This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

September 20th, 2004

The Last of the Elitists

None of us were living back in what was called the Gilded Age, when the 'cottages' (more like castles) were built by the DuPonts, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Carnegies in Newport which still stand today. The late 1870's -1890 were the beginning of the end for the 'class system' in America.

The 1st World War, the great industrial revolution, and then World War II all contributed to the end of what had been "gentleman sports." Never developed to the level of the sports in Europe, the American 'upper class' did have it's standards. A man of means could sit a horse (and no not with a western saddle), shoot a number of guns for a proper bird hunt, knew which fork to use when, and dressed for dinner. Including when at his private fishing club on some fabulous trout or Atlantic salmon stream. He had servants and knew how to use them.

Fly fishing for trout and Atlantic salmon was owned by the upper class. Fishing for any other fish, was left to the 'common man.' Those other fish, are still called today in most of Europe 'course fish.' Except for bass.

In the day when the robber-barons ruled, there were those who thought the bass was the best fighting fish of all. I can't say that was debated over brandy and cigars, but it is true. Bass in fact were highly favored and many of the etchings and other art of the period featured the very well-dressed angler, with his faithful guide fishing for or catching bass.

There are still fortunes made, but the money doesn't buy a seat at the 'upper class' table any more. The high society lists are more likely to have people who are high in government than the latest Silicon Valley multi-millionaire. There are still debutante balls, finishing schools and coming out parties, but outside of a few big cities, they are no longer the focus of a 'under-class' wishing they could be there. Hardly anyone cares.

The great leveler, war, brought together people from all classes, colors, religions in a common cause. Their shared experiences were stronger than the prior separation of class.

In 1942 Aaron Copeland wrote a piece of music to honor the soldiers going to war. He later included it in his Third Symphony. It has been played for all sorts of special occassions (if it isn't familiar to you by name you can hear it here:) Fanfare for the Common Man. This piece of music was symbolic of the new freedom for the common man.

The elitist fly fisherman was on his way out.

Mass production, the introduction of new technologies, the G.I. Bill, and the big blockbuster, leisure time made fly fishing (along with shooting clubs, hunting clubs, and more) accessible to the common man.

From the end of World War II to now, the fly fisher has become an educated angler. Not only that, depending on budgets, the angler can hop a plane and fish those places most of the 'upper class' didn't know existed a hundred years ago.

Somewhere, a attitude still existed. The idea that if you didn't fish for trout or salmon, and of course, upstream and dry, you weren't a 'real' fly fisher. I don't know why the idea existed at this point at all, but it was still around. It couldn't have been fostered by the grand upper class because they are all long dead. Perhaps some interpreted old historical ideas from European books, but nothing which was promoted in America. Americans were the independent thinkers who fished the way they wanted for whatever fish were available. They weren't wearing the proper tweeds and tie on their 'beat' - there wasn't a 'beat' either! There barely were any rules!

But there has been a sort of snobbery - as some have said - an elitist attitude that fly fishing for panfish, warm water fish, and until very recently any saltwater fishing (not including off-shore blue water) simply isn't acceptable. (In my opinion, the blue water stuff isn't fly fishing either, but since I'm not God or Queen for a Day my opinion doesn't count for squat, and yes, I have done it.)

Fly fishers today have so many choices, technological sticks and lines with which to fish, places all over the world to practice their art, incredible flies which can mimic or stimulate fish to strike and fish galore! The re-located corporate employee or fish bum can put a post on the FAOL Bulletin Board and not only receive information on where to fish, but most probably multiple invitations to fish with locals (who may become their new fishing buddy.)

Those going on vacation can (and do) the same thing. Advice is freely given, the best fly shop and guides recommended, and quite often the vacationer returns and posts the results of his adventure back on the bulletin board. Neat stuff.

The Internet has brought the best of international fishing experiences and information into your living room (or where ever your computer lives) on demand and mostly free. Today's fly fisher is the smartest, best informed, and best equipped angler who has ever fished.

Well, except for a few. Some who seem to feel they are somehow superior because of which fish they target. But trust me, they are in the minority. Drop them in the middle of lower half of the United States and see how long they last before they are looking for a fix. Fly-fishing fix that is.

Unfortunately we still have some fly fishing magazines who think their major readership would be somehow offended if they ran some decent articles for warm water anglers. But in my opinion, the longevity of some of these magazines is very questionable. Readership of national print magazines has been dropping for some time - in part because of poor and repetitive content - and because they do not appeal to a broad enough population.

In fairness, I must say there are some regional fly fishing magazines who seem to have received the message. They have been gaining in popularity and do not seem to have such a narrow focus. Good for them.

Frankly put, it is not just about trout any more. Those who have 'adopted' the pseudo 'of the manor born' with their attitudes might do well to remember they weren't. They, like the rest of us in this country are indeed the common man. Get over it.

I for one, am proud of it. ~ DLB

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