I’ll turn 60 later this summer and I’ve noticed a truth that seems to reveal itself over the course of a lifetime. It’s called “change.”
As the years have passed by, I’ve seen rivers reshape their banks, saplings turn into trees, and new houses spring up where I’ve never seen houses before. At the same time, my friends and family have grown older, my son has shot up like a weed, human technology has advanced, and my daily activities and routines have evolved. It’s just the way things are. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once pointed out, “the only constant in life is change.”
These overt transformations occur all around us, sometimes via incremental little shifts and sometimes, as we’ve seen recently, with a suddenness that catches us by surprise. Almost always, though, the scale is so vast that it’s hard for us to fathom. The sheer volume of change can leave us unmoored, and that’s especially true for those of us who value heritage and tradition above convenience and expediency.
We know that a certain amount of change is baked into reality. Nature follows its own immutable rhythms and people will always be tethered to the natural world. In spite of that, I’m not sure that humans were meant to walk through life with the ground shifting so quickly under our feet. You don’t have to follow the news of the day to notice that life seems to be spinning faster and faster all around us.
I grew up back in the ‘60s in a home with a single rotary phone mounted to the kitchen wall. Now my son, who is in high school, has an iPhone that’s more powerful than the NASA computers that guided Apollo 11 to the moon. That’s pretty crazy stuff.
I’m also blown away that most of us were still using traditional cameras and dropping off our film for development a mere 15 years ago. Now I open up my computer or pick up my phone and see pictures of the fish my friend just landed on the other side of the planet. Technology is advancing at a pace I never could have envisioned when I was younger.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the convenience of saying, “Siri, call Mackenzie River Pizza in Kalispell,” or “Alexa, turn on the television,” outweighs the obvious downsides. Personally, I’m not a big fan of kids who can’t pry themselves away from their mobile phones, or people who spend more time playing video games than interacting with friends and family. That said, there are certainly an awful lot of folks who have embraced our social and technological changes with gusto.
The single biggest shift I’ve noticed with fly fishing might actually surprise some of you. From where I sit, it’s not so much a change in gear, or tactics, or techniques — or the struggles we’re all currently facing from the pandemic — as it is a change in attitude.
I bumped into an old friend last fall on the Henry’s Fork and he got right to the heart of things. Dry fly fishing, he explained, used to be the pinnacle of our sport, and the men and women who played the dry fly game were celebrated in the fly fishing media and in fly fishing culture. John Gierach made that same point back in the ‘80s when he wrote that he and his fishing partner invariably preferred dry fly fishing, and that a twelve inch trout caught on a dry fly was four inches longer than a twelve inch trout caught on a nymph or a streamer.
It’s obvious that Gierach had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek when he penned The View From Rat Lake, but you still can’t argue with his observation. Most fly fishers did focus on dry flies, and many went so far as to place dry fly angling on a pedestal. And you can see why. Casting a dry fly is way, way more enjoyable than lobbing nymphs or hucking streamers, and there’s something absolutely wonderful about having the totality of the angling experience play out right in front of you. Who doesn’t love watching a large trout sip mayflies from the surface, and who doesn’t feel a thrill when that same fish tilts up under your imitation?
Yet as Bob Dylan pointed out, the times they are a changin. Many fly fishers no longer focus on dry flies, or even on trout. You’re as likely to hear about folks stalking the flats for bonefish or permit, or chasing bass, or pike, or carp, or muskie, as you are to run across a true-blue trout fisherman extolling the virtues of a well-placed Harrop Last Chance Cripple on his or her local trout stream. And when you do bump into trout aficionados, chances are good that they’ll be talking about their favorite strike indicators or discussing their favorite glow bug patterns or woolly bugger variations.
Honestly, that’s okay. Maybe a lot of those folks will never learn how to cast well enough to present a dry fly, and maybe they’ll never really understand the excitement we feel when we stalk an oversized Henry’s Fork rainbow or a big Beaverkill brown, but it’s okay for fly fishing to mean different things to different people. As long as we’re all out there having fun, then there’s absolutely no reason we have to look at the sport the same way.
I should also mention that these shifts to the fly fishing culture afford certain benefits to those of us who view our angling through a more traditional lens. When I started traveling to great rivers like the Missouri and the Madison, the vast majority of my fellow anglers were fishing dry flies. Now the folks who aren’t off chasing bass or bonefish are typically lobbing nymphs under a strike indicator, and the rising trout I love to target don’t have nearly as much pressure.
It’s true. Sometimes change can be a good thing.