How Fly Fishing Made Me a Worse Fisherman

How Fly Fishing Made Me a Worse Fisherman

Bowhunting sparked my interest in fly fishing. When I first picked up a bow as a teenager, it brought a new set of challenges and added depth to a sport I already loved. When I bought my first fly rod some years later, I knew absolutely nothing about fly fishing, but assumed it would be the bowhunting equivalent to fishing, and, in many ways, it was. I quickly spiraled down the long-rod rabbit hole. Fly fishing became an obsession, one that continues to this day. But like any obsession, my myopic and narrow focus sometime prevented me from seeing the bigger picture.

The Blinders of Snobbery
As I learned to fly fish, I began to assume a sense of hierarchy about fishing styles. Suddenly, I scorned the very idea of a spinning rod. This affliction isn’t unique to fly anglers and can become so granular as to not make much sense at all: Some fly anglers only fish dry flies. Others will only use streamers. A certain segment of bass fishermen won’t throw anything but giant swimbaits. Others feel that live shiners are the only way to go. Still other folks, known as “rough” fishermen in some circles, scoff at the very idea of fancy boats, tackle and branded clothing. To this group fishing involves bait, lawn chairs and a limit of whatever’s biting. Every group has their particular world view, and certain individuals in every group argue the superiority of their methods and philosophy.

In my case, I took fly fishing exclusivity to an extreme. Fly fishing improved my fishing knowledge, but by focusing so narrowly on a particular way of fishing, I started to prevent myself from achieving my actual goals: In this case, having fun on the water and catching fish.

Wake Up Call
Fishing is situational and truly good anglers understand they need to use different tools and approaches for different situations. If you’re going after halibut in 200 feet of water, a levelwind reel and thick jigging rod is the best setup. If you’re trying to catch trout that are eating tiny mayflies, a fly rod is a better choice. Fly fishing made me a worse fisherman because it blinded me to other ways of fishing. Sure, it’s possible to catch halibut on lead core lines and weighted flies, but it’s far from the most effective or intelligent method.

I held onto my self-aggrandizing fly fisherman identity until a friend turned my angling enlightenment on its head by bringing a spinning rod on a trout fishing trip. He catapulted Panther Martin and Mepps spinners while I fly fished. After he caught the first fish, we switched rods and I laughingly made a cast—which caught another fish. We were fishing Montana’s Madison River, a world famous fly fishing river, so perhaps the trout weren’t used to seeing spinning tackle, or perhaps the conditions that day were just more conducive to pitching iron. Regardless, we ended up catching twice as many trout with the spinning rod. Soon we were arguing over who got to use it.

I had more fun that day than I had in years, which prompted the realization that I had been taking fly fishing (and myself) far too seriously. When I began mixing in other types of fishing, I realized how much I’d been handicapping myself and the bad habits I’d formed.

Old Habits Die Hard
In fly fishing, nothing is more sacred than casting. Anglers new to the sport (and some with years under their belt) often focus so much on casting they forget about fishing. For these anglers, distance becomes the ultimate sign of mastery, and fish become secondary to a graceful delivery.

I too fell into this trap. While trying to cast as far as I could, I forgot about the days of flipping a jig into weed beds for bass. Yes, I learned to cast further, but I caught fewer fish because I was overlooking the juicy water at my feet.

Fly fishing also slowed me down when exploring new water. When I lived in Canada, there were hundreds of small, backcountry lakes within an hour of my home. I knew if I explored enough of them, I would eventually find fantastic fishing. The problem was that it took forever to explore new lakes with a fly rod, finding room to cast and covering enough water. I would have been better off burning down the bank with a spinnerbait than flailing around with fly casts. Now I approach new water by starting with baitcasting or spinning gear and switching to a fly rod once I find fish.

The worst thing about my egotism was it made me forget the reason I got into fishing in the first place. As a kid, my grandfather and I would fish minnows under a slip bobber and toss panfish into a bucket until we had enough to feed our entire family with a fish fry. When I became “enlightened” by my own interpretation of fly fishing culture, I forgot that fishing is, ultimately, a food-gathering activity. It’s laughable that I thought my catch-and-release fly fishing was somehow better than dunking bait for fish intended for a frying pan. What’s purer than digging worms to catch fish to feed your family?

Fishing can be as complicated or as simple as you want to make it. These days, I enjoy all kinds of fishing, and have shed any sense of superiority related to method. I still enjoy casting and fighting fish with fly tackle best, but these days the line between fly fishing and lure fishing is tough to distinguish. I fish with flies that resemble tube jigs, a carved deer hair pattern that glides on the surface with a Zara Spook-like “walk-the-dog” action, and baitfish streamers that dart side to side like a jointed swimbait.

No matter the method, I’m just trying to put a hook in a fish’s mouth. I don’t let my arrogance get in the way of catching fish and enjoying the simple pleasures of fishing anymore.

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