For a couple seasons now, my co-worker Bucky McCormick has been going retrograde with his flies. He's been tying and fishing classic patterns. By classic I mean older flies with some degree of historical significance, like the Quill Gordon, Brown Bivisible and Black-Nose Dace. Patterns that practically nobody fishes anymore, especially here in the West. (Last time I used one myself was in the early 1980's, gulper fishing on Hebgen Lake. My fly of choice then was a #16 Adams—a classic, to be sure, and still a good imitation of a Callibaetis mayfly.) Bucky's decision to shun modern flies in favor of the classics is far from a judgment on their effectiveness. Rather, it's a statement about their beauty. Or lack thereof. With an emphasis on unconventional form and a reliance on synthetic materials, Bucky finds modern flies lacking in both grace and elegance. To him, they're simply...ugly. And having fished for decades, he's arrived at a point in his angling career where ugly no longer works for him. He sees beauty in the classics, and beauty matters now.
I found that idea quite interesting. It prompted me to ask him if he thought the beauty in a classic fly was intrinsic to the fly itself, or whether it lay strictly in the eye of the beholder. He said that it was inherent in the flies themselves: beauty as a function of both design and the employment of all-natural materials. I wasn't as certain about that, and decided to argue the other side. A Quill Gordon, I proffered, acquired its shape because it was nothing more than a knock-off of 18th-century English mayfly design. Beauty never entered the equation as a design concern—on either side of the Atlantic. It was function and form that drove design. As for the materials, well, the tiers of old had no choice. Organic was their sole option. So I argued that the conception of beauty in a Catskill dry fly—or any other classic fly for that matter—simply depended on when a person arrived to the sport. Anglers old enough to have been exposed to the classics at a young age, or when they were still widely fished, tend to consider them in aesthetic terms. They'll use words like "pretty" or "beautiful" to describe a fly. Younger fishermen think differently. They aren't nearly as apt to describe or draw a distinction between flies—classic or modern—based on aesthetic concerns.
Bucky wasn't buying it. Truth be told, I'm not sure I was, either. Because deep down inside, I see and feel the same things in the classics that he does. The stylish lines of a Catskill dry fly, the flair of a well-tied Henryville Special, the elegance in a sleek, antediluvian bucktail streamer—it's all beautiful to me, too. But unlike Bucky, I'm not sure I can trust my judgment. I've been fishing for a long time too, and I'm suspicious that my views have been unduly colored by a romanticism rooted in those many years of experience. I question whether I'm truly capable of escaping that experience and making an unbiased judgment. And so while Bucky harbors no doubts, I've been left to wonder, still, where does the beauty in a fly lie?
The day the upper Madison closed to fishing for the spring, I ran into an old friend who was fresh off a midge emergence near Three Dollar Bridge. I was curious about his fishing. He told me that he'd struggled, managing to catch only a couple trout despite an abundance of midges and rising fish. This was out of character for him. He retrieved his flies from his car and showed me the ones he used, asking what I thought. All his flies were viable imitations; any of them should have sufficed. I asked about his presentation. He said he didn't think it had been a problem, but added quickly that he had been fishing two flies at once, both dry, separated by about eighteen inches of tippet. Might this have been an issue, he wondered? I replied that it was certainly possible.
Two reasons come to mind: inaccurate casting and drag. Watching anglers fishing two flies, I'm struck by how often accuracy doesn't seem to rate as a paramount concern. It's as if they figure that by adding a second fly to their leader—doubling their chances for success, goes the theory—a reasonably close cast somehow becomes close enough. But no matter how many flies we fish at once, we're never absolved of the responsibility for accurate casting. Especially on the Madison. (The pocketwater of the Madison flows in stark contrast to that of, say, the flats of the Missouri or Bighorn, where pods of trout feeding shoulder-to-shoulder can often be cast to with little regard for accuracy, since even imprecise casts will cover at least a few fish.)
I asked my friend which of his two flies—dropper or stretcher—he had aimed at the trout. I received nothing so much as a blank look, until suddenly he realized where I was headed. Turns out he wasn't casting at all with the intention of making sure that at least one of his flies drifted precisely over the fish, but rather was just hoping that one or both would be close enough to draw a rise. I noted that by casting in this manner, it was likely that neither fly properly covered the fish.
As for drag, I think with two flies it's more difficult to avoid. Two flies give the currents more to act on, and they often do. This can sometimes be alleviated by spreading the flies farther apart, but that often leads back to problems of accuracy. And even when we do adequately control which fly we want the trout to see, what happens to the other? Does it land randomly, in contrary currents, further compromising the float of its partner?
Not having been there to watch, I can't say definitively exactly what was behind my friend's lack of success. But the use of two flies sounded awfully suspicious. (He acknowledged that many of his casts that day ended up dragging.) Before adding another fly to your leader, be conscious of your reasons for doing so. If you simply think it doubles your odds of success, proceed with caution. Multiple flies often hurt more than they help.
Note: Beyond the idea of simply catching more fish, there are other reasons for fishing two flies. Many anglers find that they can keep better tabs on a small dry fly with the addition of a more visible partner. And getting nymphs down deep—especially in small sizes—is often more easily accomplished by using multiple flies.
For quite some years, the classic books of fly fishing have been skating on thin ice. Very thin ice. It appears now—at least from where I stand—that the ice has given way. With luck a couple titles may flounder for awhile, but the bulk of them are sinking unceremoniously to depths from which only the most intrepid of anglers might dredge them. Yup, the classics are pretty much gone. I'm taking it hard.
Try finding a classic on the shelf of a fly shop or bookstore today. It's nearly impossible. Explanations for their absence run to: "They don't sell." "No one is interested." "No one has time to read anymore." "Old information." "It's all on the Internet." Heck, it isn't easy today to find even one fly shop employee or guide that has read a classic. Doubly so (or more) if they're under the age of thirty-five. But it's not only the folks in the fishing business. Anglers of all ages and stripes have been eschewing the classics for a long time. I can think of several reasons why they shouldn't.
As in any genre of writing, the classics of fly fishing represent the best of what has been thought and said on the subject. It's that simple. The ideas contained in them are good enough to believe in. The essential truths they reveal are ones which, to this day, we profit from. No disrespect towards current fishing writers, but the authors who penned the classics were more knowledgeable, more thoughtful, more articulate. They showed us the way, and did it beautifully.
Along with their technical insights, the classics provide something else of at least equal value (to my way of thinking). They provide the philosophical foundations by which we define our engagement with the sport. That is to say, in addition to showing us how to catch fish, they also present a system of values and beliefs by which we can fish. Values that have proven meaningful enough over the long term to serve as models for entire angling careers. (My own fishing has been satisfyingly directed by the classics for some forty-plus years and counting.)
The classics also help us understand our origins and how we arrived at where we are today. I think that's good stuff, and knowing something about the history of what I do adds infinite enjoyment to my days astream. If you've never read a fly fishing classic, try one now—while a few remain afloat.
Looking for a place to start? Consider Nymph Fishing for Chalkstream Trout by G.E.M. Skues and A Modern Dry Fly Code by Vince Marinaro.
December 6, 8:54 a.m., West Yellowstone, Montana.
A friend and I went fishing one afternoon last week on the Madison in the Park. We had our sights set on doing some Baetis fishing, and were hopeful that we'd find some big fall-run fish rising. When we pulled over to look at the river above Seven Mile bridge, a vicious upstream wind accompanied us. Mayflies were already emerging. Fish were feeding. We felt that we had to fish, and knew that it wasn't going to be easy.
Our flies were #22 Sparkle Duns, our tippets 6x, our leaders fairly long. A difficult setup to control, but from previous days experience one that we knew was necessary. My friend was excited and wasted no time in singling out a big fish. He waded out and began casting. In short order, he put the fish down. On to the next one. After several casts, same result. And then twice more. What was going on here?
My friend is an excellent caster. Perhaps too good, for I believe this was his downfall. He had chosen to approach each fish from cross-stream, in deference to the river's tricky currents and the need for a drag-free drift. But casting cross-stream in such a violent wind requires driving the fly to the target at high speed in order to achieve accuracy. My friend had no problem doing just that, but in the process was unable to get sufficient slack into his leader. Almost immediately his casts dragged, something those big fish wanted no part of.
I took a different tack. Figuring that the wind was too strong to fight, I deferred to it instead of to the currents. I cast straight upstream, wind at my back, which permitted me a reasonable degree of accuracy and a chance to bring my fly down softly. With luck, I'd also get a little slack. (This upstream approach also enabled me to get closer to the fish, which made the presentation easier yet.) I didn't catch as many fish as I hoped for (do we ever?), but I got some fine ones. I attributed their capture exclusively to my approach.
Talking afterwards, my friend was hesitant to accept that our respective angles of approach were responsible for his failure and my success. But there is no doubt in my mind. I've seen the same thing happen too many times.
So the next time you find yourself fishing in high wind, consider giving in to it. Put it at your back, regardless of what approach other factors might favor. Hopefully, it will help you as much as it's helped me.