The technical advances within the sport of fly fishing have been nothing short of breathtaking in the last 10 years or so. The advent of multi-modulus layups and improved resins have changed rod design at a fundamental level, while micro-replication and advances in plastics have done the same for fly lines.
Yet, at the core of things, the sport remains one of basic simplicity – fool a fish into eating something he shouldn’t through proper presentation and mimicry.
But, sometimes the simple can become very complicated – and generally when it does, it is to the detriment of the sport. Such is the case with modern fly lines.
I think progress is great. There is no doubt that modern lines are far superior to the their Neanderthal forbearers. Flotation and aerodynamics have been advanced light years within the time we switched from using flip phones to smart phones.
But, like all good things gone wrong, the industry is now looking for new ways to express its riches of technological spoils. We have fallen into the trap of believing that because something is possible it is desirable. (French philosopher Jacques Ellul once posited that if a technology was possible it was inevitable -- and fly lines may be the proof.)
I read a blog the other day from a well-known, modern-day streamer god extolling the virtues of a particular line formula (I don’t know any other way to describe the combination of taper and density manipulation). Finishing his piece, I had no doubt that under the conditions he described, the said line would work very well.
But here’s the rub; those conditions existed on a particular river on a particular day while presenting a particular style of streamer fly. What about another trout stream twenty miles south of there? What if we want to fish a Clouser rather than a deer-hair style fly? Do we then need to switch out our spool and line, even though we are using the same rod – in roughly the same manner?
Most of us who are serious about the game will carry at least a pair of rods if we are boat fishing – one for lighter dry fly work and one for heavier, streamer fishing. And making a line change to accommodate the switch from big-boy streamers to more modest offerings may be within the scope of the average angler – but where does it end?
When I was starting out in the sport, we had double tapers and weight forwards. Serious bass-buggers had an extreme weight forward called a BBT. Intermediate and sinking lines were considered “specialty” lines and only the hard-core anglers had such novelties. Today, the angler fishing a basic six-weight rod can choose from standard tapers and grain weights, to short-tapers, long-tapers, ½-line-weight heavy to two-line-weights heavy, extreme texture, mild texture or no texture – and this is before we scratch beneath the surface and start looking at the sink-rate options that range from “hover” to brick-in-a-toilet.
Do the new lines work? Of course.
But the question remains, do we need a specialty line for every nuance presented by nature? Isn’t part of the attraction of fly fishing the demand that we think through the challenge of the situation to arrive at a solution that allows us to catch fish (in spite of ourselves)?
Before we had lab-coated geniuses doing our thinking for us, we actually had to redesign leaders and tippets, and play with weighting strategies of flies to meet the challenges of a specific situation. And, sometimes we got skunked and were forced to go home and re-think things to come up with a solution. And, if we needed a fly line 80 grains heavier to get the job done, we swallowed our pride and fished a damned nine-weight and didn’t pretend it was a six weight.
Now, before you just accuse me of being an old crank (which I am), hear me out. The problem is that all these specialty lines cost $65 to $90 apiece. And, they necessitate additional spools to house them (running in the neighborhood of $150 - $300 each). So, it is not a simple thing for the average angler to keep up.
Virtually all the guys writing blogs are on some sort of “guide’s program” or other pro-deal that allows them to get gear at less-than-wholesale – so the appeal of the better mousetrap never loses its luster to them. And, naturally, the manufacturers, who have invested a lot of money into R&D are happy to leverage that across as many variations on a theme as their marketing departments can dream up. But the average Joe – and the average fly shop – struggle to keep up.
As a fly shop owner competing in the modern age, I have to carry hundreds of SKUs in the fly line department so that I can be ready when the customer who just finished reading a blog post gets set to fish his six-weight streamer rig on the first full moon after the vernal equinox in a six-knot wind on the Hog-Heaven River running at 400 cfs with 25” of visibility.
I tell him I can’t possibly outfit him properly unless I know whether he will be drinking PBR or a specialty IPA that day, as this affects the casting stroke and thus the optimal belly-length of the taper.
I guess I should probably just join the march and remain silent, but I think a lot is lost when the sport is practiced in such precise increments. If it comes down to simply purchasing the right gear -- rather than learning to make the gear you have work -- I think we are reducing the game to one of buying success. And despite the fact that in many cases my cash register rings louder if I play the specialties game, I really hate to see this happen.