Bill Stieger grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. In his boyhood, he spent his summer vacations catching sunfish with a cane pole in the Brainerd lakes region of northern Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota, majored in English, but made his living playing the drums in various rock and jazz venues in the Midwest. Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, he worked as both a photographer and a drummer. He returned to his passions of fishing and writing, after re-reading Ernest Hemingway’s “Two Big Hearted River,” and soon after purchased a fly rod and began embarrassing himself on the trout streams of western Wisconsin. His first short story, “Starlight Beach,” won a fiction award in 1992 and was published in “City Pages” magazine. He has published fishing articles in magazines “Midwest Fly Fishing.,“ and “Fly Rod & Reel. From 1999 to 2002, he worked as an associate editor with “St. Croix Valley Press,” and was awarded “Best Feature Story” from the
Minnesota Newspaper Association. He now lives in River Falls, Wisconsin, along the banks of the Kinnickinnic River. His 5-year old son, Isaiah, to the exasperation of his father, loves to fish with worms and a spinning rod. Bill prefers bamboo rods, Hardy reels, and traditional
trout flies that he was told don’t catch fish. He feels there are morefly patterns than stars in the universe, and says that the infinitesimal selection causes anxiety.

I hope to add more of Bill's entertaining insights into fly-fishing as he provides them.

In the Heart of the Brule
The Ingenious Trout
When Your Rod is Your Friend
Fly Fishing: An Indicator of Style

(Originally published in Fly Rod& Reel, Sept. 1999)

That Greek philosopher who said you can never step into the same river twice must've been only talking about water. Because if you know the history of a river, you can't help but step into the same river twice. If you know the history of, say, the Beaverkill, you'll find yourself fishing alongside Theodore Gordon. Fish upper Michigan's Fox river and you'll encounter the young Nick Adams. But only if you know.

Wisconsin's Bois Brule is one of America's classic trout rivers. Running northward 66 into Lake Superior, the Bois Brule is the same river as the Ojibwa and the voyageurs used as a highway for the fur trade, the same river fished by presidents Grant, Cleveland, Coolidge, Hoover and Eisenhower, the same river that served as an inspiration for the stories of Gordon McQuarrie, and the same river that served as the laboratory for amateur entomologist Sid Gordon, author of "How to Fish From Top to Bottom. But first it belonged to the Indians.

It was the Ojibwa who gave this northward running river its name.  Wis-a-ko-da is what they called it, which means "Burnt Pines." The French put the characteristic flourish to its name, calling it Rivier du Bois Brule. These days it's officially the Bois Brule (pronounced "Boy Brool" in local lexicon) or more commonly, "The Brule," though I had once heard some fop at a party call the river "Bwaa-Broulay." Everyone just stared.

Streamside on the Brule is either packed with tag alders, muddy with spring holes or posted NO TRESSPASSING by its  gentrified landowners. So you must traverse the Brule by canoe, as the Indians did. Of course there are places where you can wade the river. But access is limited, its best stretches inaccessible by land. The scenery is better from a boat, anyway.

Brook, brown, rainbow, steelhead; Coho and Chinook salmon, too. There's no lack for species of salmonoid on the Brule. But a large variety of trout makes the fishing no easier. I had fished the Bois Brule before and both times caught only a hat-full of brookies and one little rainbow. Swell scenery is fine; so is history. But a great trout river must yield fish. And I had had but dismal results on the Bois Brule.

That was before fly tier Dave Lucca introduced me to Steve Therrian, a guide from Superior, just 20 miles from the Brule. Lucca told me Therrian knew Brule history and modeled his guiding service in the tradition of the old guides, former lumbermen and boat builders who often lived in cabins of the property of the families they guided for. "You can't run up to the Brule using your standard fly fishing tactics and expect big trout," said Lucca. He urged that I give Therrian a call. Lucca added that I should check out Therrian's fly patterns--traditional Brule ties--and use a 10-pound tippet attached to a 6 or 7 weight fly rod. "You gotta be able to rip those flies out of the tag alders,' he said.

Steve Therrian picked me up at my campsite, just outside the town of Brule. We traveled south on Hwy. 27, passing the resort and fly shop called Brule River Classics. We drove through a corridor of red and white pine, past the public canoe dock called Winneboujou, where the photos of birch bark canoes in Alfred Tenney Holbrook's memoir, "From the Log of a Trout Fisherman," were taken. By North Country standards it was hot, 80 degrees, and pleasant without the humidity of St. Paul. I rolled down the window to let in the breeze. From the woods I heard the rise and fall of cicadas as we passed.  Therrian, a silver-haired English Teacher with the build of a gymnast, complained of the heat and warned that fishing might not pick up until night fall. I was about to asked him where his canoe was docked when he suddenly turned right onto a dirt drive that tunneled right onto a dirt lane that tunneled into the trees.

"Don't tell her you're a writer," Therrian said as we rolled slowly toward the gigantic log home. A black haired woman stood at the side of the house watering petunias with a garden hose. He mentioned something about the wealthy wanting to keep the Brule theirs.

"No one believes they're really a writer," I said. "Not even the good ones."

I waited back at the Toyota wagon, my arms loaded with rods, canoe paddles and life preservers while Therrian spoke the woman. When he gestured toward me, I struggled forward, then stopped to gather a dropped canoe paddle. Introductions were made. She was a handsome older woman with glittery eyes--eyes that owned the relaxed composure of money. "And what do you do?"
she asked.

Therrian stood in the stern and pled the canoe up channel like a gondolier. He sat and paddled when the water deepened, stood and pled whenever we shushed against a sand bar. The channel was alder choked and boggy. Ribbon grass wavered under the watery surface. I sat at the bow with my 5-weight Jenkins, casting the huge Royal Wulff Therrian had recommended, a nice relief after fishing the tiny blue-winged olive patterns on my home stream. My 7-weight lay on the floor, strung with a Brule pattern called Hand's Creation.

The Indianess of the Bois Brule remains, despite white ownership; its surrounding forest is dense with cedar and birch, the woods from which they built their canoes. In Holbrook's book there are photos of
turn-of-the-century white folks paddling their Ojibwa-built birch barks past the canoe landing at Winneboujou. You look into those woods and expect to hear tom-toms.

Therrian guides with an odd style. He took getting used to. For instance, he'd refer to himself in the third person. "Don't cast while the guide is standing," he'd say. He'd offer his flies--Pass Lakes, Wulffs, Arrowheads--stuck to the grip of his paddle, though it would've been easier just handing them up to me. When he explained something of the Brule's history, he spoke in a churchly voice, like a religious instructor. And whenever I slightly rocked the canoe while making a cast, he'd get on my like a schoolmarm: "Sit down while you cast; you're disturbing the guide!"

As we traveled up the channel, Therrian fielded my questions. He explained that the larger of the stream trout are the browns, that when the rainbows fatten they move out into lake Superior.

"There's a lot of cover for the browns here. That's why the serious fishermen wait until night." He explained that even the Brule's top hatches--the Hexagenia and brown Drakes of June--were night hatches. The Brule, Therrian told me, gets Hendricksons, Blue-Wing Olives, Sulphurs, Tricos, etc., but the Brown Drakes and Hexes offered the best opportunity for taking a larger fish. "Most of the time you'll fish big attractors and streamers--wolfs, Irresistibles, Arrowheads and Pass Lakes. Match the hatch of this river and you'll be lucky to get a 14-incher."

"What about nymphs?" I asked. "Sid Gordon wrote about nymphs."

"No good from a moving canoe. You'll get continually hung up."

Sid Gordon's classic, "How to Fish From Top to Bottom" broke new ground with its emphasis on fishing nymph patterns. Gordon was also one of the first to stress the importance of imitating the caddis fly. To imitate this submerged adult, Gordon fished a pattern he referred to as the "wet dry fly"--a normal dry fly pattern (he liked Hare's Ear bodies for catching bubbles) tied on a heavy hook and fished wet. Gordon's observations regarding stream insects, fly patterns and fishing tactics were ahead of their time.

The river opened up from shadow into a shaft of bright sun as we advanced from Wildcat Rapids into Lucius Lake. Therrian pointed out a bald eagle roosting from a pine top. We heard the sound of a deer crashing through the thicket. The surrounding forest looked as lush and thick as a jungle. Upstream, a canoe approached, college kids, a boy and girl. Lucius Lake, which is simply a widening of the river, was dotted with the rises of brook trout that repeatedly refused my fly. I asked Therrian for a smaller fly, but he refused.

"You want six-inch books?" he scolded. "You want minnows?"

"Hey, I'm the client, " I said.

"You don't want those dinks."

A Pass Lake streamer suddenly appeared on the end of a canoe paddle.

Many of the pools, riffles, and lakes of the Bois Brule were named for characters past. McDougall Springs, Wheaton's Landing, Little Joe Rapids.  Take Lucius Lake; I'd read in Holbrook's book about Joe Lucius, a boat builder who owned a small resort on the lake of his name. Lucius canoes, stable, flat-bottomed vessels not unlike Au Sable boats, were known for their clean lines and durability. Those turn-of-the-century rich whose lodges still line this section of the Brule kept Joe Lucius busy making boats, building lodges and guiding fisher folk.

At century's turn, much of the Midwest's gentry, filthy rich from mining, forestry and manufacturing bought up large tracts along the Brule and built palatial lodges that have stayed in the hands of those families to this day. The grandest of these lodges is the old Pierce estate of Cedar Island, later bought by the Ordways of St. Paul. It was the Pierce estate that became Calvin Coolidge's "Summer White House," in 1928. Hoover and Eisenhower stayed as guests of the Ordways. And the Ordways of St. Paul are the same Ordways mentioned in the last pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," when Nick Carroway describes his life in the Midwest: "Are you going to the Ordway's?"

"Boats in the current."

Though I am not enamored of the rich, I must admit these Brule aristocrats have taken an active stewardship toward keeping this river wild, its water clean. Had the woods along the Brule not been privately owned, it might've been converted into some riverine amusement park similar to, say, the Wisconsin Dells. So what--to paraphrase Fitzgerald--if these rich are not like you and me?

President Grant fished the Brule in the 1870s, followed in the 1880s by Grover Cleveland, who came to Wisconsin as a guest of one Col. William villas, who ended up as Cleveland's Secretary of the Interior. Cal Coolidge spent the better part of the summer fishing the Brule in 1928. Cal was a, novice fisherman, and guide John LaRock struggled to get the Prez weaned from a predilection of garden hackle. It's well known that Coolidge was a cheap bastard. One evening LaRock was made to search the grating of the presidential canoe for one goddamn split-shot. LaRocks reward for his week of tangled leaders, lost flies and holes in his hat? One cheap cigar. Holbrook remarked wearily in his memoir: "I've seen the cigar."

Upstream from Lucious Lake, Therrian pled his Old Town through another channel, then onto Big Lake, the largest swelling of the Brule. The water on Big Lake is slow and glassy; I didn't have to look up to watch the clouds against the pinkening sky. The rises of trout were growing lager and more numerous; I caught three brook trout in three casts. The evening began to cool as the night made ready.

Then a fish suddenly slapped the water hard, as if someone had dropped a bowling ball. Huge browns from Lake Superior, they were. Therrian said the lake-run browns arrive in Big Lake every August for spawning. Another brown hit the surface and my heart went into my throat. "We're not fishing for them," said Therrian. "they're not feeding." He added that trespassers (poorer folk, my kind, often referred to as "jack-pine savages") filter in from the woods surrounding Big Lake and fish these monsters with spinning gear. Their favorite lure is Fred Arbogast's Jitterbug. Therrian pointed to the hulls of two battered canoes that jutted from the distant woods like cuckoos from a clock face. Another brown slapped the water.

"Let's try them," I said. "They've got to be taking something."

"You can sometimes take them at midnight with a deer hair mouse or the Hank's. But we don't have time for that tonight."

As we advanced to the north end of Big Lake, the sky-filled water sent me into a daydream. I pictured bearded voyageurs paddling in birch bark canoes; Ulysses S. Grant in starred blue coat (remember, I'm imagining) casting no-name wet flies with a lancewood rod, fending off mosquitoes with a stinky cigar, hauling up leviathan brook trout, the Bule's original natives. I imagined a scene from "Moby Dick," that "A River Runs Through It" for maniacs.

"Hey!"

I jerked out of my reverie and squinted back at Therrian.

"We're trying to catch some fish, you know," he said.

"Yeah," I said. "Right."

We docked at the south end of Big Lake, where whitewater rushed in from an upstream channel. This was a dock and picnic area owned by one of the Brule Brahmins. The air had taken a chill and clouds began closing in from the south. I returned from a visit to a shrub to find Therrian on the dock casting my 7-weight, strung with the Hanks.

Therrian demonstrated the Hanks technique: cast to 10 o'clock, then sweep the rod tip to the side in an arc. Hank's Creation, a silver popping bug with deer hair pigtails, made a perfect V when pulled correctly across the channel, its action supposedly mimicking that of a swimming mouse. But with its size, and all that hair hanging from it, Hank's Creation reminded me less of a mouse and more of a shrunken head.

"Trout Town comes alive at sundown. From beneath overhanging banks, sunken logs and sheltering rocks come the adult citizenry to chase the dandiprats out of the riffles and accept whatever the evening hatch has to offer--Gordon McQuarrie."

In waning purple light I practiced with the Hank's as Therrian ("You've got to get it right into those alders. If you don't get hung up you're not in close enough.") paddled the boat along the tag-aldered shore. I had read of Hank Denney in Holbrook's book. Denny had owned a store and restaurant in the town of Brule. Denney sold groceries, sporting goods and ammo. He shuttled canoes up and downriver in a rattlety-bank Model T truck. According to Holbrook, Denney was the most foul-mouthed man in Wisconsin, which is no small feat. As Therrian steered the canoe back across Big Lake, I practiced making sweeps across the bow of the canoe with the only remaining vestige of a store owner's life.

By now it was night in earnest. Therrian slowed the canoe near a pile of partially submerged, skunky smelling logs He stopped the canoe with his
pole and whispered to cast the Hanks right onto them.

"Right onto the logs. Then let it fall into the water."

When I pulled the Hank's from the log, the water suddenly exploded, like someone had thrown a silver salute. "Jesus Christ!" I yelled, then set the hook on nothing.

"Put it back out there," said Therrian. "Right in the same place."

"You're kidding," I said. "Those're browns?"

"Cast again."

I cast again. This time I had another take; the tip of the 7-weight bent right to the water. But the line suddenly slackened.

The rest of Big Lake went just the same--fish strikes, hook set onto nothing.  Therrian told me I had to let the fish "have it." After each miss, he'd explain what I'd done wrong. My delivery was too slow, too fast. I set the hook too early, too late. But at least we were finally getting some action. That was the point.

Fishing from a canoe--especially with the aid of a knowledgeable guide--softened my prejudice against night fishing. From a canoe you don't have to stumble through the brush; the boat continually delivers you to new water, fresh situations. And I was surprised by how well I could see the river, reflecting like burnished aluminum, even when surrounded by the blackest forest and a sky with no moon. And I had no problem seeing the wake of the Hank's or the water erupting when a big brown struck. Night fishing on the Brule is eerie, intriguing and seems to add to the adventure. I made a mental note to return the following June for the Hexes and Brown Drakes.

And, yes, I finally did catch one of those browns. We were back on Locus Lake, near the end of our journey. I was dog tired, which must've helped slow my hook set. When I had the fish solidly hooked, Therrian switched on his flashlight. I saw the trout whirling as he strained against the 10-poind tippet. And I boated that fish, a fat 16-incher, he was. I unhooked him and let him go.

"That's an OK fish," said Therrian, as I held the trout in the glare of his flashlight. "It's about 14 inches."

"Fourteen inches?" I said. That, my friend, is a sixteen inch fish."

"Fourteen inches. Want to measure him?"

"No," I said. "I don't measure fish. The size of the fish is the size of the fish in your heart. That's my own saying," I said.

"You can keep that saying," he said.

As we cruised down through Wildcat Rapids in the now solid darkness of the encroaching trees, we heard swing music playing from the weeks downriver, from what must've been a lawn party. It was a recording of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," and Gene Krupa's tom-tom solo, in my over generalizing mind reminded me of the Indians. We docked and gathered our tackle in a night now punctuated with shimmers of heat lightning. By the time we packed the car it had begun to rain.

So, all right, you could say this night on the Brule is the story of one good fish and be right--no "protesting" reels or sore forearms from cranking up hawgs. But I don't care. There is more to a river than the fish caught in one outing; and besides, I saw some of those leviathans that swim the Brule. And the photos of 30-inchers on the wall at Brule River Classics don't lie.

But that's not the whole story of the Brule. There's history, setting, possibility, a little intrigue, a little mystery. Beauty. If, for instance, I say that the size of a fish is the size of the fish in your heart, I also mean that the measure of a river is the measure of the river from that same place.

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In their books and magazine articles, trout fishing writers,  are always mentioning that trout are sub-reptilians with a brain the size of a pea.  They tell us that trout can't think--at least not in the way we understand thinking. I remember one writer in a magazine article called the trout, "a brain stem with fins." Those trout writers know nothing. In the first place, they're very unimaginative; they have no grasp of mystery or magic, two factors that tilt the scale on trout rivers. They believe that facts can explain all trout behavior. Like the "fact" that 90 percent of all food taken by trout are nymphs. How do they know? Maybe they get 50 percent of their food delivered from take-out. All one needs to know of fly fishing, these guys believe, can be found in the detritus sucked up by the stomach pumps they shove down the trout's gullet.

I'd love to take these trout writers to my river; I'd introduce them to finned geniuses.  I'd show them Mensa trout. I'd show them trout that'd get rich playing Jeopardy. Think I'm exaggerating? Bend an ear; I'll tell you a story.

It was the last week in May, a few years back. I'd fished a brook trout stream early in the day with rather meager results, owing to the howling wind that fouled my casting and dragged my fly around like Ajax did Achilles. On my way home, I stopped at the Rush River, because I'd  noticed the wind had died down as the sun made ready to set. Better, there was only one fisherman along that stretch of the river, an old guy wearing a sun helmet, similar to a postman's. I tied on a rather fat parachute adams a friend had given to me. Not five minutes into the fishing, a brown in the neighborhood of 18 inches snatched my fly and made its watery explosion when I set the hook. The fish caused such commotion in the shallow water that an older fisherman who had been fishing downstream of me wandered over to watch the show.

On a comparatively small river like the Rush, even a 20-incher rarely strips you to your backing. But the larger browns have a net defying act that is good enough for Carnegie Hall: they'll wrap your tippet around a rock and bust off ; they'll act played out, only to pop you off with a head jerk as you attempt to net them; they'll find a fast current and lay their weight against it until the fly pulls free. I've seen all the acts of the larger fish on the Rush.  But on this particular day, this particular brown offered a up show I've not seen before or since.

I hadn't a net with me. And the old gent who had just lighted a cigarette told me he never carried one. No big deal; I beached the fish, dragged him  a short way up the bank that was slick with mud from the previous night's thunderstorm. I laid down my rod, and was just about to start toward the fish, when the most peculiar thing occurred.

This fish, this trout, I swear--he flipped himself right side up in the watery mud, balanced on his front fins! Those fins protruding out from under him reminded me of miniature clown's feet. That's right, the trout was balanced in the mud as if he were in the water! I'll never forget it as long as I live. But that was nothing to compare to what I saw next. The goddamned trout, he rotated his eyes in independently, like fish do when they look out at  you from behind the aquarium glass. Then his eyes lined up and--I swear I was sober--he looked me right in the eye! He then suddenly began furiously churning his tail in the mud and shot across the
mud like a torpedo. He shot between my legs, popped off the tippet with the leader still had in my hands, the jerk of which sent him tumbling end over end, somersaulting back into the water.

Think of it: the fish had to work to an upright position on land; he had to orientate himself, while on land; he had to gauge the distance between my legs; knew he had to work at the utmost speed; knew his way back into the water from 15 feet away.

I laughed so hard that I had to double over. "Did you see that?" I said between hyperventilations. "Did you see what that fish did?"

The old fisherman took his time. He took off his sun helmet and ran his fingers through a shock of white hair. He said, "Did I see what just happened?" He let out a  laugh. "Matter of fact, no! I ain't never going to admit it young man. I didn't see a damned thing."

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My beef with graphite fly rods is that they're simply incapable of being your friends. Modern fly rods are stamped out by the bushel-full. None who take part in their manufacture remembers them in the least. Each model of a synthetic rod looks and performs in exact, similar fashion. And check out their names--Stealth. Trident. GPX. SLT. T3. Those are terrible names a fly rod. I'm half-waiting for the WMD model to hit the fly shops. If you think graphite rods look beautiful, that's your business.

But the bamboo fly rod's friendliness is the inverse of the rod made of graphite. Those six (or four) strips of bamboo are designed, cut, burnt, planed, sweated over, cursed at, varnished and wrapped by one craftsman, or a small group of them. Not only is the rod an object of beauty, but, even on the day it arrives, it brings its own history. First is the history of the classic rod maker--Payne, Leonard, Garrison, Young, etc.--whose influence guided the maker who designed yours. Add to it the rod's history, of the hours spent in its making, with each posing to its maker problems of node spacing, water marks, the tendency to bend in some inconvenient direction. Bamboo's inconsistency insures each rod is unique. And bamboo doesn't always behave. Many rod makers abandon or throw into the fire rod blanks that don't perform to task. The bamboo fly rod is a product of  labor, craftsmanship, and history. Of course, it looks terrific. Soulful.  And, in my opinion, bamboo casts smoother that any fly rod born of carbon fibers.

My first cane rod was made by Steve and Charlie Jenkins. I came to choose a Jenkins by good fortune and information in their brochure. I'd telephoned other makers and had them send brochures (this was before the advent of the Internet). Some of their prices were  higher or lower than the Jenkins. The brochures described the wraps and reel seat, but provided little information as the rod's performance. The Jenkins brochure stressed the efficacy of the rod's action, the aesthetic behind its design, along with the results of a survey from 1976 that rated it as the top casting rod, when compared to many prominent makers of the era. With fingers crossed, I placed my order with Steve. Six months later, I realized my good fortune when I took possession of the finest casting fly rod I'd ever put a line to (It's been a decade, now. And I've cast loads of cane rods. But the Jenkins is still my favorite).

That rod, GA80 75, became my companion in the manner of Davy Crockett's "Old Bess," Roy Hobbs' "Wonderboy," King Arthur's "Excalibur." I fished it 100 days a season, on my home rivers here in Wisconsin. I flung nymphs and streamers, scuffed it up by falling down a rip-rapped embankment. Caught some trout over 20 inches, fished it in winter, used it on a Blue Winged Olive hatch that ended up being my sole finest day astream (massive all day hatch; loads of fish in the from 14 to 20 inches). It accompanied me on my
first trip West as a fly fisher. It fished the Yellowstone, Madison, Slough Creek, the Gibbon, and Soda Butte. I've taken it up the Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where the brook trout look like they were painted by an Impressionists. The rod was now part of my history. And that's, I believe, how a fly rod can become a truly precious object--when it carries your memories of days spent astream.

Oh, about that Jenkins. I am a notorious tackle buster. Despite a decade of trouting, a decade of bushwhacking, stumbling, even once watching it fall from my car roof as I drove off. It remained the same rod I took from its tube ten years before. In all that time it never took a set. Sure, it has battle scars, but like Willie Nelson's guitar, those scuffs and markings helped make the rod mine. To take a fine bamboo rod, and to fish it often, is to take a history. And that's why the Jenkins is my friend.

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I've been told that I'm a "dry fly purist." I've been told I'll never catch monster trout by fishing surface patterns. They give me that worn cliché, "90 percent of the food trout eat is below the surface." Where did they get the exact figure? Maybe only 85 percent of the food they eat are nymphs, the other 15 percent take out food brought in by caterers.

I'm no purist; I just like fishing drys. Besides, a purist is a
guy who only fishes nymphs with a graphite fly rod. When I do fish nymphs,  I try to not use a strike indicator. For me, fishing without a bobber is not a preoccupation with "purity," but a matter of style and ease of casting. Efficiency is not my first priority in fly fishing. The beauty of the sport is what appeals to me. In deference to the beauty, grace and style of fly fishing, I am often purposely inefficient and old-fashioned, because the trout stream is where I attempt to escape the world of technological worship, the god of efficacy, things made of plastic. And, yeah, I fish with a bamboo fly rod, though I once heard a fish guru say on a videotape--here's another cliché--that bamboo is "useless as a casting tool."

I own a fly rod. And as far as I can tell, I'm not in need of a "casting tool."   Now I have a friend who fishes pocket water with artificial nymphs nearly all the time, with a putty strike indicator the size of a golf ball. With a half-pound of soft lead on his tippet, he casts this rig, I'm not kidding, 40 feet, grunting with the effort like a one-armed man at an axe throwing contest. I'll admit he catches a lot of trout. I fished behind him once, and watched, horrified, as that chartreuse glob of Play-Doh rocketed toward me on his back cast. I scrambled out of the river, fearing a skull fracture. And that wasn't the end of the terror. That night I was awakened with beating heart by a nightmare of howitzers firing green cannonballs at me while trapped in a bog made of marshmallows, too stuck to run.

"So that's why everyone needs those super stiff fly rods," I shouted to my friend over the roar of the river. But he was so grim to his task that I didn't get to tell him my improvised joke about "high-globulis graphite." But that was all right. He wouldn't have laughed anyway. 

When it comes to a task, whether work-related or recreational, we Americans take the "get-the-job-done" approach, the method we inherited from our ancestors, who had to improvise, style be damned, with any method that would help them survive in the New World. But this form of "utilitarianism," what the philosophers call it, extends to our current style of fly fishing. It's not all bad, I suppose. The last few centuries saw the many of the innovations in fly fishing--in flies, rods, methods of presentation--hatched by Americans. Hiram Leonard, Theodore Gordon, Lee Wulff, Vince Marinaro, Everett Garrison, Ernie Schweibert, George Harvey and dozens more were men who wanted better rods, better flies, better tactics than the traditional methods handed down to them. Yankee ingenuity, etc. Throughout our relatively short history we Americans seem to be saying "We don't care how the job gets done, as long as it gets done, dammit."

However, the downside to this philosophy of utilitarianism in fly fishing is the devaluation of the process this marvelous sport. I'm talking about style. I'm talking about your manner of fishing, which I believe is can be as important as your catch. But mentioning style automatically puts you on shaky ground with shop rats at your local fly fishing dealer. Mention style to a group of American fly fisherman and a good half of them will question your testosterone level.  I once met a guide in Yellowstone Park who said that most of his clients only wanted to be handed the right fly and told where to throw it. This guide, who will remain unnamed, is one of West Yellowstone's oldest and most experienced guides. "They give me a dirty look if one of the bison at Buffalo Ford interrupts the drift of their strike indicator, as though it was my fault," he said. "Most of them don't want to bother to learn about fly fishing.  They think the knowledge part is my job. They only seem to want results. Fish on is all that matters. Then they'll whoop and holler like they're at a football game. One client said on a slow day that I wasn't being productive enough  Actually," he continued, "women make better clients. They understand that fishing as a process, a rounded experience that doesn't always depend of results. Even if they can't cast, or they're not catching, they're usually always enjoying themselves, enjoying being outside, enjoying the scenery.  But there're some guys--remember, I'm saying just a few--who can't see the forest or the trees. They get personally insulted if the weather's not perfect, though bad weather can be generally good for fishing. Some get bitchy if they're not yanking in a trout every ten minutes."

I suggested it was the "results-only" approach that made them such cranky clients. I suggested that it was perhaps an American trait.
                                                                                           "Naw," he said with a laugh. He screwed up his face, thrust up a stiff arm and shrieked "Actung! Ve haf vays of makink you fish!"

It's a lesson I need to heed myself. I too forget that it's OK to not be hauling them in. I've often finished a day of few fish by degenerating into a trout-slut, tying on a bobber and a bead head and derricking out a few salmonoids. How pure is that? I mean, sometimes you need results. It's not just an "either/or" proposition, this matter of style. Hey, I struggle with it, too.

But when bobbered and bead headed, the joy of fly casting evaporates. The fishing actually becomes work, an activity my friends will testify that I'm phobic about. And the work of lobbing the nymphing rig--are we not having fun yet?--is tiresome and draining. And it's especially draining when the whole indicator-and-splitshot mess gets wrapped around your fly rod in a rat's nest of monofilament  Einstein couldn't unravel.

I believe that fishing the fly is first and foremost a style of fishing. That's what it is. The grace and feel of the casting loop, they symmetry observed in a well tied fly, the often startling beauty of trout that demands they be caught in the most poetic fashion. I'm sorry, but style matters. Style is the reason that I much prefer a skunking on my Kinnickinnick River to hooking a twenty-inch crap fed stocker from a trout pond at an amusement park. Of course, catching fish is important; it's the main point, but not the only one. That's part of why I don't care for indicators. The style sucks. Besides, some of the finest nymph fisherman I know catch scads of trout without relying on an indicator the size of anasteroid.

Some French philosopher one wrote, "Style is the man himself," and he was right, though I'd amend it to include women. You are as you fish. Experts who nymph bobberless seem among the grandest of fishermen. It takes a commitment of time and effort to learn what John Geirach calls the zen of nymph fishing, an art unto itself. And since I brought up art, don't mistake: Fly fishing approaches art when you can consistently catch trout in a style based on your experience and character, not Lefty's or Dave's or Gary's, great as they are, but yours.

You can't divorce matters of style, beauty and grace from the process of fly fishing. Why? Because those qualities are precisely the sport's greatest appeal. I'm sure someone's written a good novel about someone who fishes with a spinning rod, but I've never heard of it. And why? Because this sport of fly fishing has more grace, beauty, poetry--more style!--than any other form of sport fishing. Literature backs my argument. Style. Norman Maclean's book mentions it. So does Robert Traver. Hemingway's "Two Big Hearted River," gets gushy for the fly rod, though Nick Adams is casting with live grasshoppers. But imagine a latter day Nick Adams in a recreation of the story:

"Nick stuck the fuchsia foam indicator to his leader. Above the grasshopper he attached the lead. The leader was too heavy now to cast, so Nick swung and lobbed the line, sometimes using both hands. Nick felt more like a man swinging a baseball bat than he did a fisherman. But that was all right. Suddenly, the indicator jerked back under the water's surface, a dangerous looking take. Nick struck. The fly line flew out of the water with a gob of watercress and wrapped itself around a tree limb..."

I am haunted by strike indicators. 

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