Over My Waders

What is Fly Fishing?

By Reed F. Curry

Why ask this question? After all, is it relevant what you or I may consider "Fly Fishing", since we will pursue, and enjoy the pursuit, of our chosen quarry as we see fit? Yes... and No.

When the definition of "Fly Fishing" becomes a matter of public policy it behooves all citizen/sportsmen to attempt to agree on this definition. Of course, this is most apparent in the designation of certain fishing waters, or species, as open to "Fly Fishing Only". Some might assume that this is a fairly recent phenomena, however some U.S. waters had been set aside for "flies only" as early as 1903 (100 yds above the dam on Grand Lake Stream, Maine. "The Outing Magazine", 1903).

Perhaps the Atlantic Salmon is the oldest case of a species being targeted as a prey to be sought "with Flies Only". In North America, the defacto "law" passed among the angling public was that this gamefish could be captured only with (in summary) "an unweighted fly, cast by means of fly line and leader to which no additional weight was attached". [This, in essence, was the definition of "Flyfishing" as presented by some states, including New Hampshire, until approximately 1992-93.]

To approach a definition of "Fly Fishing" in a reasoned manner, we should first examine what may make fishing with a fly rod an experience unique from, say, use of a light weight spinning outfit. I would tender therefore the following minimum differences:

1 A certain fluid grace in casting, the line unrolling smoothly from a loop, either tight or open.

2 The ability to false-cast, either to dry the fly, feed out line, or to ensure proper placement.

3 The possibility of delicate delivery of a fly and subsequent drift with a minimum of drag.

The prerequisites noted above carry with them no ethical constraints, no moral tones. Use of a fly rod doesn't put one on higher ground than the bait fisherman who practices common courtesy to his fellow and his quarry. All we can establish about fly fishing is the technical aspects, and those only of the barest minimum, since different environments pose different requirements beyond those mentioned. However, if we acknowledge any truth to proposition #1, then someone trolling a fly from a boat is not flyfishing; nor is someone who is using weights on leader or line ( either bobbers - now going under the euphemism - "strike indicators", or sinkers). Similarly, if we admit to #2, then the use of slinkies for "chuck-n-duck" fishing in fast water would not be flyfishing. And acceptance of #3 would preclude the use of lead heads, slinkies, and other ungainly and dangerous methods best left safely to the spinning rod.

It's true that most states have, within the last twenty years, modified their fishing ordinances to allow the use of weight on both leader and line in "Fly-fishing Only" areas... and still call it "Flyfishing". This has come about because of a rather dramatic change in the nature of the "sport" itself. Fishing, particularly fishing with an artificial fly, has gone big business. Whereas once the outdoor writer would give tips on making a portable fly-tying box from a discarded lunchpail, or how to get an extra year of life from the old waders; today his mission is to market the goods produced by the company that employs him as an "expert". The industry is also intent on making what was essentially a complex solitary pasttime with the joyous prospect of many years of learning ahead-- into a one-week course for the masses. For this, short-line nymphing was perfect as a means of getting the neophyte onto his first trout, no casting skills are required. But short-line nymphing requires weight. Hence the pressure to "relax" the rules, thus allowing the dobber plopper the status of fishing in the "Fly-fishing Only" stretch.

Of course, it's never that simple. Many earnest fishermen of longstanding were also crying for a loosening of the definition; including those that had been working zealously some years before for the declaration of "Fly-fishing Only" areas. Their principal complaint was that in fast water they couldn't get down to the larger fish without weight on their lines. Had they been intellectually honest, they would have worked to get the section of river changed to "Artificial Lure, Single Hook Only" and used spinning tackle to get their weights and lures out, a much safer practice than "chuck-n-duck".

In the final analysis, your personal definition of Fly-fishing is much like the old "sonnet vs. free verse" dilemma. Do you write your poetry within the constraints of a particular style for the pure pleasure and grace it affords, or do you choose to work without strictures and try to convince yourself and others that it is still poetry? And what about your/our public definition of Fly-fishing, is that adequate?

All content copyright Reed Curry © 2006.
Cartoon by Walter Young © 1961, used by permission.