August 25th, 2008

Is It Fly-Fishing?
By Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

I believe that catching fish with fly-fishing equipment is the most sporting, challenging, and enjoyable way to catch fish. I believe that the challenges presented when fly-fishing enhance the sport, and bring it to a level that exceeds other methods of recreational fishing. However, that being said, I do not believe that fly-fishing methods are always the best method, or even the appropriate method under all circumstances. This then brings us to the question; when is fly-fishing not fly-fishing?

To examine this question with the hopes of arriving at a satisfactory conclusion we must turn to the history of the sport. Clearly, from the earliest available manuscripts, the nature of the sport of fly-fishing is clearly delineated. Flies were constructed from fur, feathers, and steel lures, and were designed to imitate some natural occurring life form that would be mistaken by a fish for the real thing, or in the alternative would be attacked by the fish as an intruder invading its personal space. This lure, now called an artificial fly, was attached to the end of a length of line and, by using a long rod-like lever, was 'cast' into the water by the angler. One thing that seemed to mark the first several centuries of fly-fishing practice was that fly-fishing involved an artificial fly, a rod to cast the fly, and an angler to make the whole thing work.

Along the way flies were tied to represent a number of different food forms from insects, bait fish, small rodents, crustaceans, and in a variety of forms from wet, damp, and dry. At some point anglers began to fish their flies in ways that did not necessary involve an angler casting their fly to the waiting fish. The first step involved casting the fly out of a boat, and then as the angler rowed the boat the fly would be trolled behind. This remained the primary departure from the way fly-fishing had been practiced during the several proceeding centuries.

In recent years we have witnessed a renaissance of fly-fishing, and today anglers attempt to take all manner of fishes by using methods that employ some form of fly-fishing tackle. Anglers using 'fly-rods' fish for such game fish as Marlin, Sailfish, Tuna, and every other kind of fish that formerly were considered fish that could only be caught by sportsmen using bait or lures that were trolled behind large power boats. By using these same methods and substituting fly rods for large trolling rods, and substituting an artificial fly for bait or a metallic lure anglers hook and land these fish on 'fly-fishing' tackle. The anglers doing this are successful, but is it 'fly-fishing?'

In the 60's Pacific salmon had been planted in the Great Lakes in an attempt to control the alewife, a species of herring that came into the Great Lakes via the Welland Canal. The standard method of catching these new game fish was to employ a large lake-worthy power boat, down-riggers, a stout trolling reel, matching reel, and a variety of metallic spoons, plastic lures, and similar paraphernalia hooked to the end of a series of metallic flashers. By attaching your lure to the down-rigger you could troll your lure at the proper depth without putting any actual weight on your line. When the salmon struck, the line that was hooked to the down-rigger would release, and you could fight the fish free from the weight that was necessary to get it down to the level of the fish. JC and I had caught numerous salmon using this method.

During those years JC and I were doing field testing for a number of angling companies, and it mostly involved testing products that were intended for use in traditional fly-fishing techniques. In the late 60's we were approached by a manufacturer that was producing some lures that were a cross between a lure and a fly. The years have dimmed my memory of exactly what they looked like, but I do remember that they had some type of plastic lip beneath the eye which was intended to make them wobble like a swimming bait fish.

JC and I had always dreamed of catching some of those large Great Lakes salmon on a fly, and so we hatched a method to use conventional fly-fishing tackle, down-riggers, and these lures to accomplish that task.

First we procured a 9 weight fly rod from Scientific Anglers with a matching reel. Since we were not casting the 'fly' that we were using we filled the spool with 30 pound test Dacron rather than a fly line. We did not use a leader, but attached the fly directly to the Dacron line by using a large snap swivel. Thus equipped we took to the water, attached the Dacron line to the down-rigger, and dropped the whole thing down to the level where the fish finder indicated that the salmon were swimming. Eureka, fish on! Recently I found a photograph of two grinning fly-fishing addicts, which looked a lot like a much younger edition of JC and me, holding up some large Coho Salmon that we had caught on this 'fly-fishing' rig.

Did we believe this was fly-fishing? At the time I am not certain, but looking back I think that the only part of this adventure that remotely resembled fly-fishing was that we were using a fly rod and reel. Was it more challenging? Was it more sporting than the standard method? I think the obvious answer is no. We could have achieved the same result by simply attaching the 'fly' to a standard trolling rig.

We have come a long way down the river since Dame Juliana Berners wrote The Treatise of Fishing With an Angle, but the principles that she formulated have stood the test of time. Today we have devised many ways to catch fish on flies that Dame Juliana could never have conceived, and in ways that I doubt she would have approved. When I am fishing with a fly rod casting flies that are constructed of fur, feathers and steel I am confident that I am fly-fishing as Berners, Walton, Cotton, and all the other progenitors of fly-fishing conceived it to be. Anything beyond that begs the question. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

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