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
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.
(Originally published in
Fly Rod& Reel, Sept. 1999)
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
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
"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?"
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;
surrounding forest is dense with cedar and birch, the woods from
which they built their canoes. In Holbrook's book there are photos
turn-of-the-century white folks paddling their Ojibwa-built birch
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
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
fishermen wait until night." He explained that even the
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
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
"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
Many of the pools, riffles, and lakes of the Bois Brule were named
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
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
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
"You can sometimes take them at midnight with a deer hair
mouse or the Hank's. But we don't have time for that
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.
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
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?"
I cast again. This time I had another take; the tip of the
right to the water. But the line suddenly slackened.
The rest of Big Lake went just the same--fish strikes, hook set
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
"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
the car it had begun to rain.
So, all right, you could say this night on the Brule is the story
good fish and be right--no "protesting" reels or sore
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,
possibility, a little intrigue, a little mystery. Beauty. If, for
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.
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
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
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
watery mud, balanced on his front fins! Those fins protruding out
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
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."
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
centuries saw the many of the innovations in fly fishing--in
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."
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
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."
suggested it was the "results-only" approach that made
cranky clients. I suggested that it was perhaps an American trait.
said with a laugh. He screwed up his face, thrust up a
stiff arm and shrieked "Actung! Ve haf vays of makink you
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
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.
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.
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
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.
French philosopher one wrote, "Style is the man
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.
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.