Fly fishing has been a popular pastime in Europe for at least the past several hundred years. The sport arrived in the New World with the first wave of European settlers and has had a strong following here throughout the history of the United States. What is it about fly fishing that has captivated so many people over the centuries? Why is it that so many of us who pick up a rod are hooked for life before the first fish has even taken our fly?
While fly fishing necessarily points towards the fish as the end goal, this is often not really the true focus. Fly fishing is more about the overall aesthetic, the disparate parts that come together to create the whole experience. Fly fishing writers and the industry as a whole recognize this fact. What’s important is not catching big fish, but attempting to fool a particularly large fish on a size 24 trico, or experiencing peacock bass fishing in a remote Amazonian black water river, or enjoying the peacefulness of a lazy summer day as you float on a farm pond casting a rubber spider for bluegill.
The draws of fly fishing are many. For those who seek it, fly fishing offers the opportunity to enjoy and learn about nature, relax, spend time with friends and family and solve problems. It provides one of the best excuses for travel you’ll ever find, and, for those so inclined, it’s always possible to get a good shot of adrenaline.
One of the main perks of fly fishing is that it provides a great excuse to spend time in nature. Some of my most memorable trips are those during which I’ve had encounters with animals other than fish (the time a child-sized beaver breached like a small whale in a Michigan bog lake comes to mind). The fish we love to catch live in some of the prettiest places on earth and it’s no accident that our favorite places to fish are often not those that promise the best shot at a trophy fish but those that are the most beautiful and pristine. Of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with catching trophy fish in a beautiful spot.
Fly fishing is generally seen as a relaxing sport. Depending on what type of fishing you do and whom you go fishing with this may be more or less true. Whether or not my body feels more relaxed after a day on or in the water, my mental state is always much improved. Spending a few hours out on the water helps me to put my life back into perspective and keep me sane. Stay away too long and I begin to feel stressed and irritable, and my wife sends me on my way to the river so that my company will once again be tolerable.
Some of my best memories of time with friends and family revolve around fishing. Few experiences are as enjoyable as spending a day poling the flats in a skiff or floating down a river with someone whose company you enjoy. Hanging out at the lodge after a hard day of fishing also rates high on the scale of many traveling anglers. Of course, a small boat can seem a whole lot smaller if you get stuck with a guide or fishing partner who just happens to rub you the wrong way. Fortunately, most of us who fly fish are pretty decent people, but it’s always good advice to choose your fishing partner wisely.
There are many fly fishing experts but no one who is honest will ever tell you that they have mastered the sport in its entirety. There is just too much to it. Catching a fish with a fly rod is relatively easy. Getting good at catching with a fly rod is within the ability of anyone willing to spend a little time practicing, but no matter how good you get there is always something else to learn.
Far from dissuading beginning fly fishers, this fact should excite both beginner and expert alike. The many opportunities to solve problems and increase your knowledge are part of what make fly fishing so addicting. It’s hard to describe to those who haven’t had the experience the satisfaction that comes from figuring out a difficult fish over a matter of days or weeks and finally hooking and landing the fish on a fly that you devised specifically for the situation.
For anyone so inclined, fly fishing offers the perfect excuse to hop on a plane and jet off to a far corner of the earth. As mentioned before, fish live in some of the most beautiful places on earth. Wherever your home may be, most of these places are far from home. You may not see all the famous cities of the world this way, but you will certainly see some very interesting places, meet some wonderful people, and hopefully catch some large exotic fish. Even if you don’t have the time or budget to take a fly fishing specific trip, it can be worth your while to do some quick research and pack a rod when you travel. I’ll admit that I’m a little obsessive, but I bring a 5 piece rod and a small selection of flies with me almost everywhere I go. I even managed to get my wife to let me bring a couple rods with me on our honeymoon and was paid off by several excellent days of trout fishing in Ireland (which was planned) and the surprise find of a crystal clear stream in Austria that was absolutely full of large, hungry browns and rainbows.
For those of you who are adrenaline junkies, fly fishing includes its fair share of excitement. Okay, so maybe it’s not on the same level as sky diving or snowboarding down Everest, but then fly fishing isn’t likely to kill you either. Any fishing is exciting in my book, but some experiences tend to draw more attention than other. For example, the sight of a 150 lb tarpon opening its mouth to engulf you fly will set your heart pounding and your knees knocking. And then there are the toothier fish, such as the South American payara, with a set of vampire-like teeth in the lower jaw that protrude through holes in the upper jaw. Or you can head out to the open ocean and do battle with marlin and tuna.
While the fish are certainly not the entire focus of fly fishing, they are obviously a very important part. There are thousands of species throughout the world, many of which can be tempted by a fly. Each type of fish has it’s own habitats, habits, and life history. Trying your skill and your wits against a new species is always an adventure.
Whatever your reasons for fly fishing and no matter what rewards you get out of it, the sport offers a lifetime of enjoyment for all who grow to love it. Most of us who fly fish avidly consider it more a lifestyle than a sport. Catch us at any particular time during the day and we’re as likely to be thinking about fishing as we are about what’s going on in front of us. Let an insect spread itself across our windshield as we’re driving down the interstate and our minds instantly jump to that great Blue Winged Olive hatch last season and we look to see if there’s enough evidence left to identify the unfortunate creature. I’ve definitely caught more enormous fish lying in bed drifting towards unconsciousness than standing in a boat drifting with the current – and the battles have been nearly as interesting. No matter what your level of experience and your reasons for fly fishing, I hope that you enjoy it half as much as I do.
- TJ Bettis