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Fly Fishing Heresy

Lest we be so judgmental about fishing with worms–or gummy bears...

Fly Fishing Heresy

(Al Hassall art)

Several years ago, my wife, my daughter, and I caught a performance of Jez Butterworth’s play The River, which was the study of a fly fisherman who brought two different lovers on separate trips to his remote fishing cabin to introduce them to his first true love, fishing for sea-run brown trout. The dialogue drove the story, but perhaps one of the most riveting scenes was one without a single spoken word. In it, the main character prepared a trout for the evening meal. The audience was silent throughout the entire process, which lasted several minutes as he gutted the fish, cleaned the cavity with water from a small faucet located on the edge of the stage, chopped vegetables at a table, and then assembled everything in a roasting pan. It may be hard to fathom, but you just couldn’t take your eyes off it.

To my mind, though, the most intriguing scene was one where the main character accosted one of his lovers as she returned to the cabin, after she had been missing for part of the night. He demanded an explanation, and when she told him that she had met a man fishing by the water’s edge and had sex with him, he exploded in anger.

His lover laughed at his self-righteous indignation and disclosed how she had actually used her time on the stream to hook and land an enormous brown trout. Her man was greatly relieved by this news and also impressed by his lover’s angling prowess, until she added that she had made her catch by impaling a Gummy Bear on a bare hook. His fury over this even greater outrage was thunderous, and it made for a genuinely funny moment. However, I could have sworn that I heard a couple of people in the audience gasp, just before everyone started laughing. Was there perhaps a little judging going on here?

Consider the possibility that a Gummy Bear could legitimately qualify as an artificial. It sure as hell isn’t real food. If you drift it in the current like a nymph, how different is it from a fly then, really? Taken to its logical extreme, just about any unnatural offering that can be put on the end of a hook and flung with a fly rod should be fair game, with the sole exception being a Hostess Twinkie, although even in that unlikely case, a yellow Glo-Bug tied on a long-shank size 2 hook might serve as an acceptable facsimile. The point is that the whole question of what’s kosher when fly fishing can sometimes be a bit confusing.

There was a time when my publisher and I were hunting for endorsements for a book I’d just completed about fishing in Vermont. He had written to a well-known author, asking him to come up with a short blurb for my book’s back cover. However, after reading the manuscript, the scribe in question took umbrage at my description of several hybrid flies I had mentioned, patterns that he protested could not be found in Art Flick’s Streamside Guide. His conclusion was that any book that did not conform to this custom could not be considered an accurate source. Even my publisher—a stickler for detail and a fly-fishing enthusiast in his own right—thought it odd.

Thinking back on it, I seem to recall seeing some far-from-orthodox specialty patterns for sale on the counter at a shop on my very first fly-fishing trip. That summer, my mother, father, brother, and I traveled to Montana, ostensibly to do the family thing at a dude ranch. It involved a lot of horseback riding, which didn’t mean all that much to me. But that was the year I was introduced to fishing for trout, which immediately became an obsession.

The whole process was pretty daunting at first, though. In addition to mastering the basic skills of the double-haul cast, there were knots, inspections of which insects were emerging on the water, reading riffles and runs, more knots, selecting the proper fly, rejecting what you once held had to be the proper fly, ripping through all your fly boxes as you puzzled what the freaking proper fly could possibly be, and resisting the urge to pack it all in and go rooting around the soil at the water’s edge for earthworms. It was a lot for me to take in, particularly if you took into account that I held the opinion back then that live bait was nature’s solution to all piscatorial problems.

Still, I kept fishing for trout with flies, and 15 years later, I ended up living in Vermont, literally within walking distance of a little stream that was filled with brook, rainbow, and brown trout. I was almost exclusively into throwing dry flies back then, mainly because I liked watching them wind through the flow.

I wasn’t particularly adept at fishing with nymphs either, so I stuck to the visual cues that a fish might be nearby. My eyesight was pretty good too, so this seemed like a logical plan of action. But on a quiet day in late spring, I scrambled down an embankment near a small bridge that spanned the brook and decided to try something more in line with my childhood proclivities.

Fly Fishing Heresy
(Al Hassall art)

I made a short roll cast, gradually peeled out about 40 or 50 feet of line, and let it all drift downstream in the current. The water was moving slowly, and I watched the knot that attached my leader to the fly line for any sign that something might have shown an interest in what I had tied onto my tippet. It turned out that someone was studying me at the same time. I didn’t have any idea that this guy was even there, partly because I was concentrating on my drift, but also due to the fact that he had decided to observe me from a short distance before introducing himself. After a while, he walked up to me.

“What are you fishing there?” he said, pointing at the end of my fly line.

I was a little sheepish about responding because I had in fact garnished a size 8 hook with a little red worm. I confessed my indiscretion, and he smiled.


“Garden hackle?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

My dark secret was out. I was sure that in making this public confession, I had caused my reputation permanent damage. But instead, the guy just laughed.

“You’re in pretty good company then!” he told me. “You ever read The Sun Also Rises?”

This Ernest Hemingway novel was then, and still is now, one of my favorite books. The first time I read it in college, I fell in love with the dialogue. I very naively told a college professor, who taught a class in American literature that I had been taking, of my opinion that if it were to be lifted directly from the book, it would make a great screenplay. He smiled thinly and pointed out that 20th Century Fox had already made a poor adaptation in 1957. The professor’s thinking was that the only performance worth watching in it was that of Errol Flynn as the sad drunk, Mike Campbell. It’s said that Hemingway himself felt much the same way.

But the book itself is mesmerizing, particularly the vivid description of the trip where Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton go fly fishing together in Spain. While Bill fishes with artificial flies and catches several large trout, Jake drifts earthworms in the current and cleans up on the smaller ones. Bill’s superior catch might be interpreted as some kind of symbol of virility. At least that’s what my college professor tried to convince me of. But I think my learned teacher missed the real point, which was that Bill had decided that friendship was more important than any “transgressions” on the water. In this same way, my new friend overlooked my own sins, and the two of us have fished together for the past 30+ years, without any further discussion of my occasional lapses into heathen ways.

Peter Cammann has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. He is the author of two instructional books, Fishing Vermont’s Streams and Lakes and UltraLight Spin-Fishing. The Kindle book SlipKnot is his first novel.

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