Neil M. Travis - May 23, 2011

Recently I have been reading and reviewing some material on fly fishing when it suddenly occurred to me that many aficionados of the sport do not realize that there are two distinct and separate philosophy's of fly fishing. While most fly fishers understand that some people attempt to match the hatch while others just pick out something that looks edible I don't believe that most anglers realize that a far deeper divide exists within fly fishing, and it is this divide that explains many of the discussions that develop when anglers start talking about fly fishing.

For most anglers fly fishing is a sport; more specifically a form of recreation, something that they do to escape the everyday routines that fill most of the week. The reasons that they choose to attempt to catch fish with a fly rather than a metal lure or natural bait varies widely among the practitioners. It's fun and that is the primary reason that most anglers fish with flies.

The other philosophy that dominates fly fishing is that fly fishing is a business. This part of the fly fishing picture encompasses tackle manufacturers, fly shops, outfitters, guides, and any person or group that looks at fly fishing as a way of generating income. While this group relies completely on the fly fishers that pursue fly fishing as recreation their view of what constitutes what is important in fly fishing is completely different than that of the clientele that they are servicing.

Most knowledgably fly fishers are aware that the fly fishing equipment that is gathering dust in their closets is more than adequate yet each year the fly fishing industry introduces new and improved equipment. In reality the improvements are mostly more cosmetic than practical and any actual change in the product is so infinitesimal that it's undetectable. However, we are conditioned to expect new and improved equipment each year; a fly rod that will allow us to cast farther, one that's lighter or faster than last year's model. Just how much farther does the average angler need to cast? Can we really tell the difference between the weight of the current hot model and the hot model from last year? The real answer is no, but those who see fly fishing as a way to make money feel compelled to convince us that we can or at least we should be able too.

Any fly fisher that has been pursuing the sport for a few years has boxes of flies and is constantly adding to their collection. Are the flies that you are using today that much better than the flies that you were using last year or the year before? While the type of material that we have today to wrap on a hook continues to expand every year there are only so many ways to attach stuff to a hook. All the new materials mean that it's no longer necessary for a fly tyer to dye feathers and fur to obtain a certain color, and certainly that is a great convenience. Is a fly tied with fur from a muskrat hide inferior to a fly tied with the latest synthetic? Can the fish really tell the difference between last year's hot material and the latest and greatest new stuff that's being hyped by the fly fishing media?

One of the longest running debates in fly fishing is the proper way to cast. If you spend a few hours watching people cast with a fly rod you will see all manner of casting styles. In my years of fly fishing I have seen some casting styles that were quite atrocious. Admittedly a few simple lessons could make the process much more efficient, but beyond a few established principles of physics that are integral to the fly casting process fly casting style is a personal thing. However, it's important to understand that if you make your living or support your ego by teaching "the proper way to cast a fly" your view of the proper casting style takes on an entire different perspective. This is the basis of all the discussions about the proper casting style.

This brings me to another philosophy that is found in many forms of recreation; competition. I have long believed that the only form of competition that belongs in fly fishing is the competition between the angler and the fish. This has long been my personal philosophy but I understand that is not the prevailing view of many people. The fact that Angler A can cast farther than Angler B becomes a source of great pride. I take a perverse pleasure in sitting quietly in a café or fly shop where anglers gather and listen to the talk. It's even more fun to watch a group of anglers at an event where they can try out the latest fly rods. It doesn't take long before someone in the group is showing the crowd that they can double haul the entire fly line. It doesn't have to be a casting competition but they will turn it into one. In a few minutes I can pick out the anglers that are more intent on the competing with fellow anglers than they are in merely competing with the fish.

It's the differences between the philosophies of these three groups that spark most of the debates that you find on the various fly fishing bulletin boards. Those involved in fly fishing as a business have a vested interest in getting potential buyers to believe that buying the latest new and improved do-dad is the answer to all the their fly fishing dreams. The professional casting instructor needs to convince you that the way you have been casting for the last 40 years is all wrong and that by enrolling in their casting school, or purchasing their video or buying their latest book you will vastly improve your ability to do what you thought you were doing all along. No one can fault them for that.

Those individuals that base their personal self-worth on their perceived ability to be able to cast farther, have tighter loops and catch more and bigger fish than other mere mortals have their own issues. When they start talking I just smile and remember that this is just fly fishing that they're talking about, and at the end of the day it really doesn't matter much, if at all.

So when the conversation turns to what fly rod is the best, or the debate turns to the correct way to cast, or the best fly patterns it helps if you can sort out the players.

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