January 10th, 2005

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Hero Pictures and Darling Betsy

By Joseph Meyer

There are no hero pictures on display here in the fly shop. As I visit fly shops around the country, I have invariably seen these pictures showing grinning anglers and the hard-working folks who guide them proudly offering their catch for display and I'm sure that you have seen them too, you might even be in one of them.

Even here in the Midwest, there are photos of Bonefish, Tarpon, hard-won Permit and Roosterfish honoring those proficient anglers who have the where-with-all to travel to the waters where these species live. Giant Pike from far away Canadian waters as well as toothy Musky are almost always on display along with the hog trout and an occasional picture of a diminutive tiddler that was taken just for fun.

I have one of my own smiling self holding a female King Salmon caught on the Sheboygan River as a screen saver on my office computer but not on the bulletin board. It serves as a daily reminder of the Circle of Life Thing. Salmon spawn, die, the fry go away; come back again as adults, spawn anew. To me, it's an affirmation that God wants life to go on, that's why it appears every time I boot up.

Some of the hero pictures in fly shops are of the Barry & Cathy Beck variety, almost a complete travelogue on 4X6 stock. Some are blurry and out of focus because the harried angler was probably screaming advice on how to operate a camera un-familiar to the guide all the while holding onto a trophy. Also, a lot of trophy fish are taken in low-light conditions that are conductive to fishing but not photography but that makes them kind of fun to look at as well.

Cynics among us might take a gander at all of this fish porn and wonder if the guy in the picture is thinking that he is a better angler than we are, after all, there's the proof. I doubt very much that the expressions of the anglers in the pictures have anything to say other than "Look what I did" but in more than a few the angler is all puffed up like a toad with pride. I probably would be, too.

Fly shop owners post these pictures as a courtesy to their customers thereby giving them bragging rights. Nothing short of actually being present when a large fish is landed is more proof positive that an angler caught this beast than picture and that's why we take them.

Perhaps shop owners post these pictures as subliminal advertising as if to say if you bought flies from this fly shop, you too, could catch fish this big, and for the most part, it's an advertising strategy that works well.

Fly shop bulletin boards are not the only place that hero pictures appear. With improved digital technology, they now appear on most fly shops' websites as well, "Shop here, catch big fish!"

Print ads in the fly fishing magazines are slickly produced to show the big fish but mostly the product being advertised. The angler is holding up for display the fish but also the rod/reel/waders they used to catch such a big fish and if you bought the rod/reel/waders being advertised, you too could catch a big one.

The give-away to these types of pictures is almost always the red hat or brightly colored shirt featured along with the fish. This is the fault of photo editors who demand a more pleasingly composed shot, never mind that most anglers would never fish for trout wearing a fire engine red shirt nor a ball cap that makes them look like anything other than Bozo.

There are no visible scratches on the anglers face, sunglasses are off, the fly rod is not hanging askew off of the side of the drift boat and the fish is almost always in the center of the shot. Heads are not cut off in a professionally produced shot but in hero pictures they quite often are.

I'm mystified as to how these fish were ever caught in the first place. Did an honest-to-God fly fisher catch the fish and then hand it over to a model to pose with or perhaps the angler handed the fish to someone for safekeeping while he changed shirts and hats?

I can identify with the pride shown in the smiles of anglers shown in hero pictures. I, too have a fish that I am very proud of. There is a photo album buried somewhere on my desk bulging with pictures of the beautiful fish that I have caught in equally beautiful surroundings but these are not on display, they are for me.

The only picture on display in my shop is of a fish I did not catch. I am in the shot, proudly grinning, and I am not the one holding the fish. It is a hero picture of Darling Betsy (make that a heroine picture) holding a stunning brown trout.

Betsy came to us when I was an instructor for the Big O, teaching the On-The-Water Trout School. She bounced across the meadow looking so damn cute that she was nicknamed Darling Betsy on the spot. She was carrying a forty-year-old Orvis bamboo fly rod given to her by her father.

She related to us that she tried to fish with it but her father saw her cast and told her to go get some instruction so as not to embarrass herself, the fish nor disgrace that beautiful fly rod.

We took the rod away from her for the time being, gave her a graphite school rod and proceeded with the course work. Only after the two-day class did we return it to her and then only after every instructor had the chance to try it out, it was a stunner.

She was an enthusiastic but mediocre student. Full of excitement but with more energy than talent; she was delighted that at the end of the weekend, I led her downstream for a private fishing session with her Dad's glorious bamboo rod. I chose to wear street clothes and leave my own rod and waders in the truck; I wanted the afternoon to be about Darling Betsy catching a fish with her inherited rod.

I got her to read that section of stream on her own, select her own fly and tie it on her tippet by herself. She had the wrong fly tied onto a tippet that was way too stout, her shadow was directly over the pool and it shaped up to be a fishless afternoon but I let her prod on. She whispered, "This is for you, Daddy," whipped out a respectable cast and drifted her fly too far away from the slot that I was sure held trout but her cast was so short my confidence was erased.

A 16-inch brown rocketed across the pool and absolutely inhaled her fly. She fought that trout for ten minutes, gamely running up and down stream, the both of us giggling like school girls until I waded in up to my hips to bare-hand it. Wet wallet, ruined hiking boots but a landed fish.

The commotion we caused alerted her husband who came over and snapped our picture, the two of us smiling wildly. With great reverence, Betsy revived the trout, wished it well, and sent it on its way. "Thank you Daddy, thank you so very much." Hearing her whisper this, I had to turn away, I must have had a piece of dust or something in my eyes that made them water.

Even though I have the picture on the wall as proof, I rarely look at it. I don't need to, I will remember that trout the rest of my life. ~ Joe Meyer

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