Being such a tactile activity, taking up fly fishing is served well by a “watch and learn” approach. A father will teach a son. Someone with means can hire a guide or instructor. The ambitious novice will simply approach a fellow angler on the stream, and the fly fisher will gladly consent.
For ages, the mentor relationship has come part and parcel with fly fishing. Even those who often fish alone will often have a person who made a small, yet formative impact somewhere along the line. Like an apprentice to a tradesman, anglers best learn the craft from another. Thus, the main thrust of the sport is passed on. The nuances of pursuing the quarry and the equally important eccentricities within the culture are also handed from generation to generation.
These relationships are special and invaluable. However, not every fly fisher has the benefit of an experienced angling parent, friend, or empathetic onlooker in their life. While online videos can certainly communicate the what and how of fly fishing, they are limited in scope. Viewing the best instructional clips on casting, tying, or reading water will set one up to functionally catch a trout. What is missing is the who and the why.
These intangibles are not essential for hooking, playing, or landing a fish. They are still, without a doubt, an essential part of fly fishing. They are passed on in ways that can hardly be expressed through a how-to. Why we, as a culture, fish, is spoken of on long car rides and during streamside coffee breaks. Who makes up that culture is seen across fly shop counters and around beaten-up bar tables. Without a flesh and blood person making that connection, it is near impossible to ascertain the information. More importantly: to even figure out what any of it has to do with catching a fish.
Thankfully, there is a cloud of fly fishing witnesses that can be tapped into. While they won’t take the place of a hands-on mentor, historical personalities of the sport can divulge this information. One doesn’t necessarily have to go back to Izaak Walton, either. Plenty of remarkable men and women from the past century have much to say about the sport. Their testimonies are of those who waded the rivers only twenty or fifty years prior. Their voice is like a grandparent; so very familiar yet with enough experiential differences to draw a thought-provoking contrast.
A story by John Gierach is an accessible read for anyone who has even the slightest inclination towards fishing. On the other end of the spectrum, Robert Behnke can go from narrative to PhD-level biology in a sentence. Books like these can be immersive. They reveal the depth and breadth of what fly fishing can be.
Someone like Ernest Schweibert expresses the synthesis of knowledge and practice. Detailed descriptions of the nymphal forms of aquatic insects take on more meaning when they are put into the setting of a river where trout can be sought. Before him, Theodore Gordon took a similar track while chronicling the changing angling approach and ethos at the turn of the century.
Changes within fly fishing can only be properly called revolutionary within the context of the culture. Pouring over the works of Vince Marinaro and Charles Fox, the study of rising trout and the refining of imitating terrestrials can legitimately be seen as eureka! moments for anglers. Their contributions changed fly fishing in South Central Pennsylvania then it spread throughout the trout fishing world. Across the country, Bud Lilly was making waves in both retail and conservation. His name might be more well known today for one over the other, but his legacy tells the true story.
Not every individual that has played an important role in fly fishing has written about their accomplishments and perspective. Sometimes obscure outdoor articles or hard-to-find books are the only ways to glean details of fascinating lives. Such is the case for Leon Chandler, who was instrumental in developing tackle and introducing fly fishing to Japan. Carrie Stevens was the woman behind the grey ghost streamer, which was special in it’s ability to be tied by the masses as well as catch large trout and salmon.
The list is inexhaustible: Lee and Joan Wulff, Joe Brooks, Sparse Grey Hackle, Nick Lyons, Art Flick, Joe Humphreys, Gary Borger, Dave Whitlock, and so many more. A proper index would undoubtedly contain the names of many women, local legends, and young fly fishers who have accomplished much in just a few dozen years.
Unless the circumstances are exceptional, these men and women can not offer hands-on, in the stream instruction. Their mentoring must occur in the pages of a book or journal; their words and deeds informing and influencing through a necessary medium. Whether the fly fisher has a “real life” mentor or not, these insights and experiences are priceless. Lasting the test of time, the best of the best understood how to combine the what and the how with the who and the why.
Delivering fly fishing to the next generation of anglers has included preserving the core of what is truly an evolving culture. Materials advance, ecosystems shift, and aesthetics change. At it’s center, fly fishing has remained the same for centuries. The commonality lies within the love for the fish, the waters where they swim, and the peripheral elements of people, places, and things. Words and images from the past illuminate this same love in the fly fishers who have made their impact and left their mark.
Heeding, and enjoying, these guideposts will enrich the angler’s time on and off the water. Furthermore, it will spur a new generation to share the love and the culture of fly fishing with those who will wade after them.