The great fly fishing divide

A lot of anglers are wading off in opposing directions
spring creek anglers walking pickup truck
Photo: Chad Shmukler

A troublesome divide has been growing more and more apparent in the fly fishing sphere. This shift may well stem from the unprecedented craziness we’ve all dealt with over the last year and a half. It might also spring, at least in part, from the increase in the number of fly fishers who have no experience with a spinning rod or a bait-casting rig, or the fact that so many of us engage on social media, or our burgeoning focus on species other than trout. Whatever the case, it sure seems as if a lot of anglers are wading off in opposing directions.

Let’s start at the beginning. The largest divide in our sport rests squarely on the letter Q. On one side are folks who concentrate on the quality of the experience. Whether they focus on the challenge of fly fishing, or the healing power of nature, or the intrinsic joy of good fly casting, or the beauty of the great outdoors, or the adventure of wilderness fly fishing, or the excitement of watching a big Henry’s Fork rainbow rise to the surface — or something else entirely — doesn’t really matter. While these folks may experience the world through different lenses, and aspire towards different goals, they understand that fly fishing provides something truly special; something that’s hard to find with other angling methods and other types of tackle.

Whatever their personal differences, they’re united in their search for a quality experience. I’ve mentioned the “qualitative” branch of fly fishing in the past, and noted that I count myself among its many adherents.

On the other side of the “Q” divide — the other side of the coin, if you will — are anglers who emphasize quantity. As in numbers and size. People who walk the quantitative path have decided, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, that the clarity of quantitative analysis makes everything simpler, easier and more enjoyable. As a consequence, “more” and “bigger” are always better. That’s an immutable truth on the quantitative side, as is the belief that the game isn’t worth playing if we don’t keep score.

As a life-long sports fan, where statistics are vital and we measure our heroes with batting averages and points-per-game and touchdown passes thrown, I certainly understand the allure of numbers. That said, I should probably point out the obvious. The quantitative crowd is putting itself at a severe disadvantage when it comes to fly fishing.

Think of it like this. Anyone who hopes to maximize the size of their fish, or the numbers that they catch, diminishes their odds by choosing fly tackle. Skilled anglers will almost always catch more trout (or tarpon, or permit, or bass, or pike, or salmon) with gear or bait, and they’ll have an easier time of it as well.

In fact, the one time when fly fishing improves our odds — the only one I can think of — is when we fish for rising trout. A fly rod with a floating fly line is the most effective way to present small or medium-sized dry flies to trout feeding on the surface. Outside of that one narrow niche, though, our angling is easier and more productive if we opt for bait or lures. So why would someone fixated on catching more fish, or bigger fish, or more and bigger fish, consciously choose to handicap themselves with a fly rod? That’s a tough one for me to understand.

I’m also curious why so many folks who focus on fish size or numbers dismiss the importance of the overall angling experience. Why not simply accept that others have different priorities? And why the ever-increasing acrimony towards people who focus on quality rather than quantity?

As fly fishing continues to shift further into the mainstream of American life, it feels as if we’re losing certain core values that have long set our sport apart from other forms of angling. I wish it were otherwise but I’m seeing this shift in perception and behavior on an almost daily basis — both in conversations with other fishermen and in online fly fishing forums. Rather than simply accepting the current trend as inevitable, though, I’ll share a couple of relevant points.

The first is that we are individuals and it’s okay to view the world through our own unique lens. There’s no rule that says we all have to experience fly fishing in the same way or conform to someone else’s expectations.

The second is that it’s okay for fly fishing, and fly casting, to be forms of self-expression. In fact, I’ll go even further and state that our fishing and our casting should reflect our personalities and our idiosyncrasies.

The third is that there’s really only one reason to fish with a fly rod — and that’s to have fun. Which, when you think about it, requires a little introspection. If we want to walk away happy, then we need to know which paths, of the myriad available to us, lead directly to enjoyment.

If that last statement needs further translation, just keep in mind that there are a ton of options at our fingertips. We can focus on the joy inherent in good fly casting, or on the beauty and serenity of nature. We can search for rising rainbows or difficult-to-find species like permit or musky. We can opt for simplicity or complexity; solitude or companionship; home waters or exotic destinations; rivers or lakes; fresh water or salt; dry flies, nymphs, streamers or wet flies; surface or sub-surface; tight line or slack; little fish or big; more or fewer.

The options are, if not endless, then certainly vast. At the same time, our ultimate success depends on our ability to chart a course towards whatever form of angling is most likely to make us smile. As Socrates once said, “to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Or to quote a more recent sage — Lucille Ball — “it's a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy."


I see it as less of a divide and more of a maturation process. For those of us lucky enough to have fly-fished for multiple decades, we've all probably lived this: catch any fish --> catch lots of fish --> catch bigger fish ---> quality of experience.

I think you're observing folks caught at different stages of this maturation process and assuming there's a 'divide'.

We should recognize that this process is pretty inevitable. And provide interesting content for folks at each stage of the journey-- likely focusing on beginners (can I catch ANY fish?) and then veterans who care about quality of experience (as they live for this and spend $ on it and are interesting in continuing to learn).

I totally agree with Mac Howell. As an older angler, who just became a fly fishing addict, I'm in awe when I catch a fish with a fly. It's the same maturation process with any style of fishing really. I do think some of use skip stages and arrive at the appreciation of the experience level more quickly. Must be a product of age.

Agree 100 percent. We have, over the past two years, experienced the largest influx of new fly anglers since the release of the movie, and there are folks at all stages in their journeys as anglers. So many, that the guys and gals taking their first steps seem to be everywhere. And in this era of ubiquitous social media, they all have an audience. It's a good thing, in my view. With the exception of a handful of longstanding, marquee waters, the majority of the continent's streams and coastlines are vastly underutilized and would benefit from greater attention and more people to speak for them. I have not noticed any blowback against "qualitarians," but I've seen a whole bunch of fretting about the newbies. Kindness, generosity, and humility are probably the correct approach. After all, someone did it for us once upon a time.

Well said, and I agree.

More people participating in what we do is good, for a bunches of reasons.

It was the first thing that I thought when I read the article. This is written from the perspective of a fisherperson that has gone through some process of maturation in their appreciation of the sport and I find the suggestion that people new to the sport should embrace the lofty goals that the writer espouses to be quite condescending and snobbish.

We ALL went through the process of wanting to catch lots of fish. It's FUN catching a lot of fish. And catching BIG fish is fun too. If the writer didn't go through that stage of his fly fishing career, he would be a rare case indeed.

Long gone are the days of tweed-clad dry fly, upstream only fishing by those with exclusive rights to segments of river. This is not the sport of our grandparents, and the more people drawn to the sport, the more I hope we will gain some traction protecting the rivers we fish on. I don't deny that the numbers of people we see on the rivers can do it harm. And I fully acknowledge that we all tend to focus more on the qualitative aspects of our experiences as we become better fly-fishers, having caught zillions of fish every which way, in a hundred different places. But it is a process that the majority of us go through over the years. And that just takes time on the water, with good days and not-so-good days.

Dividing us all into good and bad does NOTHING to serve the rivers. Only more division in the world, which is the last thing we need. We're all on the same team.

Fly fishing is being destroyed by guys dragging the bottom with jigs hung vertical off a bobber. Jig fishing has nothing to do with fly fishing, all you are doing is catching trout from a reaction strike
Everyone knows the most easy and effective way to catch any fish is with jigs and spinners. Resting fish will strike in startled reaction to the flash and twinkle of the jig That strike has nothing to do with fly fishing
We can meet on the water and I will teach you how to fly fish

“ In fact, the one time when fly fishing improves our odds — the only one I can think of — is when we fish for rising trout. A fly rod with a floating fly line is the most effective way to present small or medium-sized dry flies to trout feeding on the surface. Outside of that one narrow niche, though, our angling is easier and more productive if we opt for bait or lures.”

Strongly disagree here, I think fly fishing when you know what you’re doing and the appropriate lines, leaders, flies, and presentation is in many instances superior to and more productive than gear or bait. I out fish live bait with the fly pursuing Lingcod consistently, one of many examples I could provide.

True, but fly fishing requires a lot more skill and practice than bait fishing. I think if you looked at sheer volume of fish caught by low-skill beginners, the success rate in general is probably better with bait. I think that's more the author's point.

So many issue have sprung in recent years, a combination of COVID, social media and wreckless society that doesn’t feel it accept to have varied experiences from one person to the next. As a sales rep and guide, I feel that both Qs are important for may folks. Getting new anglers into fly fishing is certainly easier when you have numbers of fish and nonstop action all day. But it rarely can be that way 100% of the time. I love a challenge and big fish, but they become my Quest- to chase from year to year. I truly feel we need to be more acceptable in our pursuit of outdoor experience, without prejudice toward another angler. Cheers & Tight lines!

This is good, I truly enjoyed it...with one caveat...

Like most of what's written about fly fishing, it's more trout-focused than I'd like to see.

Other than a brief mention of a few other parentheses...that's what it seems to be about.

There's a whole world in fly any kind of fishing...beyond trout, and many anglers would like to see more if that...

Respectfully, I don't think this divide exists at all. And if it does, it's of no consequence. The divide which does exist in fly fishing is science vs. climate deniers. As I write, Spencer Durant currently edits MidCurrent. On his personal webpage is a podcast disparaging the climate crisis. Don't believe me? Listen for yourself. As long as propagandists like this have a platform for their voice as a 'fly fishing authority' the sport is in grave danger. Did I also mention he's never shared an insightful tip as well in fly fishing? He's batting 0.

The only “divisiveness” in this equation are people such as yourself. You’re seriously trying to “out” and/or silence someone for holding a differing opinion to your own, while claiming to be the righteous one at the same time- YOU AREN’T. The very ignorance(or likely stupidity on your end) of your comment shows exactly why “your argument” isn’t taken to heart by many, myself included. Yes, dummy, the climate changes, which is exactly why one side has changed the terminology of the argument on a yearly basis, but there is less science to back up that humans are effecting it than there is to the opposite. This, however, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care of the environment we inhabit- we absolutely should, and I can assure you that more of my time and resources go to this than yours. But when you come at an argument with your butt-hurt, hostile, verbal diarrhea, I’ll always tell you that I am right and you are wrong with zero nuance just to piss you off. Maybe turn your activism, Broseph Stalin, you’ll go much further.

Help us understand how that obviously politically motivated and agenda driven rant does anything other than create more division.

I've seen less bias in a CNN news story...and that's a high bar to get over...

Thanks Paul. It's funny that you think I'm a liberal and leading the canceled culture crusade. I have no intent to cancel anyone rather my intent is to point out how ridiculous some people are in the fly fishing community, and that their opinion should hold no water. For me to have that opinion, it's incumbent upon me to provide the burden of truth which in a few sentences I largely did for that rather unaccomplished writer I referenced.

I don’t think the author is trying to do ANYTHING to you. You’re hostile, arrogant and aggressive and your comments tell us a lot about who and what you are. I pity anyone who meets you on the water

It's unfortunate that pointing out objective facts hurts you. I'm sure you can find plenty of like-minded individuals like yourself to commiserate with in some pedantic group therapy session.

I agree with Mac, but I would say process of decompression from life, rather than maturity. I was a spin caster for years until I began fly fishing out of curiosity. I still do both depending on my mood. If I want to catch my dinner, I will spin cast, if I need to relax and enjoy the experience, I'll fly fish. I have had great days and come up short using both methods, but have always enjoyed the experience more with a fly rod in my hand, because I believe, the expectation that I will catch something is less, so the experience becomes more valuable. I think fly fishing is a great exercise that forces me to remove outside distractions, anxieties, and frustrations, because if I don't, I am going to spend my day with broken tips, tangled and knotted lines, losing flies in trees, and in frustration (yes, I have had plenty of days where I lost that battle and learned that it is better to switch to spinning rod or go home).
I can say this, there is nothing more satisfying than wading Felts Mills Creek, hearing a trout sucking at the surface, making a good cast and hooking a nice Brook trout biting on a fly that I tied. There is something ancient and simplistic in that experience. Landing a 26 pound Salmon on an 8# rod was exhilarating! Fishing the pools of the Hiawassee for rainbows early in the morning with a nymph is a beautiful experience, and catching the elusive Shenendoah National Forest Brook trout smaller than my hand on a dry caddis. For me, it's not about numbers and sizes when fly fishing. It is about the experience. I love to fish a variety of species, styles, and methods, but fly fishing requires rhythm, patience, and a calm disposition. Once you can get there, not only are you able to notice and enjoy your surroundings a little better, once in a while you are also blessed with a gift.

Interesting article.

I have photographic evidence that I've been fly fishing since 1951 (Gray's River, Wyoming). And I have fly fished for trout, warm water species, and in the salt--whatever water was nearby.

I've experienced both "Qs", caught over 100 trout in in a day on a remote river and struggled to land a 50-pound shark. I've known anglers who have been focused on one or another of the Qs, they exist but I think they're rare.

For my part, fly fishing is more interesting, more artistic, and fun than other kinds of angling. But it is getting crowded. I tend to fish in the off-season when there are no other anglers. The river near my home is Henry's Fork of the Snake and doesn't freeze, so I'm in it even in winter.

For me,fly-fishing is all about getting in tune with Mother Earth. Leave the B. S. of society and technology and get in touch with our " primitive selves". I believe, if people, in general would get back into the outdoors more often, we, planet Earth, would not be in the shit storm we seem to muddle through, day after week, after year.

I’m one of the 55+ Club. If you really want to stimulate a discussion and possibly advance a conservation ethic, put the social media driven commoditization of flyfishing (and most other outdoor activities) on the table. From fishing over redds to support grip and grin pictures to self publicity using isolated spots that are spectacular as (and which may handle pressure as would) a canvas, that’s a real change.

I found the article and all the comments interesting. Having been fly fishing for 60 years and starting out before that with either a spin cast or fly rod and worms learning to control line and catching my limit and helpin to feed my family of 8, I gravitated to near soley a flyfisher for the sheer fun of it . I pretty much started catch and release because I got tired of cleaning fish. I keep a trout to eat rarely, but do enjoy a dinner now and then. That is me. The moral of the article is we are free to choose. That freedom is being sorely tested in todays society. Fishing in general is an exercise in freedom. Each of you is entitled to exercise this freedom. We all need to recognise this and respect each other

The baby has already been thrown out with the bath water. I lost my trust in the fly fishing community when I started seeing fly fishing contests on the Vermont Battenkill River. I will always fish alone and enjoy every minute while reminiscing about my grandfather and fathers companionship together on the river.

Let's not create artificial divisions in an already divisive society. Reminds me of the people who ask "do you like to tie flies with natural or synthetic materials?" Like I need to make a choice. And even with my 55 years of fly fishing, some days I want a quality experience and some days I want to catch a shitload of fish. There have always been factions in fly fishing. I remember 50 years ago when my mentor in fly fishing said that "anyone who fishes downstream is an asshole". And there were fly fishers who wanted to ban streamer fishing back in the days when a size 6 Gray Ghost was a big one.

Word on the street is that the author is depressed ... possibly because there's so little good bean-to-bar chocolate in NW Montana these days. Maybe there would be less acrimony if there was more good chocolate under the Big Sky. (A little more real maple syrup probably wouldn't hurt either.)

I tend to be suspect of "good old days" arguments. It reminds of when the classic rock folks in the 1980s were complaining about punk rock. They actually missed out on a lot of good music.

There are no "good old days" - those days are today. Enjoy your time on the water and do not worry about what other people are doing. If they want to count fish, so what? You only have so many trips in you before you have to hang up your waders.

One of the better pieces I have read in a long time and definitely thought provoking. I really enjoyed it. Well done Mr. Tanner!

Great points...quantity vs quality. From day one in the 70s I was consumed with the pursuit and how it impacted my spiritual well being. I thought that this was the same for everyone attracted to fly fishing. From that experience it inspired me to do all I could to preserve the quality of the experience by trying to improve fishery environments from coast to coast.

However, if fly fishing becomes a quantitative pursuit in this day and age, it is totally unsustainable with the deteriorating fisheries and increased fishing pressure. In fact, I have noticed in recent years the lack of consciousness to give back to the fisheries. The truly sustainable aspect of fly fishing is the magic of the pursuit and not necessarily the thrill of the catch.