I have heard people debate the “purity” of the sport of fly fishing. It seem a constant source of discussion on fly fishing blogs and around campfires. While it is an interesting topic to discuss, there seems to be no real way to settle on what is and isn’t pure. It seems that the discussion never really settles on what violates the purity of the sport and what doesn’t. I think the answer to why that is lies hidden deep in the meaning of the words purity and sport.
When purity is discussed, the standard measuring stick we tend to lean on is to look at the past. We look back and measure today versus how it used to be in order to gage how far we have deviated from “pure” fly fishing. The problem is, where in the past do we stop to measure ourselves against? If we go all the way back to fishing in it’s orignal form, it was a way of food gathering, probably first involving our hands and eventually some sort of net. Along the way, putting some kind of food stuffs on a hook was introduced as another way to gather food. Native Americans fashioned ingenious fishing hooks from bone. As an aside, in this way, live bait fishing is closer to pure than anything a fly fisherman does. We tend to lean on the idea that the more natural materials we use the closer to pure we are, as it gets us closer to these distant origins of fishing. Whether it be in the use of natural materials to make flies, or silk fly lines, or split bamboo rods; there is a tendency to assume that natural materials equals purer fishing. We forget that these substances may be natural, but there is nothing inherently pure in our use of them. There is nothing natural in the hunders of hours of painstaking work to make a piece of bamboo into a rod. Nor is there anything natural in the tying together of numerous “natural” materials (some extremely exotic and from all over the world) into a fly. That process is entirely unnatural. It’s like saying burning gasoline in your car is natural because oil occurs in nature, nevermind the refining and transporting it and using it in a way nature doesn’t. So the nature as a gage of pure argument becomes very feeble when you really question it.
The second place we tend to look in the past to the the formation of the sport. We talk about baseball and baseball purists by their adherence to the orignal tenants of the rules that govern that sport. It is why the baseball purists hated the idea of a wild card in the playoffs. It violated the original rules. It was impure. So we fly fishers to tend to measure the sport today against the original ideals of fly fishing. Some of us become married to dry fly fishing, because this is how the original fly fishers in Scotland did it. It is also what makes fly fishing what it is, in the sense that it is what can’t be done well by NOT fly fishing. Others tend to think that species makes the fly fishing. That pure fly fishing involves a salmonoid species and moving water. The reason the standards are so flexible is that there are no governing rules; no founding fathers whose intentions we can attempt to discern; no handbook that tells us what it is that makes it fly fishing and what doesn’t. So we tend to look at how the sport was when we started participating in it and compare today to that. When we started becomes our reference point for the beginning of fly fishing as we know it, and the only evolution of the sport that is obvious to us is how it is different now than it was then. Obviously, we are all going to have a different standard if that is the case.
I don’t think there is such a thing as pure fly fishing. Any type of fly fishing will violate, on some level, one of the two standards that define pure. If there is no pure fishing, than nothing can violate pure fishing, because there is nothing to violate. And where does that leave us. With this; fly fishing is about doing something YOU enjoy and not worrying about how others view it. If you think it is enjoyable to fly fish a certain way, water, fly, material or rod, then do it. You are then adhering to the only true value that defines pure fly fishing. That it is a past time to be enjoyed to the fullest. And that’s why it exists at all.