Anything Fly Fishing

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity 

6 Mins read

He turned, lifted his head slightly and said, “I only fly-fish.” We were standing twenty feet apart on the rocky shore of an estuary in Nova Scotia casting 8 wts for stripers. I felt an uncomfortable pressure to agree. Which I did, however it was a lie. I felt conflicted. I fly fish as a preference and I will usually go to great lengths to use the long rod over any other method, but recently I have decided to be more inclusive. The exchange made me reflect on my growing distrust of purists of any stripe. Though, it has to be said that I’ve been one. I know that I am psychologically inconsistent when it comes to fishing, but then nothing to do with fly-fishing is rational, and many of our beliefs are contradictory. I’ve definitely fallen into the purist trap for long periods of my fishing career, and I have been confined by it. Of course, we all know that confinement is what creates challenge, which in turn defines sport. Though, the delineation between the methods anglers use is detrimental to our collective good.

In my later years I’ve decided to broaden my previously narrow view of what constitutes ‘proper’ sport fishing. I wouldn’t even consider conventional gear for many years. Though in truth, I’ve enjoyed casting six-ounce pyramid sinkers off the Outer Banks and trolling skirts off Costa Rica. I grew up coarse fishing in England, on the Thames and its tributaries. I also fished for carp in freshly dug gravel pits with the jets from Heathrow seemingly an arm’s length over my head, and for burnished tench on lily choked country ponds. It was often quite technical and difficult fishing. I was in love with the seriousness of that fishing. I also recognize that it informed my later addiction to the fly! Fly fishing seemed to be the most serious way to pursue fish, but it’s actually not. Check out European carp angling!

I know that my early years trotting a float on English rivers prepared me for nymphing. Though nymphing is in no way harder or more challenging than a properly trotted float. North Americans use a slightly modified version of this very old method for steelhead, and I understand that ‘pinners’ are much maligned by some fly fishing steelhead types. Then, there are light line worm anglers who can trundle a lightly rigged worm down a run equal to the skill of a champion Czech nympher.

I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of fishing a real quill float on 4lb line strung through an old 10’ fiberglass rod, or even a cane rod, with a classic English ‘centre’ pin. I’d fish it for trout. The horror! A few split shot and an orange tipped porcupine quill float delicately presenting a small dew worm on a size 14 hook. It’s actually as purist as can be if you are from where I’m from. Aesthetically it is more pleasing and maybe more honest than fishing a nymph under a bobber, which has always felt kind of dirty to me, which I’ve now eschewed, after years of indecent success. A dry dropper rig is pretty and a fly fishing bobber ain’t! Yes, I know that I am sounding like the purists I criticize, and yes, our beliefs are often contradictory.

I’d hazard a guess that many fly fishers secretly harbor a longing to throw pencil poppers for stripers or fire spinnerbaits into heavy cover for largemouth. Though, our puritan fly-only dogma prevents some of us from doing so. Extremism does not tolerate dissent.

A few years ago, I rented a little A-frame cabin on an island on an eastern Ontario lake. It was spring fed and full of largemouth, and it had a very healthy pike population. I’d just purchased a classic Abu Cardinal 6x spinning reel and a 70’s Abu Conolon spinning rod from a friend. Why? Because it represented my youth. I trolled hardbaits off the points, dawn and dusk. The pike were impressive. Pure aggression and power. Handsome, healthy, feisty and tasty! It was pure, uncomplicated fishing, and it awakened the teenager in me. I was with my sons, and they were of the age where bass and pike form the foundation of a Canadian boy’s fishing career, in central Canada at least. They still talk of that lake.

Coincidentally it was there that I caught my biggest largemouth on a fly, or indeed by any method. I had popped out with my son Tony in the canoe after dinner. We chose a tiny rocky island surrounded by deep water. The sunfish were active and they would peck at my big Dahlberg’s diver bass bug and try as best they could to hook themselves, but they couldn’t. This went on for a few casts as we drifted very slowly by the island. It was a pleasant and warm evening on a classic Canadian Shield lake. I was fishing a rare vintage fiberglass 9wt Sage that is a blast to use and is only brought out of its tube for special occasions. The sunfish were playing and pecking the fly when we saw a big fish coming like Jaws from about 10 feet away. I had the time to shout something wholly inappropriate as the sunfish suddenly scattered. Without hesitation the bass sucked down the fly creating a dining plate sized hole in the water. It bored into the weeds deep under the canoe and stayed there while my 9wt was bent to the butt. After a brief, close combat tussle, up it came to my son’s hand. We had no camera, scales or tape measure. The measurement from my elbow to the tip of my index finger is dead on 18. The bass extended past my fingers by 5-6” and it was incredibly fat. It went back with an insistent slap of the tail. That’s a bit large up here! That it was caught on a fly rod was a crucial detail that matters to me.

Rural Nova Scotia is the most egalitarian place I’ve lived. The kind of place you move to and decide to sell your Porsche. Not me, I’ve never owned one, or care to. I’m more of an old Land Rover guy, which is just a futile attempt at pretending not to be a posh wanker. The lobster barons can get away with their hundred and twenty grand diesel pickups but woe betide a retired money market dude who shows up in something too flashy and European. The Aussies call it tall poppy syndrome. Which translates to, ‘who the hell do you think you are?’

I mention this because if you fly fish for stripers the locals might think that you are trying to set yourself apart, maybe trying to be superior, or just plain stupid because the fish are big and the protein win is considerable. Why risk it? Pragmatism wins here. Fly-fishing for trout is still viewed as acceptable and the tradition of fly-only Atlantic salmon is mainly in Cape Breton which is over 300 miles away. The people down here tend to approach sport fishing as resource extraction because historically and economically it is. Pat, a local former commercial fisherman, once repeated the old chestnut, “I like catching fish, but I don’t get catching them one at a time.” Catch and release is still trying to catch on.

To counteract the perception of being a stuck-up fly-fisher I have decided this season to dig out a 10’ surf stick and a 6000 class spinning reel and fish with the crowd just to prove that I’m at least trying to be one of them. I’ll definitely catch more fish though I’m not holding my breath about being actually accepted. I know in my heart that it might only last about two days before I am stripping a modified deceiver on a T11 tip, with my 10’ 8 wt Loomis GLX and a handmade barstock Bryson reel, all the while dreaming of eating the prosciutto di parma sandwich on sprouted sourdough my wife made for me.

I will always be a fly fisher first but I think that fly fishing can be just too damn serious and confining at times. I need to loosen-up occasionally and throw junk, as a friend calls it. It’s strange to write about trying to fly fish less, rather than more, but that’s the plan this year. I’d like to be an angler first, who fly-fishes as a preference and not as a requirement. The question is, will that nagging fly-fishing part of my brain pull me back? I’ll know soon enough. As anglers we should work to break down divisions. The French revolutionary motto of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ could very well be applied to our sport. Liberty – be free to fish legally how you wish. Equality – treat all ethical anglers the same. Fraternity – we are all in this together and should be on the same side. Afterall, fisheries conservation and the future of our sport depends on it.

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