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Purity

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.

1.  There are only a select few people that will wake up, look outside and see a rain/snow mix, notice that the high for the day is in the low 40’s, and say audibly to themselves, “My god, it is a perfect day out there.”

2. They are right, unless they mean for duck hunting.  Those guys are just crazy. (see #1)

3. You can’t warm your hands with a cigarette lighter.  Yes it is a flame.  Yes, in theory, it should produce heat. No it will not warm your fingers.  It will, however, turn your skin black.

4. No matter how much warmer the water is than the air temperature, it will not warm you hands.

5. It doesn’t work the second time either. (see #4)

6. You can tell yourself you are just resting the water and letting the fish return, but if you are in your jeep with the heater on, smoking a cigarette and listening to sports talk radio, you are warming up, period.

7. Time spent warming up is time not spent fishing. (see#6)

8. I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize.  Yes the fish do hate you. Yes that is why they pick this weather to feed most actively. Yes they do laugh when your frozen hands can’t tie on a new fly.  Yes they also laugh when you are too cold and wet to effectively set the hook.

9. Perversely, the clouds clearing to let in sun light can actually make you colder. Yes it is a flame. Yes, in theory, it should produce heat. (see #3)

10. There is nothing wrong with wearing long underwear, jeans and then hip waders all at once.  Unless you are heading into the diner for breakfast after a few hours of fishing.  They frown on that.  Apparently, no shirt, no shoes or TOO MANY PANTS… no service.

11. Smartphones are almost always not waterproof. No matter how much they cost.

12. Falling in the river is bad. (see # 3, 4, 5, and 11)

13. Sometimes warming up in your jeep isn’t a terrible idea.  (see#12)

14. If you have been cold enough, warming up hurts worse than getting cold did.

15. Man you can catch a lot of fish and get some beautiful time on empty water on a drizzly day late in the fall.

Fog

I was the only car on the four lane interstate that morning.  Not surprising considering it was 5 am on a Sunday, but it still felt novel.  The vastness of a 4 lane interstate when there are no other cars around is both freeing and a little freaky.  The wide open pavement means you can drive with abandon.  At the same time it almost feels like standing on a roof top.  There no constraints to stop you… also, there are no constraints to save you.  It is not that it isn’t what I thought it would be like, the empty road.  It is that I couldn’t pre-create the feelings that it being like that would evoke.  About a week earlier I had received permission to fish a pond that I was very excited about, and I was finally on my way to give it a shot.  I had been told that the panfish and bass fishing in this pond would be something between falling in love and losing your virginity.  I had an idea that slight exaggeration was occurring, but none-the-less, I had the excitement of a man on his way to…. well…. get some.

It was a gorgeous morning.  Not a thought of a cloud in the sky and so still that exhaled cigarette smoke would just hang in front of you like the world had gone into slow motion.  The sun was just causing the collision between earth and sky to become visible in the east.  When she was up and in full fury that day, the sun would warm my little spot on the earth into the high 80’s, but not yet.  No, it was still a pleasantly cool 60.  It was a damn shame the 99% of the population would not being experiencing this little gift of time.

On a morning like this, the valleys of rolling hills in the area can sometimes be full of a dense fog.  I am not sure if it is a product of temperature differences, or moisture differences, or if it is natures way of ensuring that the requisite number of deer experience death via Chevy in order to keep the population in check.  But that is how it is, and it is cool to see and nerve-wracking to drive through.  This morning happened to be one of those mornings.  With no wind and the sun still not up to burn off the fog, some of the low spots were so full of this mystery vapor that for maybe 200 yards of driving the outside world had been erased.

I eased off of the pavement and onto the winding gravel that would descend into the area of the small pond.  This was not one of those hardpacked, straight as a string, gravel roads that one can comfortably traverse at 60 mph.  Rather this was a seldom used meandering little stretch of crushed rock and brown/orange dirt.  The lack of traffic and large looping curves made this a 30 mph job unless you thought you were a dirt track racer and are comfortable in a fishtail.  This is the kind of road that is there to remind us that slowing down and seeing can be worth alot more than the 6 minutes you save by hauling ass.  Despite my – Junior on his way to prom – excitement I was taking her as she comes.  The road looped and lobbed and slowly flowed down toward the pond.

I was just entering the curve that would whirl me directly toward the pond when the wall of white loomed up in front of me – ready to swallow my entire jeep.  The lack of impact as I entered the dense fog was almost surprising.  I am not used to seeing something so apparently solid and yet being able to move through it as though it doesn’t exist.  This was a serious fog.  I couldn’t see more that 5 feet beyond the windshield.  The only thing keeping me on the road was the change in sound as my tire left the gravel and began to tread on grass.  At that point I would know to correct my steering to keep me on the road.  So I pinballed my way down the road at about 5 miles a hour, eyes open as wide as they would go – not that that helped because I was driving by sound. I may as well have been blindfolded.

Eventually I parked in a small turn off.  I would later discover, once the entirety of my surroundings was unveiled, that miraculously I had found the right turnoff and parked as though I was an old hand at this.  I threw on my vest, strung up without tying on a fly, and started on foot in the general direction of the water.  You can always tell which way the water is because it is downhill from wherever you are.  The putt breaks towards the water.

Walking in the fog was stranger than driving in it.  Each step revealed an incrementally changing world. A slow progression as one plant was replaced by another and one tree grew slightly larger as it slowly entered the tiny bubble of reality that I was able to comprehend.  It was like watching time lapse photography of evolution. Behind me the fog swirled and eddied and slammed shut.  I was not cutting a path through the fog any more than a scuba diver cuts a path through the ocean.  All I was doing was fleetingly bringing into my tiny sphere of sensory perception pieces of a larger and hidden outside world.  Simply to have them erased from my immediate consciousness by my next step forward.

Eventually the water edge came upon me, as though I wasn’t moving forward, rather the rotation of the earth had brought it to me like a conveyor belt.  I sat on a rock and decided to get my wits about me.

The tiny piece of water I could see was smooth, making the pond look like it was made out of a mix of corn starch and water, rather than just water.  Like if you ran fast enough you could get all the way to the other side, but if you stopped for a second you would be slowly swallowed.  The sounds were incredible.  I don’t know if it was the lack of vision, or the moisture in the air, but all sounds seemed amplified and non-directional.  The birds were everywhere and unseeable.  From the Non-Newtonian pond came the splash of jumpers, the pop of Bluegills eating surface bugs and the BLLOOOOP of Largemouth Bass opening a hole in the surface of the water for the small frog to fall into.

The reason that reality no longer existed was immediately clear; silvery white cobwebs of steam lifted from the entire surface of the pond like cotton candy pulled for a cotton candy machine.  I sat in wonder and watched as the soul of this pond left it’s body and ascended.  After 20 minutes I decided it was time to fish.  I tied on a nice little yellow popper, stripped out some line, and pulled it into a backcast – bending my rod backward – and then rocking into a false cast – bending my rod forward – rocking back into a backcast and then into a false cast.  Holding 30 feet of line in the air.  On the 3rd false cast I shot my line forward streaming it through the line guides on my rod and into the unknown soul of the pond.

SCIENCE!

Attention Science:  I would like to formally announce one of the greatest finds in the history of history.  Newton… Einstein…  Mr. Wizard…. Bill Nye… Move over, there is a new sheriff in town.

Tonight I discovered a species of fish previously unknown to Science.  The fact that it is previously unknown is not surprising.  In what must be the greatest act of camouflage in the animal kingdom,  this species of fish looks EXACTLY like every other species of fish.  In fact, in all ways it is completely indistinguishable from any other species that science has discovered.  All ways but ONE!  This new species never ever eats.  Nothing, not ever.  I know this because I have seen the fish and have thrown every damn fly, streamer, nymph and terrestrial at them and they NEVER EAT IT.  Clearly they have adapted to never eat. It is the only logical explanation.

I know what you are thinking, “Dan you are a genius! But how can this benefit me?”  Simple.  Now that modern science has learned of the existence of these masters of dieting, guys in white coats can simply take out whatever lets the fish never eat and stick it in people!  Or better yet, stick it in a pill and let the person take it themselves as that sounds less painful!  Then we will never have to eat again!  Think of the lives that will be saved from choking alone.  Not to mention accidents in Mcdonald’s drive thrus, fights over forgetting your wife’s order on the way to Taco Bell and coming home with the wrong Gordita, and the hours wasted saying, “I don’t care, where do you wanna eat?”

I know what you are thinking now, “Dan you have removed some of the worst scourges of our time, but I enjoy eating. What should I do?”  What you should do is stop being such a nearsighted, selfish, nincompoop and shut the hell up.  Farmers that have been saying they were going to retire next year since they were 60, but at 108 still haven’t gotten around to it, can finally catch Wheel at 3 in the afternoon.  Ethiopian children will all sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in unison as now never eating will be cool rather than stupid.  AND we will no longer find any constraints to growing human populations!  we can put 100 billion people on the planet now!!

Again, I know what you are thinking, “Dan I am sorry for being such an idiot before.  This is obviously the greatest thing to ever happen, but what precedent is there for fishing changing the world?”  What precedent is there??  Jeez open a history book every once in a while.  Fishing made permanent settlements possible on coastal regions in cave man days.  Which was good because T Rex couldn’t swim very well.   Lobster fishing is the only reason Maine exists.  Plus, what about Moby Dick?  Also, crabfishing (which is kinda like real fishing) gave us The Deadliest Catch and got Mike Rowe a Ford sponsorship.  And he used to sing opera!  Think about that! An opera singer slinging Ford F450’s!  Now that is the kinda miracle that only fishing can bring about.

Ok I know what you are going to say.  “Dan do you think putting your head on Mt. Rushmore would be gaudy, if we did it before the Nobel Prize arrived?”  No, No I do not.

In conclusion, there are fish everywhere that never eat anything, as far as I can tell.  This discovery will save mankind from itself.  Eat THAT Malthus.  Or better, DON’T eat that!

The other night was a rare opportunity in the realm of fly-fishing.  We were coming off of 3 days of stormy and windy weather and we got one of those bluebird evenings that come in the spring and make you pretty sure everything is right with the world.  There was virtually no wind, the sky was a color blue that would make a topaz self conscious, and it was in the mid 60’s.  This would be one of about 6 evenings like this all year here on the plains.  Naturally I was quite disappointed.  I had my rain coat already in the truck and I was ready for an entire evening of drippy droppy fishing.  The kind that gets you the water to yourself and the air full of hatching bugs.  Instead I was going to have this heavenly evening, which would ensure that the bug maternity ward would stand empty and that would fill my little spot with men on buckets flinging skewered worms to fish that weren’t interested.  So I did the only sensible thing that a person can do when they are disappointed…  I went fishing.  (See how I did that?  You like that?).

I left work late (no sense in hurrying on a day like this) and headed straight for the water.  The spot I was going to fish is about 5 miles on gravel off of the main road and is a nice 30 minute drive from work.  Just far enough to feel the tension leave and the thoughts of tasks unfinished settle into the spot in your brain they go to hibernate until the fishing is over.  Just long enough to get into the present and begin to actually see the things around me and enjoy the sights and sounds.  To see the world as it is rather than to see through it.  The drive is perfect for me.  As I turned onto that little gravel road I was just settling into the more attentive state of mind and I noticed a particularly large quantity of bug guts accumulating on my windshield.  Now I may be the only person in South Dakota that gets excited about seeing his windshield caked in the unearthly concrete that is a bug’s inner juices.  Hell the stuff could be used to plug the leaking oil well in the gulf, but when I get those guts as I follow this little road along the river I know that there is a fair chance that the bugs are coming from the water… and that means a hatch.

The road approaches this spot by a slow accession up an almost imperceptible incline, followed by a crest and view of the entire river valley and a screaming ride down what we called as kids a “roller-coaster hill” to the bottom where the parking area is.  You know the hill, the kind that as kids you would put your hands up in the car like you were on a roller-coaster and drive your parents mad by screaming weeeeee all the way to the bottom or until your breathe gave out, which ever came first.  To this day I get a kick out of these hills and this one serves 2 purposes.  It is just damn fun, for one, and it gives me a view of all of the water that I will potentially be fish that evening.  I was shocked to see that I would be all alone.

When I parked and caught by breathe from screaming weeee for the last quarter mile; I hopped out and strung up.  The bugs were everywhere.  Apparently there were a couple of hatches going on simultaneously.  One of large golden mayflies and one of smaller caddis.  They were so thick that I was worried I would inhale them if I were to breathe carelessly.  It was shaping up to be an unbelievable evening.  A cross-over hatch of 2 different species of bugs without the required sopping wet hat and cold fingers.  I was thrilled.

I approached the stream at a plunge pool and looked down to see that things were even better than I had thought.  The surface of the water was covered in bugs and beneath the surface were thousands of minnows looking like tiny underwater bomber squadrons; all moving in formation.  This was unbelievable.  There were flies everywhere, for the panfish, mooneye, carp and bass, and there were minnows by the millions for the walleye, pike, gar and well… everything else, the weather was unbelievably gorgeous AND I had the water to myself.  This was reaching once in a lifetime/lightening striking/win the lottery proportions. I was so excited I nearly wet my pants.

I started the way I always do, by sitting on the bank, lighting a cigarette, and watching the water to see where the fish are.  I saw positively nothing.  Not one fish grab a bug, not a splash or push or flip or flop or flash.  Nothing.  Ok fine, so nothing was eating the bugs… surely something was eating the minnows.  I work every inch of that stream at all depths with a few different patterns and I didn’t get so much as one hit.  Nothing.  I fished until sundown and then drove home.  I wouldn’t say I was satisfied, but I wasn’t distraught either.  I had the comfort of knowing that I had picked the right place, the weather change had brought the bugs and I had fished well if not successfully.  Every part of the evening that I could control I did as well as I can at this point in my flyfishing education.  If the fish were not there, or were dead, or asleep or possessed or had all gone vegetarian as part of the liberal movement… well I couldn’t control that and there is not a damn thing I could do to change it.  If you get too worked up about the effects of things beyond your command as a fly-fisherman, you are liable to go bonkers.  You have to understand that sometimes even the perfect situation can go sour for a reason you can’t affect or even detect.  It just is.

I have yet to find something that swims that I don’t enjoy fly fishing for.  However I do have two favorites.  Bass fishing, and Trout fishing.

Bass fishing is like the X-games of flyfishing.  You heave some big hairy looking bass bug, something that resembles a frog, or a mouse, or maybe even a duckling.  It is a gaudy looking thing – made of strange man made materials in colors not found in nature (or even in 56 crayon Crayola boxes).  A splash when it lands is just fine and may even be preferred.  Then you let your fly sit a while and see if anything happens.  If it doesn’t you start twitchin’ and yankin’ it; causing a stir and alerting anything in the pond that something is happening over here.  Suddenly a hole is torn in the surface of the water and your fly just isn’t there anymore.  You set the hook forcefully and then horse the fish out into open water so he can’t wrap you up in the damn lilly pad stalks that he lurks in.  When you finally get him played in, you stick  your thumb in his mouth and lift him right out of the water, get your snap shot and then drop him back in.

Trout fishing is a little different.  It starts by a quiet hike along a crystal clear cold water stream.  Water so clear and icy that the smooth parts look more like an antique window, with its varying widths and distortions, than running water.  You have already spent 30 minutes scanning the water and finding what bugs are floating in it that the fish may be feeding on.  You are staying low and keeping your shadow off the water.  Suddenly you notice, in a likely spot, tiny ripples where a fish is rising to eat tiny bugs off the surface.  The fly you have chosen is made from all natural materials – muskrat fur, tiny feathers – and is so precise and perfectly hand tied that you feel like you are casting art.  You can see the glass of scotch that sat on the desk in the fireplace lit room while the artist rendered this tiny replica of a real bug.  The fly is tiny, no bigger than a pinky fingernail.  It has to be,  that is the size of the bugs.  You gracefully arch your line into the air, careful not to let it spook the fish, and lay the fly on the water like a sleeping baby in the cradle.  There can be no disturbance of the water.  If there is, she will be gone.  You mend your line so the fly floats as though it is unattached.  Even though your leader and tippet line are thinner than a human hair, they can still affect the fly drift enough to scare her off, without diligent attention being paid.  Perfectly free to drift like its emulated brethren.  By the 7th perfect drift over the fish, without her so much as looking, you get nervous.  You know if the fly is one shade of olive off, or if the body is slightly too chunky, or the fly is slightly too big, she will refuse it.  But you can’t change now, it may be on the next drift that she takes.  You put yet another perfect drift across her and this time she stirs, gliding – smooth as a ghost – to the surface and allowing the fly to come gently to her mouth,  within centimeters.  When she takes the fly it is with a sip so gentle it would break your heart.  You bring her in thoughtfully and gently.  No horsing her, yet not allowing her to play herself to exhaustion.  When you get her to you, you cradle her gently in your hand, never taking her out of the water and as quickly as possible slip the hook from her mouth.  You don’t release her until you are sure she is fully revived.

So I have been thinking about relationships…

If you ever see me on an airplane, I doubt you would know it.  Being stuck in a dildo shaped steel tube with 15 too many people shoved into it and 3 arm rests for the 6 arms present in your row always causes me to screw my hat down over my eyes and turn my thoughts inward.  If I look around or pay too much attention to the snoring guy across the aisle, or the sweat from the fat lady’s arm next to me that is dripping on our shared armrest, I begin the think about the situation I am in: eventually reaching the conclusion, “you can’t breathe and you are never fucking getting out of here!”  It takes some effort to not……..hell I don’t know what, but doing about anything in that state of mind seems like poor judgment.

On a recent flight from Atlanta to Minneapolis, for the third leg of my 4 stage journey home, it occurred to me just how antithetical this situation was to the one I had just left.  I had just finished a fly-fishing trip to Hilton Head Island, SC – my first ever saltwater fly-fishing experience.  Fishing those mud flats for redfish on the (aptly named) Broad River just outside of Beaufort, SC was a lesson in largess and openness.

We awoke early and headed for the boat landing, arriving at just after dawn on a gorgeous South Caroline morning in early March.  I really didn’t know what to expect, short of the fact that we would be in some kind of boats and casting 8 or 9 weight rods (presumably Orvis) to redfish.  I was in a group of three; my dad, brother and myself.  We had enlisted the services of an outfitter and guiding service out of Beaufort called Bay Street Outfitters.  This is a top notch, Orvis-endorsed, outfitter and the head guide, Tuck Scott,  (one of the two that would be with us) was known in the area as a real good guide.  He brought another guide, Owen Plair, who knew where the fish were and how to find them.  These guys are great guides and great sports and they worked their tails off to get us on good fishing.

We split into two groups, with my brother going with Tuck and Dad and I going with Owen.  Immediately I was struck with the immense size of things and the openness of it all.  We were fishing an area at the mouth of the Broad River where it drains into the Atlantic.  To say it drains is to present it wrong.  It is more like the ocean breathes in the river; sucking water out at low tide and exhaling it back up river as the tide comes in.  This breathing of the ocean seems to drive everything.  The entire water scape changes, laying naked vast fields of oysters and mud when the tide is low and then hiding the fields and creating deep channels and drop-offs when the tide is in.  Fishing in a place where you could not move your boat and yet be in an entirely different place in 4 hours is not a concept I can entirely wrap my head around.

The scenery was spectacular and everywhere you looked there was water.  In this low country nothing is either ocean, river or dry land.  Everything is all three, simply vacillating among them – leaning towards being mostly one and then moving to being mostly another.  Everything is one good storm surge from being ocean floor and one low tide from being shoreline, with an impossible amount of area being both a couple of times a day.  I guess it is like anything… not really exactly anything.  More of a combination of all things, just in differing proportions.

Moreover, the landscape itself contains no obvious demarcations to give you a sense of being contained.  I mean, there are trees and hills, but nothing like the edge of a forest as it opens into a meadow, or a line of trees scarring the prairie as it slices along the banks of a river.  As you followed the horizon only the changing colors would tell you if what you were looking at was vegetation or ocean.  A colorblind person may try to walk to France from here.  This all made for an eerie sense of being exposed.  Like the feeling you get when you lay on your back in your bed with you arms at your side.  It can be exhilarating and halting all at the same time.

When we arrived at the boat ramp, Tuck and Owen were waiting for us with their boats and ready to go.  I had never been on a flats boat and I still can’t believe these things draft 8 inches.  It is trippy to look down into the water over the side of a boat and see that you could step off and barely go in over your boots – like looking out of an airplane and seeing that you could just step off if you wanted too.  It just ain’t right!

Tuck and Owen proved to be spectacular guides.  Tuck kept my brother on fish all morning (until the tide made it impossible) and in the process taught him a thing or two.  Owen was the kind of guide you want badly in a situation like this.  He grew up fishing the area and was some kind of savant, owning his first boat at 8 years old.  He knew this water as well as it can be known.  Additionally, he was a great guy and fun to be around, which was a real plus given the long periods of poling that needed to be done.  He worked hard to keep us on fish and succeeded sporadically, in the way that makes for a great day of fishing to a good redfish fly-fisher and getting skunked to a poor one.  For the record, I am officially a poor one.

Of the three of us, we hooked up three times, and all three times it was my brother that did it.  Once into a nice redfish that got him into one of those grip and grin hero pictures, once into his hat and once into his cheek.  That last one caused a little bleeding, but hell who am I to talk, I didn’t set a hook all day, and if you had told me, “you get to hookup on a redfish, but you have to hook your cheek first,”  I just might have done it.