Several years ago, for a local publication, I wrote an article entitled "Finding The Challenge." The gist of the article was directed at on ongoing controversy, which still continues today, centered on fishing for spawning trout. Like most of the serious articles that I have written over the last several decades it was intended to stimulate discussion and cause the reader to think about the issue. I always try to inform and make the reader think. It is my considered opinion that thinking about what we are doing and why we are doing it is a practice that is all too seldom undertaken. In my two plus decades as a municipal judge I became keenly aware that many of the folks that appeared before the court would not likely have been there if they had observed those two maxims.
Over the years my predilection is to observe the actions of other people and to listen to their candid conversations. I find it both intriguing and enlightening since such observations reveal many things about why people do what they do. Actions when combined with words and reactions to situations reveal much about the true motivations. Listen to a group of anglers talking among themselves and the conversation normally centers around two subjects; size and numbers. This can be traced back to the dawn of recreational sport fishing. Izaak Walton may have been a contemplative angler but his writings contain no small number of references to the desire to catch a large number of big fish. Angling diaries kept by individual anglers and fishing logs maintained by angling clubs and lodges are filled with accounts of large fish and prodigious numbers. When photography became the vogue images of grinning anglers holding up immense stringers of dead fish became common place. We are fascinated by size and numbers.
Today regulations generally limit the size and number of fish an angler may possess and many anglers have adopted a self-imposed policy of catch and release even when it is lawful to kill a few fish. However, this has not diminished the desire to keep a tally of the number and size of the fish caught. If anything modern technology has only increased the desire. Digital cameras, especially those found in the ubiquitous smart phone, enable the angler to have a visual record of his conquest to show all his peers. With a couple of taps on the screen that image can be posted on the Internet on a variety of platforms. A fishing buddy working at his desk in some distant city can see that image of your most recent conquest before the fish has barely cleared the rim of your net. Mobile apps allow the angler to record the number and size of each fish plus the number of strikes, number hooked and lost. At the end of the day the modern angler can have in the palm of their hand a complete digital record of every fish encountered to share visually with anyone that cares to look. In short, lots of fish caught and/or lots of big fish is the barometer by which an angler measures the degree of pleasure they had while fishing. It also becomes the unit of measure by which their peers view them as an angler. If you doubt this ask yourself when the last time you read an article about an angler bragging about how few fish they caught. Consider how often you have seen an angler holding up a small fish on the cover of an angling magazine.
This ingrained desire for size and numbers as a measure of angling satisfaction has resulted in what some traditional fly fishers have described as the bastardization of fly fishing. By using techniques like strike indicators when fishing nymphs and flies tied to imitate eggs or worms have led some to describe such techniques as bait fishing with a fly rod. It's not my intention to pass judgment on these methods of fly fishing but simply to make the observation that such methods seem intended to increase the number of fish caught rather than increasing the challenge of catching them.
I would like to proffer a theory about the reason for using an artificial fly to catch fish rather than natural food, i.e. bait, or lures made from metal, plastic, etc. If we examine the history of fly fishing we discover that fly fishing began to become a common practice when man had achieved a degree of comfort that afforded him leisure time. While some type of fly fishing may have been occasionally practiced before the Middle Ages in Europe it did not become an excepted pastime until man had achieved a certain degree of affluence that afforded him time to pursue more trivial activities. A man that was struggling to put food on the table had little time to fish with a fly when bait was certainly more easily obtainable and more productive. A man could bait several hooks, toss them in the water and return later to haul in his catch, but fishing with a fly offered no such luxury. Fly fishing, in those earliest days, was only practiced by those individuals that had the luxury of time, in short the well-to-do, the upper crust, the gentry. They did not need to catch fish to eat they could do it for sport, hence the idea of sport fishing. Fly fishing was inherently more challenging than fishing with bait or lures, it involved a degree of learning, specialized tackle and time. Using something concocted from fur and feathers to imitate a living thing, especially a small aquatic insect, was more challenging than tossing a worm or a minnow into the water and waiting for the fish to come along and consume it. Fly fishers sought out fish that were eating specific things and tried to use an artificial fly to get them to eat. It was, in short, intended to make catching fish more challenging. Certainly a man who could spend time using flies to catch fish became a mark of success and a certain degree of snobbery marked those that practiced the sport, but none-the-less it was and is more challenging to catch fish, any fish, using artificial flies.
Which brings the reader back to my original question; where do you find the challenge in fly fishing? Rather than making fly fishing more challenging many of the techniques developed in recent years have been directed at making it easier. Many of these techniques have grown out of competitive fishing contests where numbers of fish caught are the name of the game. The angler using a strike indicator to detect the strike of a fish to his nymph has made nymph fishing less challenging than the angler that fishes the same nymph without an indicator. Using flies like the squirmy wormy, a strand of round rubbery material lashed to a hook to look like a worm, is certainly very productive if you are simply trying to catch lots of fish but does it make fly fishing more challenging or simply easier? If size and numbers are where you find your challenge these techniques will give you bragging rights.
Where do you find your challenge when fly fishing? Is it fishing a size 20 midge to a trout rising on a flat or bouncing a squirmy wormy with two split shots though a deep run under an indicator?