The Sporting Life

The Sporting Life

How You Fish - It's all a matter of style

  • By: John Gierach
  • Illustrations by: Bob White

The goal of fly-fishing isn’t just tocatch fish but to catch them with style. Or to put it another way, no one ever sets out to be half-assed at anything. You’d recognize style when you saw it even if you didn’t know the difference between a fly rod and a pogo stick. (If you’re like me, it was the mere sight of a good fly caster that finally sent you out shopping for a fly rod of your own.) Think of those fly-fishing films in which all the tailing loops and motorboat drifts ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving only the economy and absence of theatrics you’ll notice in anything that’s done so well it looks easy. Filmmakers will tell you that this ineffable quality is as difficult to find as it is to capture. The first rule of style is: Don’t try to show off if you don’t have the chops. The second rule: Don’t show off even if you do.
The fundamentals take time and effort to learn, but once you get the hang of it you’ll begin to have days when you fish beautifully. You won’t be wrong if you feel that you’ve now entered the prime of your prime: the time when you’re old enough to know what you’re doing and young enough to do it without cracking a sweat. You can even be forgiven for thinking you’ve reached a pinnacle of competence and that from here on out it will always go this smoothly. It won’t, but every day on the water is still a fresh start and every fisherman goes fishing expecting the best, just as every painter sits down at his easel planning to produce nothing less than a masterpiece.
I’m not one of those natural anglers—I’ve always had to work at it—but I do have my moments. I’ve been fly-fishing for more than 40 years and even if I’m not the best wader, caster or fly tier, I’ve learned to work well within my limitations, like a three-legged dog that can still go for a nice, long walk. You naturally bring everything you know to every day of fishing, and the more days you have under your belt the more you bring. If nothing else, the fly rod that once seemed so strange and awkward is now thoughtlessly comfortable, and the push of current against your legs and the slippery, uneven bottom are no longer surprising.
Do you still remember the first time you waded into a river that tried to knock you down? I do, but only because I still walk past the exact spot every few weeks and always shake my head over that dumb kid who tried to cross right there instead of 30 yards upstream where it’s so much easier. I wasn’t thinking clearly because I’d spotted a large trout rising in a side channel on the far side of the river and in my excitement I took the direct route. My father once told me to never take my eyes off my goal. He forgot to mention that you should also glance down at your feet from time to time to avoid falling on your face.
There are few broad strokes in fly-fishing. It’s all specific details strung together in a precise order: too many details to think about, really, but over time the process resolves itself into something like instinct. This happens gradually and comes from nothing but repetition. There are no shortcuts, and the hunt for shortcuts only distracts you from the business of letting the craft become second nature. Eventually you lose track of how little you think about it until someone asks you to teach them how to fly-fish and you do have to think about it. Why can’t you explain it better than you do? Well, partly because you’re not a casting instructor, but also because by now you’ve made a hundred fine adjustments that you’re no longer aware of.
Still, some days you fish brilliantly and some days you don’t, for reasons that aren’t clear. Often it has to do with the quality of your concentration. Fly-fishing isn’t exactly brain surgery, but it does demand your full attention, so if you’re worried that your investments are going south or that your wife is cheating on you, chances are you won’t fish well. It sounds like heresy, but there really are days when you should stay home and take care of business instead of going fishing.
Other times it’s as inexplicable as any other kind of bad day. Yesterday you waded sure-footed in waist-deep current flicking accurate casts at will; today you’re stumbling in six inches of water and your fly finds every twig and leaf in range. Maybe you should have checked your horoscope before leaving home.
Or maybe it’s garden-variety stage fright. I almost always fish better when I’m alone and unobserved than when there are strangers around—especially strangers who stop to watch or, worse yet, train a camera on me. There are some casters who don’t mind an audience and a few showboats who thrive on the attention, but most of us can do without unsolicited reviews.
Once I was steelhead fishing on the Sandy River in Oregon with a guide named Mark. It was my first trip with a two-handed rod and I confessed to him that I was self-conscious about my Spey-casting. He just shrugged (guides can be ambivalent about a client’s “feelings”). But then a little while later we came around a bend and saw a lone fisherman halfway down the run making one effortlessly perfect Spey cast after another. Mark said, “Just stand here and stare at the guy and watch what happens.” We did and sure enough, as soon as he noticed us, he got flustered and pooched his next cast. Mark was just trying to show me that I wasn’t alone in being ill at ease about my casting, but I immediately felt bad about it. As a demonstration, this was educational, but pointlessly mean, like testing cosmetics by blinding rabbits.
Years later I ran into Mark and told him my Spey-casting had improved since we’d fished together. He said, “Well, it would have had to.”

For all the talk about innovation and the hot new patterns, tactics and destinations, most days fly-fishing simply consists of going through the motions, and there’s nothing wrong with that (Woody Allen said, “. . . 80 per cent of success is just showing up”). The motions are often complex, subtle and difficult to master, and they exist in the first place because they’re known to work. Certain kinds of steelhead and salmon fishing are entirely mechanistic, designed to work the water in identical increments so that every fish in a run will see your fly swinging at the same depth and speed. Trout fishing is sometimes more surgical, especially when you’re casting to rising fish, although it’s still an oddly passive business that depends on the prey being the aggressor.
The particulars are always unique, but over time you see fewer and fewer things that you’ve never seen before, and what seems like inspiration sometimes involves nothing more than going through a second set of motions, as in, “When all else fails, fish a beetle.” On the other hand, genuine creativity breaks at least some rules; so if you’re skunked and get a weird but interesting idea, try it. The worst that can happen is that you won’t catch fish, which is what’s happening anyway.
There’s also the matter of being free and uncluttered in your fishing. This has never been easy for me because I’ve always been a sucker for paraphernalia. Even as a boy the fishermen I admired weren’t necessarily the ones who caught the most fish, but the ones with the biggest and best-stocked tackle boxes. I still have my father’s tackle box just as he left it the last time he went fishing. I take it down from the pantry shelf and open it every few years for sentimental reasons. This is now a private observance, because in the past I’ve shown it to collectors who all said it was a damned shame that the potentially valuable old lures weren’t in mint condition in their original boxes, but had actually been fished.
But back to being lean and mean. Too much stuff leads to too much fumbling, both physical and mental, while clarity of intent can take the place of one hell of a lot of superfluous tackle. I’m able to travel light on the familiar freestone creeks near home, where I fish comfortably with half a dozen flies and no more other odds and ends than fit in a pants pocket. Part of this is the result of years of trial and error over fish that have to feed aggressively and opportunistically if they want to feed at all. The other part is the knowledge that most of these creeks are only minutes from home and tomorrow is another day.
I can sometimes manage the same thing while steelheading, although all the spare Skagit and Scandi heads, tips and leaders steelheaders now carry can make the handful of flies a moot point. I can even sometimes manage to go smallmouth bass fishing with just two or three Whitlock Swimming Frogs, and some shock tippet so the occasional pike or musky doesn’t bite off my expensive deerhair bugs. Still, I constantly struggle to live with the kind of simplicity that eliminates struggle. All I can do is keep reminding myself that Lee Wulff once said, “The last thing you should change is your fly,” which is good advice that’s easier to follow when you don’t have 500 flies to choose from.
But on unfamiliar rivers and those where the trout are known to be difficult, I still clank around with a waist pack containing no fewer than six fly boxes (seven if I bring streamers), plus spare leaders, multiple tippet spools, fly flotant, weight and strike indicators for nymphing, clippers, pliers, leader gauge, hook hone, a line-cleaner applicator that I never use—but should—magnifier glasses, and a headlamp so I can find my way back to the pickup in the dark.
And that’s pared down from when I wore a canvas vest with 12 pockets on the outside, eight more on the inside, plus two large, overlapping cargo pouches in the back. That was the last in a series of vests, each with more pockets than the previous one in case I needed them, which I somehow always did. (Nature abhors an empty pocket. So does the tackle industry.) But that vest began to produce a chronic ache between my shoulder blades that started in mid-afternoon and lasted until I finally shrugged the thing off at the end of the day. This was further aggravated by the large 35-millimeter film camera I carried around my neck for a couple of decades in an unsuccessful attempt to be a fly-fishing photojournalist. There was an obvious rule here that I was finding harder and harder to ignore. Namely, that if your back hurts at the end of a day’s fishing, you’re carrying too much stuff.
I have an old friend who used to guide a highly technical tailwater out of a single fly box (although I think he had a storage bin with more flies hidden under the driver’s seat of his pickup). That’s not as impressive as it sounds, since given time and attention any river can be reduced to a single box, but it still makes the point. He said there’s no need for redundancy because it’s usually fly size, accurate casting and a good drift that catch fish. He also said there’s no reason to carry more than three or four of any one pattern because if you burn through all of them you’re either having such a good day you can afford to quit or such a bad one you should pack it in and try again tomorrow. He suggested that I had somehow confused flies with money in the bank, which is why I’ll never feel I have enough.
Of course he’s right, but I continue to collect flies—not to mention rods, reels, lines and other assorted gizmos, as well as trips to new water—for the same reason everyone else does: It’s easier than becoming a better caster or lying on your belly on a riverbank for hours at a time to observe insects and study the secret habits of fish. I’m talking about what you could call original research. My friend with the single fly box once said that most of what we all think we know about fly-fishing came from books, and that those books were written by people who learned most of what they knew from other books and so on back five centuries. That’s not exactly right, but it’s not entirely wrong, either. It also explains why the best fishermen are the rare ones with all the time in the world on their hands or guides who spend their days watching the fish that their clients are trying to catch.
Still, I can’t resist tying new flies for a trip. Day-to-day life, with its death spiral of chores and errands, can make even a big fishing trip seem unreal right up until the moment you toss your duffle and rod case in the pickup and drive to the airport. But tying flies before a trip clears your mind and gives you something to do besides pacing, fretting, and packing more gear than you’ll ever use.
And now and then it actually makes a difference. I once read that before negotiating a contract or international treaty you should research your adversaries to see what kind of food, wine, art and music they like in order to get their distance and maybe sniff out a useful vulnerability. This also works with fish. Specialized fly patterns, especially the old classics, aren’t just collections of pretty feathers or homage to tradition; they amount to a psychological profile of the fish that have been biting them for generations as if they couldn’t help themselves. Or so you hope.
That’s why I have something like 30 old fly boxes on a shelf in my office, all full of flies, some of which I haven’t used or even seen in years, but must have once believed in or I wouldn’t have tied them. I could easily get rid of more than half that stuff, but it would be too much like sending a good dog to the pound because he’s gotten too old to hunt. For that matter, I may find that I need some of those flies again. If not, they’re at least souvenirs of trips that, for one reason or another, can never be repeated. And anyway, 30 fly boxes don’t take up that much shelf space.
Sooner or later, everyone who writes about fishing gets around to talking about why they do it. It’s an irresistible literary exercise that’s produced great work like Robert Traver’s “Testament of a Fisherman,” but even that classic amounts to the answer to a question no one ever asks. In the real world, those who fish already get it and those who don’t couldn’t care less. It’s not exactly a secret society or anything; but really, if you want to talk about the trip of a lifetime to some remote river, don’t waste your breath on someone who doesn’t fish.
It does all seem to be about the trips, whether they’re short or long, near or far, familiar or exotic, but in the long run, fly-fishing is less a series of discreet adventures than a continuous process that you learn to love for its own sake. It doesn’t always pan out, but even the drudgery serves a purpose. A friend with a little ranch over on the west slope says he spends his days putting hay in one end of his horses and shoveling it up when it comes out the other end, but that this gives him tremendous satisfaction and teaches him things he couldn’t learn any other way.

John Gierach’s new book, All Fishermen Are Liars, is available this spring. He lives in Colorado.