The pale light of dawn had just begun to shine off the surface of the river as we slid down the bank towards the water. It was one of those mornings that just felt good. My buddy Nate and I were anxious to get out on the water to start casting our spey rods for steelhead. We got to the head of a long fishy-looking run and had just started putting our rods together when another angler suddenly stepped out of the trees. “Shit,” Nate said. “He’s going to get on the run before us.” I looked over at the other angler. He was busy rigging up a rod and paying us no mind and I saw that he was wearing an old navy-blue sweatshirt and pulling what looked like neoprene waders over the top of a pair of leggings.
“No worries,” I said. “He’s a Nympher. He’ll go fish down at the tailout and won’t get in our way.” Nate looked at me at me quizzically. “How can you tell?” he asked. “I just can,” I said.
There are a lot of different fly anglers out there in the big fishing world and while not all of them are the same, they can be sorted into different categories. While being able to identify these categories may seem challenging—and possibly asinine—it’s an important skill to have because as I’ve just shown, when you run into an angler on the water it’s good to know who you’re dealing with. Like knowing your entomology, whether that snake on the trail is poisonous, or whether that sound in the woods behind you was a squirrel or a grizzly, being able to identify the anglers around you can be vital for your fly fishing success.
Often spotted in pajama bottoms and muck boots instead of waders, Nymphers believe in comfort. This is because they tend to spend the entire day standing in one spot, casting into the same pool over and over again. Nymphers are also often frightening to look at as staring at strike indicators all day eventually causes their eyes to bulge out of their heads, making them look much like Gollum from Lord Of The Rings in search of his precious. They also have fantastic reaction time from constantly setting hooks at the slightest indication. So a pretty easy way to test to find if an angler is a Nympher is to creep up behind them and then scream and toss a rock at their head. If they turn and catch it, they’re definitely a Nympher.
Very rarely seen actually fishing, Purists are usually found wandering the riverbanks, sweating profusely in their tweed overcoats and Stetsons. While it’s rumored that they actually can fish, it seems that they spend most of their time staring stoically at the water, watching the sun reflect off the finish of their bamboo rods, and gazing at their boxes of dry flies, while sighing deeply with fishy satisfaction. You can always tell your talking to a Purist since 90% of what they say is recycled Norman Maclean and Izaak Walton quotes—Me: “How’s the fishing today?” Purist: “God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling, I am haunted by waters, Good Scholar.”
Twitching and tripping over their own feet, since they’re not used to walking on land, Streamer Junkies are given a wide berth by the rest of the angling community. With their overdeveloped casting arms and the inevitable back problems that come with casting 7- to 10-weight rods for hours at a time, Streamer Junkies have a very Quasimodo-like appearance. It’s usually hard to see what exactly they're wearing because their clothes are so covered in old marabou and bucktail fibers from tying their own giant fly patterns that they look like multicolored shag carpets. It’s important never to make sudden movements around Streamer Junkies as they’re on a constant knife edge from spending weeks on the water and not catching anything, so they have a bad habit of lashing out. Several fly anglers die from infected Streamer Junkie bites every year. Never engage a Streamer Junkie in conversation, for though they rarely catch a fish, they still maintain an almost photographic memory of every fish they’ve ever seen behind their fly and if given the chance, they will tie you to a barstool and tell you about each and every one of them.
You’ll usually hear a Gearhead before you see them. They’ll come jangling along the riverbank like a dog with a brand new collar. This is because of the massive amount of small metallic instruments they have attached to their person. And just like a dog, when they see you on the riverbank they’ll come rushing over to greet you with a happy panting smile so they can show you their toys! Gearheads make great fishing partners because no matter what problem you’re having—from a bad knot to a broken rod tip, to a bleeding head wound—they’ll have a doohickey to fix it. The other trick you can use to positively identify a Gearhead, is that they dress like a walking billboard. Orvis shirts, Simms waders, Patagonia vests, etc. No Gearhead ever goes fishing without ensuring that they’re decked out and representing at least half-a-dozen different brands.
Materializing out of the early morning mist or just appearing suddenly beside you on the riverbank, Gurus only show up when they’re least needed. They’re usually dressed in worn flannels and hats spiked with worn flies. Most will also sport long white or grey beards except of course in the case of female Gurus, where the beard will be slightly shorter. The color and length of the beard is vital to Guru identification as all Gurus are well over 40 years old. Any younger than that and they are simply known as Lucky Bastards ( i.e. “Did you see how many fish that kid caught?” “Yeah, the Lucky Bastard.”)
Gurus usually appear right after you got skunked fishing on a stretch of river. Once you’ve completely given up and thrown your rod down in frustration, a Guru will appear at your side to say “You mind if I fish behind you?” The Guru will then go back upstream to the section of water you just fished and catch every fish in the run in what you thought to be a completely fishless stretch of water. The Guru will look back towards you from time to time as they net their fish, flashing a smirk or two, while you stand there stupidly with your mouth open. Afterwards, they’ll usually hand you the fly they were using, stroke their beard and nod, and then disappear back into the ether. You can’t chase after them either because you’ll be too busy trying to figure out what the hell their fly looked like before so many fish chewed on it.
Like Gurus, Rookies seem to materialize out of nowhere. Unlike Gurus, they always seem to show up right after you’ve just landed a fish. It’s easy to tell a Rookie is approaching by the sounds of constant splashing and swearing in the distance which begins as soon as you hook up. Once you get the fish in the net, a Rookie will appear, usually tangled in their fly line and with a hook or two stuck in their hat, coat, or ear. Often, they’ll be towing sticks, grass, or branches along in their wake as in their rush to come and see your fish, their dangling leader is dragged across the riverbank and becomes tangled with all manner of things. A buddy of mine even once told me about a Rookie who came to him with an entire uprooted aspen tree accidentally tied to his back.
Once you hear a Rookie approaching, it’s best to get the fish out of the net quickly or even to drop some slack down to it so that it shakes off. For if a Rookie sees you with a fish in your hands they will go into attack mode—"What kind of fish is that?” “What did you catch it on?” “Can I take a picture of it?” “How do you cast?” This barrage of questions can quickly drive you into madness and cause you to give up fly fishing altogether.
“Hey man, you got any spare flies?” Popping out from beneath bridges or from under tarps in the back of truck beds and worn and filthy drift boats, Fish Bums are found on nearly all of the great waters of the world. Though few can remember how they actually got there. They’re easy to spot, dressed in their sun-bleached and torn shirts, cracked sunglasses, and with their raggedy hair stuffed under frayed trucker caps. Fish Bums are often seen as the misfortunes of the fly-fishing world. Yet if you can stand the smell of cheap beer, woodsmoke, and B.O. that constantly wafts off of them, talking to a Fish Bum can teach you more about a river than any dozen books. They freely give out information, so long as you provide the right incentive. This can vary from a handful of extra stonefly patterns to a case of beer to a cup of Ramen noodles. It all depends on the Fish Bum you encounter and how hungover they are when you find them.
These are all general guidelines to follow, but things can sometimes get confusing when trying to identify a random fly angler. Sometimes you can encounter a hybrid, such as a Nympher/Guru or a Gearhead/Streamer Junkie. Sometimes you can make a misidentification, like when you think you got a Purist on your hands but really it’s just a Rookie who’s good at poker. The truth is you never know who or what you’re going to run into on the water so it’s best to be prepared. Angler identification is an essential skill to have because it not only shows you who you’re sharing the water with but also once you get all your gear on and are ready to head out on the water, it’ll show you who’s staring back at you in the mirror as well.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.