Uncovering the great rift among fly fishermen

By Bill Cooper
    Fly fishing has long been revered as the ultimate fishing experience. From the ancient Egyptians, to the Abbey of England, to the Highlands of Scotland to the American frontier, fly fishing took on a spiritual connection. However, a troublesome divide has been growing in the ranks of those who wield the long rod.


    This growing parting of the ways among the ranks of fly fishers may well stem from the unprecedented upheavals society has dealt with over the last couple of years. Uncertainty, fear, and distrust have permeated every aspect of our strained lives, placing stress on every aspect of our humanity. It’s not surprising that upset and divide have entered the pleasantries of fly fishing as well.
    Some suspect that the growing rift among fly fishermen has sprung in part from the increase in fly fishermen who have no experience with a spinning rod, or a casting rig, or the fact that we have become so accustomed to engaging on social media rather than in person. Adding to the disassociation among fly fishermen is the interest in expansion of species caught other than trout. Whatever the case may be, a lot of fly fishermen are wading off in opposite directions.
    The largest divide that has sprung up among fly fishermen is the idea of quantity over quality. On one side of the divide are the anglers who concentrate on the quality of the experience. They tend to focus on the challenge of fly fishing, the healing power of nature, the intrinsic joy of quality casting, the beauty of the outdoors, the adventures of fly fishing in wilderness areas, or the excitement of watching a big Current River rainbow sip a Pale Evening Dun from the surface. While anglers of this persuasion may see the world though different lenses, and long for different goals, they have a common understanding that fly fishing provides something very special, that is virtually impossible to find with other types of angling methods. Regardless of personal differences, fly fishermen of this particular mind are united in their search for a high quality experience while fishing.
    On the flip side of the coin are the anglers interested in quantity over quality. Whether they have arrived at their state of mind consciously or unconsciously, their philosophy revolves around “more” and “bigger.” It’s as if they think the fly fishing game isn’t worth playing unless they keep score.
    Keeping score is an integral part of most sports in our country. Batting averages, earned runs, and touchdowns are all measures of success. Fly fishing, however gives one the opportunity to enjoy an outdoor activity on a higher plane than that of keeping score. Success in fly fishing is measured in the quality of wild places fished, the tumbling of clear, cold, water over rocks, trout finning in the current, and the gaining new knowledge of aquatic life through keen observation. Additionally, fly fisherman seek solitude as often as is possible. The quite solitude of a cold trout stream is enough to renew one’s spirits and reinforce positive attitudes.
    Anyone who hopes to maximize the size of their catch, or the numbers they catch, greatly reduces their odds of choosing fly fishing as a pastime. Highly skilled anglers will certainly catch more bass, pike, walleye, or tarpon with other gear and bait; and they will enjoy an easier time of catching fish as well.
    About the only time fly fishermen gain an advantage over bait fishermen is when trout are rising to the surface to feed. A fly rod with a floating fly one is the most efficient tools for presenting minuscule dry flies to feeding trout. Outside of that scenario, fishing is easier and far more productive if the angler chooses bait or lures for his fishing efforts. Therefore, why would someone set on catching large quantities of fish, or more bigger and bigger fish lessen their chances of doing so by utilizing a fly rod?
    It’s a curiosity that many anglers who pursue numbers of fish, seemingly easily dismiss the overall experience of fishing. It seems the end goal is pounds of fish caught, rather than realizing the importance of a sunrise, a free-flowing stream, or catching a wild trout, all to the benefit of body, mind, and spirit. And why the increasing animosity towards those who aspire to reap the non-consumptive benefits of fly fishing? Not every angler needs to produce a meal from his day of fishing efforts.
    Interest in fly fishing grew by leaps and bounds after the debut of the movie “A River Runs Through It.” The eloquent speeches of the Rev. John MacLean regarding the inseparable connections of spirituality and fly fishing struck a cord with tens of thousands of anglers across the world. However, as fly fishing continues to drift into the mainstream of American life, it appears that we are losing certain core values that have long set fly fishing apart from other methods of fishing.
    I’d love to see fly fishing remain as the sport that Dame Juliana Berners, a 15th Century English nun, taught to the nuns of the Abbey of England. Berners recognized that the intense involvement of an individual in the nuances of fly fishing made it, essentially, a spiritual excursive, when approached with the right attitude. Berners is also attributed with having written the first piece on fly fishing, “A Treatsye of Fyssynge with an Angle.”  
    On the other hand, there is no rule that says we all have to view fly fishing in the same light. Neither do we have to conform to someone else’s notions. Yet, it is OK that our fly fishing and casting should be a reflection of our unique personalities and even our idiosyncrasies.
    We must remember the sole reason to fly fish is to have fun. That statement has different meanings; for one it is the exhilaration of a perfectly executed cast, while for another it is the catching of the biggest fish of the day. Regardless, let’s all pull together.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award winning outdoor writer and inductee of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Outdoor Communicator. He is the host of the Living the Dream Outdoors Podcast, which can be found on most social media platforms. He lives in rural St. James and can be followed at www.facebook.com/ outsidealways.