Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Twenty-five


Half Right and Dead Wrong
By Dennis Smith


A well-known angler recently said of fly fishing downstream - "…one knows instinctively that to present a fly that way (downstream) needs no particular expertise nor practice. It is merely an extension of bait fishing…"

Well, he's half right: Fly fishing downstream is an extension of bait fishing all right, but the implication is that neither requires any skill or expertise.

Dead wrong.

All fly fishing is an extension of bait fishing. What is a fly, after all, if it isn't fake bait? What is a San Juan worm, if not a fake worm? … a glowbug, if not a fake fish egg? … What is a streamer, if not a fake minnow? …a blue-winged olive, if not a fake mayfly? The fish don't know our flies are fake, or they wouldn't try to eat them now would they?

Flies are bait. Hand-crafted and carefully presented no doubt, but bait none-the less. Ergo, fly fishing is an extension of bait fishing. I've been doing both for nearly fifty years now, and while I'm certainly no expert at either, I'd have to be a numb as a stone not to have made that connection. A good deal of what I know about fly fishing I learned by fishing bait. Most of the fly fishermen I know will tell you the same thing.

The tools and techniques employed by bait and fly fishermen differ cosmetically but, in the grand scheme of things, they're essentially the same. A rod, a reel, a length of line, and some form of bait are used to entice a fish. Whether it's live, dead, or manufactured bait is a moral distinction that is of no consequence as far as the fish are concerned. Hooked is hooked, and whether you fooled them with a San Juan Worm or a red wiggler from the backyard manure pile doesn't amount to a hill of beans in anyone's mind but your own.

Whether you fooled them with a wet fly or a dry fly is more a matter of personal preference than skill. Fishing dry flies may be more fun, but nymphing is inherently more difficult, and - it could be argued - more effective. I don't think there's much room for debate on that issue, but then you don't have to take my word for it; read the books, ask other anglers. Hell, try it for yourself.

Whether you're facing upstream or down at the moment a fish strikes is a matter of significance only to those who like to quibble over such details. After all, these are rules of engagement we made up to pleasure ourselves. Or, as John Gierach once put it, "We're the ones having all the fun at this. The fish actually don't like it much."

This is not to say that I don't find fly fishing to be more satisfying, gratifying, or demanding of certain skills than baitfishing. It is not to say that I don't find fly fishing more esthetically appealing than fishing live bait. It is to say that, in the end, the purpose of both is to stick a hook in a fish's mouth, and drag it against its will to the net where, depending on your current state of mind (or the law), you will either dispatch it or return it to the water to fight another day, and that's that.

Fly fishing, regardless of the plethora of propaganda to the contrary, is still a blood sport. Each of us goes about it differently, and for reasons that are entirely our own. We choose to dead drift nymphs, cast dry flies upstream, or swing a brace of soft hackles to a downstream lie because that's what we enjoy. They're all equally demanding - and fun. To say that one method or the other is superior is not only elitist; it's dead wrong.
~ Dennis Smith


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