Neil Travis - March 14, 2011

Recently you may have watched the TV quiz show “Jeopardy” where two human contestants pitted their skills against a computer aptly called “Watson.” The computer made the humans look like kindergarten students competing against a college graduate with a PHD in a contest concerning questions dealing with quantum physics. Were you surprised? Computers have the ability to store and quickly retrieve all matter of data and in a completion against a human the outcome is almost a given. Properly programmed the modern computer setting on your desk can retrieve information faster much faster than you or I.

In a recent study of computers and the economy the author made the following statement: “Computers excel at routine cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules.” That’s what makes computers such wonderful data and retrieval systems.

For a number of years I worked in the judicial system. A big part of any legal work is research, search through the volumes of legal decisions to defend or refute a legal argument. I spent many hours reading legal briefs and then researching the supporting documents that the lawyers cited to prove their point. The cited material was found buried in lengthy legal decisions contained in dusty old volumes in our local law library. In the early 90’s the law library was replaced by a computer hooked up to the Internet and loaded with legal software. Gone were the shelves filled with books replaced by a keyboard, a screen, and a printer. The computer allowed me to quickly analyze millions of documents, quickly performing a task that previously took hours. Not only did it make my job easier it allowed me to find information that I was unlikely to discover using the older methods. It enabled me to write more thorough, carefully reasoned and well documented legal opinions. [At least I liked to believe they were better] I believe it helped make me a better judge.

While computers certainly made my work as a jurist easier I don’t anticipate that I will see the day when a computer takes the place of a flesh and blood human being. While being a judge does require some degree of deductive reasoning there is the human element; that gut feeling that things are not necessarily as they seem logically. That is what separates us from computers.

Since some of the earliest written words about fishing with flies writers have attempted to relegate fly-fishing to a sport that follows explicit rules that will, if followed, insure success. In short, they wanted to turn the sport into something that could be accomplished by computers. Fortunately they did not and cannot succeed.

Fly-fishing literature is filled with dogma; sacred practices enshrined in the annals of fly-fishing practice that, if violated, will bring shame and failure down upon the head of anyone that dares to violate them. Woe to the angler or angling author that would dare to question these sacred practices.

According to the Halford School of Dry Fly Angling the dry fly should be fished upstream to actively rising trout. No chuck and chance it allowed no fishing the water, and absolutely no fishing downstream with a dry fly. If fly-fishing is a manual task that can be accomplished by following an explicit rules the Halford School of Dry Fly Angling rules might work, but happily fly-fishing is not such an animal. While I generally prefer to cast slightly upstream to actively rising fish I am not averse to casting a dry fly to a “fishy” looking place without any hint that a fish might be holding there. I have hooked and landed my share of fish with a cross-stream presentation and, heresy of heresies even downstream. I have been known to go out between hatches and fish the water with a dry fly that suggests the type of natural that I think the trout might be hoping to eat. It’s funny, but I have caught a number of respectable fish using these unorthodox methods.

According to the Match the Hatch School of fly-fishing you must have the exact imitation of the insect if you hope to be successful. Seems logical and it’s really how I prefer to fish but during a beautiful hatch when every fish in the stream has turned up their collective noses at my best imitation I have often brought several of them to net using something that does not remotely resemble anything that they are eating. An ant fished during a spinner fall, an imitation larger/smaller than the hatching insects, or an attractor pattern, say a Royal Wulff, which resembles nothing in nature, at least not to my eyes.

There are many other “non-logical” choices that we need to make every time we set out to catch fish with flies. We make unorthodox casts; we use leaders that are too short – too long, tippets that are too heavy, and flies that logically should never work, and we do it all because are not computers and our sport will never be able to be governed by computer logic. Watson may have won the Jeopardy smack down but I’m confident that any competent fly-fisher would send him to the bottom in a few minutes in a fly-fishing competition. We’re not computers and our sport is safe from becoming another victim of computerization.

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