My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Confessions of a Fly Fishing Snob

“Bass fishermen watch Monday night football, drink beer, drive pickup trucks and prefer noisy women with big breasts.  Trout fishermen watch MacNeil-Lehrer, drink white wine, drive foreign cars with passenger-side air bags and hardly think about women at all.  This last characteristic may have something to do with the fact that trout fishermen spend most of the time immersed up to the waist in ice-cold water.”  ~Author Unknown

Talk to a bass fisherman, and he’ll tell you all trout fishermen are snobs. Talk to those who fish for trout with bait, and they’ll tell you all fly fishermen are snobs. So I suppose that people who fly fish for trout are often thought to be the biggest snobs by others who fish. I guess I have to plead guilty on that count myself. I try not to be a fly fishing snob, in fact, I even rebel against what I think are attempts to take the snobbery to new levels all the time by those fly fishers who get so caught up in it that they can’t help themselves.

I will try to keep my superiority complex in check while I try to explain what that’s all about.

In the first place, not all fly fishermen are snobs, it just seems that way to others. It doesn’t help that fly fishermen have lobbied the state’s fisheries management divisions across the country successfully for what is known as gear restricted waters, stretches of rivers where the only fishing tackle that can be used are flies, and you have to release most, if not all, of the trout that you catch. But, more on that later.

Maybe I should start at the very beginning, the rivers themselves. You don’t have to be a fly fisherman to love rivers, many people do. I kayak with a group of people who aren’t fly fishermen, and they love rivers almost as much as I do. I think most people love the sounds of a babbling brook, that soothing sound that has been written about in untold numbers of books and poems, most having nothing to do with fishing at all. I think there is something primordial about those sounds that have been ingrained in the human brain for thousands of generations. Moving water is generally clean water, safe to drink. I can imagine the early humans hearing the sounds of moving water in the distance as they moved across the land from camp to camp. It would have been a welcome sound to hear the sounds of water dancing over rocks and trees, our ancestors would have been drawn to it,  for it would mean they could safely quench their thirst. Since all life on earth depends on water, the sounds of moving water would also mean food, in the form of game animals coming to the streams and rivers to drink. Our ancestors probably would have made their camps along streams when ever possible, for streams meant water, food, and even some shelter from the harshest weather, since rivers normally carve themselves a valley that shelters you from the strongest winds. And since rivers continue to flow during winter when lakes freeze over, they would have been even more important to our ancestors as a year round source of water.

But for whatever reason we began to love rivers, the human love affair with rivers continues to this day. Poets still wax poetic about their beauty, musicians still compose odes to their greatness, and we seek them out as a place of refuge from the pressures of the world we have created for ourselves.

“A trout is a moment of beauty known only to those who seek it.” –Arnold Gingrich

Then there are the trout, in my opinion, the most beautiful freshwater game fish there are. There are many species of trout, and they are all beautiful. They didn’t set out to be beautiful, their colorations are camouflage from predators. They aren’t brightly colored gaudy fish like you see living on coral reefs or in other places, a trout’s beauty is subtle, with nearly every color of the rainbow blended in such a manner to make them almost invisible when they are in the water. I could try to describe them all, but I’ll save you all the trouble of reading my feeble attempts to put the beauty of a trout into words, and post a picture instead.

A small brown trout

I have chosen a picture of a brown trout, not that they are my favorite or the most beautiful, but because browns are the trout most associated with fly fishing, and fly fishing snobs. No pictures I’ve seen or taken truly capture all the colors of any trout, for they seem to have other layers of very faint translucent iridescent colors over what you see here, that change as the light reflecting off from them changes.

There is another reason to admire trout on top of their physical beauty, and that is the spirit of the trout. They are well-known for their fighting ability, but what is seldom discussed is the spirit with in them that pushes them to fight the way they do. When you hook a trout, as far as they are concerned, it is a fight to the death, they never give up. Other species will fight until they are tired, then let you reel them in and once you remove the hook, they swim off to fight another day. Not trout, they so love life and freedom that they never surrender, and they will fight to their death if you let them. That is always something to keep in mind when fighting large trout on light line. You have to get them in the net before they kill themselves trying to get free, and once you have removed the hook, you have to hold them in the current and let them recover their strength until they can swim away safely again. With smaller trout, that isn’t so much of a problem, but, you can still feel their fight to regain their freedom right up until you release them, and that is especially true of wild trout. To me, hooking a trout is like engaging an honorable and worthy opponent whom I respect and admire, in a contest of wills, and even though I hope I win, I always feel a bit sad when I do, and I hope that some of the trout’s spirit rubs off on me.

 “I salute the gallantry and uncompromising standards of wild trout, and their tastes in landscapes” John Madson

So, people love rivers, and people love trout, and even better, trout only make their home in the most beautiful of rivers. Trout need cool, clean, clear, fast-moving streams to survive in, which means they live in rivers that we humans find to be the most aesthetically pleasing to our eyes. But that still doesn’t explain why fly fishermen become snobs, maybe it is the fly fishing?

“Whether I caught fish or not, just the thrill of rolling out that line and watching my fly turn over has been good enough for me. That and the hundreds of treasured memories I have of this wonderful sport.” Curt Gowdy

 There is something about fly fishing that gets into your blood and can never be removed. I am not sure what it is about fly fishing that makes this so, maybe it is the accomplishing of something most people see as difficult. Fly casting isn’t as hard as it looks, but I think it is like any sport, when you learn to do it well, it does give you great pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. I am not a great fly caster, but I still love the way it feels when I hit one just right, and I can watch the line shoot out, the fly turnover at the end of the cast, and then land lightly on the water right where I meant it to. There is also something very relaxing in the rhythm of fly casting, even if you’re only roll casting, that is where you never take the line behind you, but roll it back out ahead of you. I am not sure how to put it into words, other than to say that there are days when I am so into the fly fishing itself, that getting a hit is an interruption of sorts. It isn’t as if I am concentrating on the mechanics of the fly casting, because I will still be listening to the birds singing, watching the wildlife along the banks, I cast, mend the line, let the fly drift, over and over and over again, and I find that rather than minutes, hours have gone by. I lose track of time no matter what type of fishing I am doing, but never so much as when I am fly fishing. However, that still doesn’t explain the snobbery part of the sport.

“Beginners may ask why one fishes if he is to release his catch. They fail to see that the live trout, sucking in the fly and fighting the rod is the entire point to our sport. Dead trout are just so much lifeless meat.” Ernest G. Schwiebert, Jr

OK, we may be on to something here, the beginning of the disconnect between Regular Joe Fishermen and the fly fishing snobs.

Regular Joe Fisherman hears that and says “Whoa, time out here. Hooking and fighting fish is fun, but the entire point to our sport is what you call the lifeless meat! Trout are good eating and considered to be gourmet food!, Don’t you understand that?”

Maybe I shouldn’t put words in the late Ernie Schwiebert’s mouth, but I can imagine his reply would be something on the order of “No! I don’t understand that, trout are too beautiful to kill for food! I find that notion to be repulsive and abhorrent! If you want a fish dinner, go to the store and buy a fish, it’s cheaper that way any how!”

 What happens to some of us that we fall so deeply in love with trout, where they live, and fishing for them that we go completely off our rocker’s and deny the basic reason that mankind started fishing in the first place, for food? I’ll let Ernie try to answer that one, as while many people have tried to explain it, I think he has said it as well as any one, and certainly better than I could ever hope to.

The following excerpt is from the closing speech at 2005 opening ceremonies at the American Museum of Fly Fishing that Ernie Schwiebert made.

“I will conclude with a story.

My obsession with fishing began in childhood, watching bluegills and pumpkinseeds and perch under a rickety dock, below a simple cedar-shingled cottage in southern Michigan. My obsession with trout began there too, when my mother drove north into town for groceries, and took me along with the promise of chocolate ice cream. We crossed a stream that was utterly unlike those near Chicago, fetid and foul-smelling, or choked with the silts of farm-country tillage. It flowed swift and crystalline over the bottom of ochre cobblestones and pebbles and like Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” it mysteriously disappeared into thickets of cedar sweepers downstream.

And a man was fishing there.

The current was smooth, but it tumbled swiftly around his legs. It was a different kind of fishing, utterly unlike watching a red-and-white bobber on a tepid childhood pond, with its lilypad and cattail margins, and its callings of redwinged blackbirds. His amber line worked back and forth in the sunlight, and he dropped his fly on the water briefly, only to tease it free of the current, and strip the moisture from its barbules with more casting. It seemed more like the grace of ballet than fishing.

And then the man hooked a fish.

My mother called to the angler, and gave me permission to run and see his prize. I remember getting my feet muddy and wet, with a Biblical plague of cockleburrs at my ankles, but it did not matter. The fish was still in the man’s landing met, and he raised it dripping and shining in his hand. It was a brook trout of six inches, its dorsal surfaces dark with blue and olive vermiculations, and its flanks clouded with dusky parr markings. Its belly and lower fins were a bright tangerine, with edgings of alabaster and ebony, and it glowed like a jeweler’s tray of opals and moonstones and rubies. I had witnessed something beautiful, and I wanted to be part of it.

People often ask why I fish, and after seventy-odd years, I am beginning to understand.

I fish because of Beauty.

Everything about our sport (and our cause in terms of TU) is beautiful. Its more than five centuries of manuscript and books and folios are beautiful. Its artifacts of rods and beautifully machined reels are beautiful. Its old wading staffs and split-willow creels, and the delicate artifice of its flies, are beautiful. Dressing such confections of fur, feathers and steel is beautiful, and our worktables are littered with gorgeous scraps of tragopan and golden pheasant and blue chattered and Coq de Leon. The best of sporting art is beautiful. The riverscapes that sustain the fish are beautiful. Our methods of seeking them are beautiful, and we find ourselves enthralled with the quicksilver poetry of the fish.

And in our contentious time of partisan hubris, selfishness, and outright mendacity, Beauty itself may prove the most endangered thing of all.”

Regular Joe Fisherman would probably say something on this order, “More of that fancy talk from another of you fly fishing snobs. You all sound like Frasier Crane and his brother Niles. Can’t you ever speak like a normal American?”

Not when it comes to fly fishing for trout.

I didn’t set out to be a fly fishing snob, or any other kind of snob, in fact, I considered myself to be the anti-snob for most of my life, and parts of me still do. I was raised by basically blue-collar parents who let us know their dislike for people who were snobs, pretentious, or “put on airs”. This was compounded when I went to school, the high school I graduated from was one of the two richest in the area.  If going to a school with the sons and daughters of millionaires, when you’re the son of a tool and die maker, doesn’t make you dislike snobs, nothing will. My parents did expose us to some of the finer things in life, my dad was a big fan of semi-classical music for example, and because I went to  a rich school, I was exposed to even more of the finer things in life, which I rejected as the anti-snob.

And even though I have found trout to be beautiful since an early age, that isn’t the reason I stopped keeping them. That was more of a practical and pragmatic decision, I caught so many of them that I was tired of hauling them home, cleaning them, and then trying to give them away, as you can only eat so much fish. I had read about catch and release, and it seemed like a good idea, if you want there to be fish forever, maybe you should turn most of them back to reproduce and make more fish to catch. I wasn’t even totally hooked on fly fishing at that point, when I started letting some the fish I caught go, and some of the fish I released were caught on (gasp!!!) bait.

 Looking back now, I think the thing that started me down the path to becoming a fly fishing snob was something as simple as buying an Orvis reel. I was going through cheap fly reels faster than one a year, they just didn’t hold up to the type of fish I was catching. I looked at the Orvis reels, and it took me almost a year, and another cheap reel, to decide that I could continue to buy cheap ones until I spent more for them than one Orvis reel, or I could break down and spend the big bucks for an Orvis reel, which I did. As the son of a tool and die maker, I could appreciate the craftsmanship that went into that reel, it was as smooth as silk, an absolute joy to fish with. As a fisherman, I could appreciate that I was no longer losing fish because a cheap reel had failed. I still have that reel, and I still use it all the time. It was a good investment, as it saved me from buying dozens of cheap reels over the years. It is a thing of beauty.

Over time, piece by piece, item by item, I replaced my cheap Regular Joe Fisherman tackle and ended up with the expensive stuff instead. They are things of beauty.

Now I have all the trappings of a fly fishing snob, I often wonder what the young me would think if he saw the present me. “Hmmm, another one of those rich fly fishing snobs who knows nothing about fishing or the fish!” is what the young me would think, but would I have been right? That’s the tricky part, for you see, there are really two kinds of fly fishing snobs.

There is one group of fly fishing snobs that are in the sport just to be fly fishing snobs. They are snobs in every aspect of their life, and they hear that fly fishermen are snobs, and they want to be part of the snobbery more than they want to be part of the fly fishing. They go out and buy the best gear money can buy, hire the best guides, read all the right books, sip the best liquor, and maybe even catch a fish every now and then. They are posers, snobs pretending to be fly fishing snobs.

 So, how do you tell a poser snob from a real fly fishing snob? Sometimes it is easy. If you see some one pull up to the river in an old, run down vehicle that has seen its better days, and the guy changes from street clothes to waders and vest faster than you can read this line, and then opens a rod case that hold two really fine rod and reel combinations, each of which is worth more than the vehicle he drove up in, it’s a real fly fishing snob. A poser snob would never let himself be seen driving an old, run down vehicle, he would have foregone the second fine rod and reel combo and used the money for a down payment on a better vehicle.

 You may then think that if you see some one pull up in a brand new Escalade and choose from the same two rod and reel combos that they have to be poser snobs, right? Not necessarily, for one thing I have learned over the years is not all the rich are snobs, and you don’t have to be extremely rich to be a poser snob, although it helps. So how do you tell the difference? It isn’t easy, but there are ways.

Let’s go back to Ernie Schwiebert’s eloquent speech, for a minute.

 “I fish because of Beauty.”

Any one can say that, even the poser snobs, they’ve read all the right books, so they are more than capable of repeating words like this, but they don’t really know what it means.

We’ve all heard the saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? And, what makes something beautiful to some one? Love. That’s something Ernie left out of his speech, love. We all know that love for a woman makes her more beautiful to the man who loves her, and can make him do irrational things, and so it is with fly fishing for trout. That’s what separates the poser snobs from the real fly fishing snobs, a love for trout that makes them even more beautiful than they really are, if that’s even possible, and our love for trout will make us do irrational things. Like spend money on a second rod and reel combination when we really need a better vehicle. Like quitting a good job in order to take a once in a lifetime fishing trip.

Our love for trout goes beyond the trout, to what the trout represent, something wild, something free, that makes its home in pristine rivers in the most pristine of wildernesses.

Poser snobs love too, they love being snobs.

So, how do you tell the real fly fishing snobs from the poser snobs? One way is this. We fly fishing snobs are river whores, we love all trout streams, but there is always one that we love more than all others. It may not be the biggest, the best, or the most widely known, but we love it as we do no other. For me, it is the Pigeon River in the Pigeon River Country. For Rusty Gates, it was the Au Sable. For Ernest Hemingway, it was the Fox. “Wait a minute here”, you say, “Didn’t Hemingway write about the Big Two-Hearted River?” Yes, that’s what he called it in his books, but it was actually the Fox River that he fished more than any others. He called it the Big Two-Hearted in his books because he didn’t want the crowds of fishermen he knew would come after reading his books to descend on his beloved Fox River and ruin it. That’s how much Hemingway loved the Fox, enough to lie in order to protect it. Get a fly fisherman to talk about his favorite stream, and if he doesn’t get that far away longing look, and maybe a little misty eyed as well, they’re a poser.

If you ask a fly fisherman you meet on the river how the fishing has been, and he says a few words about the fishing, but then goes on at length about the health status of the trout he’s caught and the river, he’s a fly fishing snob.

If he says a few words about the fishing that day and then starts talking about the big one he caught 3 years ago while fishing a big name river with a big name guide, he’s a poser snob.

But, probably the best way to tell is in the way he treats you and other fishermen he meets. If he offers to let you fish the best water first, he’s a fly fishing snob. If he races ahead of you to get to the best water before you do, he’s a poser snob. If he exits the river a long ways before he gets close to you so as not to spoil your fishing, no matter what kind of tackle you’re using, he’s a fly fishing snob. If he wades right through the water your fishing as if you didn’t exist, he’s a poser snob.

Let’s face it, a poser snob is a snob is a snob. They use the fact that they can afford the best of tackle as an excuse for their rude, boorish, inconsiderate, ill-mannered, and often times, ill-tempered, behavior. They have no respect for anything or any one, other than themselves, and if they don’t respect anything, they can’t respect the trout, and if they can’t respect the trout, they certainly can’t love the trout. Rather than calling them snobs, which feeds their snobbery, we should be calling them what they really are, fly fishing slobs.

Often when I get to a river, or getting ready to leave, there will be a group of fishermen there, who have tackle that looks like it comes straight from Wal-Mart, and they have set up lawn chairs, brought a cooler of beer, lots of food, a tub or two of crawlers, and they are fishing. I know they are never going to look at fishing or trout the same way I do, they are out there to soak up some sunshine and fresh air, and enjoy themselves. No big deal, they aren’t going to wipe out all the trout in the river. It does bother me that they are going to kill any trout they catch, but so do otters, mink, eagles, and osprey, and I love them almost as much as I do trout, and I can’t protect all the trout in the world no matter how hard I try. I would rather fish with a group like this than a fly fishing slob.

I also run into a lot of younger fishermen on the rivers who are in their twenties or thirties, casting spinners or those miniature floating Rapalas that can be so effective on trout, and I think to myself, that was me thirty tears ago, there is still hope for them. I am looking to make converts of them, over to my way of fishing, and I know if I act like an asshole, I’m sure not going to win any converts that way. So I have a pleasant conversation with them, and I hope I plant a seed that will grow as they get older. I would much rather fish with them than a fly fishing slob.

But that makes me ponder if age doesn’t have something to do with my conversion into a fly fishing snob. Coming face to face with my own mortality, knowing I probably have fewer fishing years ahead of me now than years behind me. Knowing that I want there to be trout left behind me so those young people I meet on the river will have the chance to fall in love with trout, and everything that goes with them, the way that I have.

There’s more in play than just facing my own mortality, for it seems to me that every year, both the trout and the rivers they live in become even more beautiful than before. You could chalk that up to my being helplessly in love with them, and that it is all a figment of my imagination, but you would be wrong. Our rivers are becoming more beautiful, or I should say their natural beauty is returning. Little by little, year after year, the wounds we inflicted on them during the logging days are healing. Little by little, year after year, they are purging themselves of the sewage and poisons we used to dump in them. And because our rivers are getting healthy again, more wild trout are born and survive to be caught, and hopefully, released.

Seeing this, I realize that I owe a huge debt to the fly fishing snobs who came before me that made this all happen. Even if you don’t fish, but love the rivers, we all owe the fly fishing snobs of past generations a huge debt of gratitude for saving the rivers from becoming nothing more than flowing cesspools devoid of life. That makes me realize I owe a huge debt to the trout and the rivers they live in for the many days of pleasure they have given me. I also realize that I owe a huge debt to generations to come, to continue the work of the fly fishing snobs who came before me, so the future generations will be able to have as many pleasurable days on the water as I have had.

So, to sum it all up, do I think trout are the most beautiful of game fish? Yes I do. Do I believe that trout streams are the most beautiful places to fish? Yes I do. Do I believe that fly fishing is of itself beautiful? Yes I do. Do I believe that fly fishing tackle is beautiful? Yes I do. Do I believe that the traditions of fly fishing are beautiful? Yes I do. Do I believe that many of the books written on the subject are beautiful? Yes I do. Do I believe that I have a duty to pass all of that on to others? Yes I do. I guess that makes me a fly fishing snob then, but please, don’t ever confuse me with one of the poser fly fishing snob slobs, because poor manners and snobbery for the sake of snobbery are never beautiful, and like Ernie Schwiebert, I fish because of beauty.


6 responses

  1. This is a well-written piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    March 21, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    • Thank you

      March 21, 2011 at 2:07 pm

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  4. Mike

    Interesting stuff. I’ve been flyfishing for nearly 60 years, along with other styles of fishing. The idea of snobbery in fishing wasn’t even thought of when I started, and my dad, a flyfisher, taught me that fishing was fishing, whatever the style. Also, there seems to be the thought that ‘true’ flyfishers never keep a trout, and bait/spinfishers always keep trout. Neither of these premises are accurate, but I suppose it’s comforting to some to think so.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    • Thanks Mike. The snobbery is something new in the world of fishing, it didn’t exist back when I started fishing either. Most of the people my dad fished with fished with various types of tackle depending on when and where they were fishing, and that’s how I grew up. I have since decided to limit myself to flyfishing, but it’s not like it is any big deal. I started releasing most of my fish when I still used spinning gear, and know of many flyfishermen who still keep fish. Mostly, my post was meant as a humorous poke at both sides, for I know many flyfishing snobs, and run into reverse snobbery by bait fishermen on many occasions.

      June 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm