The sport of fly fishing is a many faceted gem. For those of us in my generation, and the one preceding it, the rich traditions of the literature, the landscapes and the personalities that nurtured the sport play a central role in our own enjoyment of it. For the younger crowd, these elements seem much less important, and it is the sense of adventure, the lure of the gadgets and gear, and the pursuit of ever-bigger fish that seem to drive the addiction.
While bias leads me to take false comfort in the arrogant certainty that MY way of experiencing the sport is superior, common sense tells me I’m probably full of crap. However, even within that concession, I can spot the shortcomings of the young guns’ approach.
While we old-timers may be guilty of sentimentality and the amplification of memories when we prattle on about how good things were in the good old days, the Generation X’ers and Millennials have missed something vital in their cavalier discarding of the sport’s history and lessons in the insatiable quest for “what’s next?!”
And this isn’t just because a curved-brim hat blocks sunlight better than a flat brim.
The knowledge -- and dare I say wisdom -- of anglers and writers past could actually be of use to the young guns if they would slow down enough to realize it.
Guys like McClain, Wulff, Schwiebert, Marinaro, Brooks and others have a great deal to say about the sport that is just as relevant today as it was a half-century ago when they wrote it. In re-reading Schwiebert recently, I have found a treasure trove of advice – and some amazingly insightful observations that have enhanced my enjoyment and understanding.
And, the same is true of the gear side.
Only someone who never looked at the guts of a Bogdan could call a current disc drag reel innovative; and only one who never dirtied the grip on a Young Perfectionist or a Payne 100 would call even the best of today’s trout rods an “improvement.”
I was struck by this fact when I was looking at a couple of “everyday” reels from my modest collection.
The first was a Skeleton reel of uncertain ancestry — probably a Hendryx and certainly nothing more storied than a Pflueger. It was as light as any reel made today (and before you start in with the argument that it “isn’t as durable” consider two points — a DT4F line would fill the spool to its raised pillars, so air-bag-deploying forces are unlikely to be encountered in its routine service; and I was looking at the reel in 2016 — almost a century beyond when it was built, which is a mark most of today’s reels can only hope to achieve).
But, aside from its simplicity and lightweight design, the reel also had another feature that blew me away the more I looked at. The inner “cage” of the spool acted to store the line out away from the spindle — making it a “large arbor” reel sixty years before Loop revolutionized the industry with the “introduction” of the large arbor design.
Similarly, I spent a few minutes admiring a Pflueger 577 Supreme that I bought at auction some time back. Its brushed aluminum face with easy-to-grip drag adjustment and all-around intuitive design made it an outstanding big-game reel in its time — but its most notable attribute was truly shocking given its 1960’s vintage: it had a robust and fully functional anti-reverse clutch! This would put it up alongside the most expensive saltwater reels being made today, and yet it was a medium-priced reel in its day.
The same can be said for everyman’s gear like the early Martin MG reels, which had fully floating 360° disc drag systems years ahead of their time.
This is not to even mention iconic gear like the Hardy Perfect – which has seen only minor design changes in 120 years.
And while you’ll get no argument from me that heavy-weight fly rods (size 7 and up) and those of 9 feet or greater length are better today for the advent of carbon fiber, I would say that those who have never pitched a Fenwick FF80 don’t realize just how good things could be in the past – and for those operating in small-stream conditions (four-weight lines and rods of 7’ or 7-½’) a modest priced cane rod will outshine all but the absolute best “graphite” rods (the absolute best being the TMF from Winston and the Sage 389LL).
So, whether you enjoy the sport for its traditional values, or you are more inspired by the X-Games elements that have crept in since the advent of the of the Fly Fishing Film tours, realize that we truly do stand on the shoulders of giants. To ignore or understate the sport’s past not only deprives one of a great deal of pleasure – it also makes you subject to gimmicks and false marketing claims.
As my first head guide Craig Clevidence told me back in 1986 – true innovation in fly fishing occurs about once in 25 years, the rest is just BS.