(Warning: This is a fly fishing column. Some of you may want to cover your ears, close your eyes and hum loudly. This column is rated SB: Spin and bait-caster discretion is advised.)
With freshwater fishing as bad as itís been since Hurricanes KatRita, Iíve been entertaining myself and satisfying my fly fishing impulses by piddling with tackle. I think it was Tom McGuane who wrote, "Every fly fisherman has an unreasonable view of fly rods, and I am no different."
Itís true. While there are many variations in spinning and bait fishing rods, there are ten times as many in fly rods. By the way, do not ever call a fly fishermanís fly rod a "pole." A pole is something you hang electrical lines from, or a basketball goal. Fly rods are precision instruments, one-third science, one-third engineering and one-third mysticism. They are not "poles."
The difference being, in general fishing, you cast a weighted lure tied to a thin monofilament line. You are casting the weight of the lure, then. In fly fishing, you are casting a diminutive fly on a heavy PVC line. You are, you see, casting the weight of the line, and the fly just goes along for the ride.
Therein lies the rub. Two or three different length and action traditional fishing rods might do you fine for your whole life. Fly fishing ainít like that. If you are a fanatical fisherman, you need rods ranging from six to nine feet, in varying degrees of action, the stiffness and where it bends in the length of the rod.
So you wiggle out about 25 feet of this fly line, that comes in all kinds of nice colors. Once itís in the water and lying semi-straight in front of you, you lower your rod tip to the surface of the water, lift slowly but accelerating, and pull the line up with you over your shoulder, until the tip of your rod reaches about the 1 oíclock position. Maybe 1:30, but 2 oíclock is too far! Your line will whiz over your head, stretch out behind you, and when it just starts to stretch out again behind you, you snap the rod forward again to about 11 oíclock.
If youíve said your prayers every night before bed, washed and bathed regularly, gone to church at least annually, followed the Ten Commandments and never sacrificed Pacific Island virgins to pagan gods, the line will then shoot forward, taking some excess you had lying at your feet with it, and land straight as an arrow in front of you as you lower the rod tip to about 9 oíclock, and your leader and fly will gently land within at least a three-foot circle of where you wanted it.
This is the essence of fly fishing: Prayer. Fly fishermen are the most religious of fishermen, because it takes divine intervention to make all this work.
Norman Maclean said, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing Ö our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christís disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."
So if youíve lived a life of decadence and debauchery, youíll put too much power into the back-stroke, especially if you are a reformed bait-caster, and your line will jerk like a coiled serpent striking. Youíll stop the rod too far back, like at 3 oíclock, then slam it forward like youíre Mickey Mantle going for a homer.
In this case, your line will, if youíre lucky, end up in a messy little pile right at your toes, all three dozen feet of it. If youíre not lucky, youíll look like a kitten who got into the yarn.
Thereís the attraction of it all, you see. Itís not so much about the fish. I could catch way more fish with a glob of squirming earthworms impaled on a gold Eagle Claw hook.
But, defaulting to Maclean again, "My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."
And thereís the crux of it. Itís the learning curve. Itís the challenge. Itís Ė especially, to me at least Ė the abandonment of coarseness and the refinement of skill. Three years ago I was doing good if I could get 30 feet of line out. Today Iím doing 60 feet pretty easy and with decent accuracy, but by no means does that make me more than average with a fly rod. Many of my friends can cast the entire fly line, roughly 100 feet.
One more thing: A couple of folks, upon seeing one of my bamboo fly rods, commented, "Oh! Itís nothing like I thought. I pictured one of those old bamboo poles like Huck Finn used."
The origin of the fly rod traces back to Scotland. Those first rods were made of wood and used to cast Ė more like pitch, really Ė lines made of horsehair.
Later, as fly fishing moved to the rest of Europe and America especially, new woods were found that made the rods more like casting instruments, and Chinese silk became the preferred choice of fly line composition.
Eventually, someone discovered what used to be called Calcutta cane, from India. First they used sections of this to make tips for the rods. Eventually again, someone discovered Tonkin cane, which only grows in a remote cove of a bay in China. Like Cuban seed cigars, this particular variety of bamboo will grow no where else in the world, and in a century of searching, no other bamboo has been found that is even remotely as suitable for rod building as Tonkin cane.
If youíve ever cut a piece of bamboo, youíll know itís hard as heck. Bamboo from Tonkin Bay is shipped to America. A bamboo fly rod is made by drying the two-to-three-inch diameter cane stalks, splitting them lengthwise into thin strips, placing those strips on a mold that is set to taper from the thick butt section of the rod to the fine tip, sometimes fine as a pencil lead. Six of these are planed into equilateral 60 degree triangles, glued together, to form a hexagon shaped fly rod. There are no bumps or nodes from the joints of the cane like Huck Finn used. Bamboo fly rods are flattened, straightened, tapered and glued into precision instruments of incredible delicacy, surprising power and amazing grace.
Bamboo rods were largely replaced by fiberglass in the late 1950s after a good 40- or 50-year run. By the end of the 1970s or so, graphite became the material of choice. There are a couple hundred modern bamboo rod builders, so the art is still thriving.
You know how I am.
I prefer bamboo. I prefer wooden boats and old wood houses, too.
I love casting a rod made of grass. Bamboo is, of course a hard-stalked grass. I love that feeling of it, it still has life to it, unlike fiberglass or graphite. I have rods made of all three materials. But bambooÖbamboo resonates, deep down somewhere.
I could go on and on (like I already have) about this lifestyle of mine. Because its become more than a hobby, it truly is a lifestyle. Thereís always a little space in my brain reserved for it. The rest can be occupied by work and house renovations and family and friends and pets and driving and whatever, but thereís always a little part of my mind in which Iím fly fishing.
I like to think Iím a passable writer, and I hope to be a better one each day that passes. But truth of the matter is, my "art" if Iíll ever really have one, is fly fishing, and itís the one I seek to excel at the most.
Perhaps my favorite author, Harry Middleton, said it best, how the twitch of a fish on a fine fly rod would be undeniable: "It led me off the banks, out of the yellowing late-autumn meadows into the riverís cold, blue-green current sinking me not in sense but in sensation, pulling me down to a lower consciousness, that place of mind that was whole rather than fragmented, wet and organic, ancient and elemental, before it was anything else."
Yup. Thatís it, exactly.