash. Feel free to forward those savings right to me as a thank you.

This Isn’t a Competitive Sport

I run into more and more people on the river every year who want to tell you about how many inches every fish they caught that entire season was or hit you with the infamous “you should have been here yesterday.” A wise man once told me that “we’re not competing with each other; we’re competing with the fish,” and I tend to agree. Although some competition can be fun and is only natural, when it becomes a hyper-competitive sport is when I want to head home. Why? Because this always leads to people acting like assholes and putting other people down. It’s also another great way to keep people out of the sport by making them feel like everyone just woke up one day a damn good fly fisherman. The truth is, I don’t care if you caught five fish, and I caught two. I know the next time it will probably be reversed, and if it’s not, that’s fine, too. Some guys fish harder than I do and are rewarded for that. I don’t care about that either. If all you’re doing is counting inches and fish, I just think you’re missing the point. Just be happy people are experiencing that same joy you feel when you catch a fish. Not catching them that day? So what. Saying “its just good to be out” has turned into a cliché about not catching any fish, but like most cliches, therein lies quite a bit of truth in the phrase.

Fish and Let Fish

Every year I run into more and more folks like the ones I mentioned above and less people just plain old enjoying themselves. I run into less people on the bank with a small grin on their face and a look of reverence in their eyes watching a spinner fall, a reverence for a thing they know they don’t fully understand and probably don't care to. They may uttering “olives” or “sulphurs” softly as your feet hit where the bank meets the water, just to save you a few minutes worth of trying to figure it out. I see less folks giving someone who is clearly new at this some advice in a way that is kind and not demeaning. I see less people keeping count of the time they spend with their buddies, or alone and using that to gauge what a good day was, rather than the amount of fish that hit the net.

Ask anyone who fishes why they love it and they’ll probably all give you just about the same answers, or variations on them, answers that go something like this: they love the solitude, the puzzle of it, the time spent outdoors, the time spent with friends and family, the places you get to go, and most of all, the fish, the beauty of them, the taste of them, or something in between. I still do love all these things, and I think I always will. I just wish I saw a lot less of the rest. Maybe I’m just getting older and probably a bit grumpier. Maybe I just needed some time away from it. The solution? Just fish and let other people fish, and enjoy that everyone out here loves it probably as much as you do. That's what I'll do next year, too.

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