Slingin’ Lead

By Beacon Staff

Some folks have a story to tell about how they learned to fly fish. It often involves an old split-cane rod, or some other cherished family heirloom, passed down from father to son. These gifts signify a rite of passage from the lesser, coarser fishing pursuits to the refined realm of fly fishing.

I wish I had a story like that, but my old man rarely fished, and when he did he always used bait. He was almost a little proud about it. So when it was time to learn to fly fish, I went the postmodern route: I picked up a cheap fly rod at Kmart, rented some instructional videos and joined the local fly fishing club.

I suppose it worked, though I suspect my fishing buddies have detected a hitch or two in my self-taught casting stroke over the years. It would probably be a handy thing to have a video of myself putting a bend in a five weight so I could correct the hitches, but I’m almost afraid of what I might see. In my ignorance I imagine I’m a pretty fair caster.

The video might reveal a less charitable truth.

I haven’t been doing much fly casting lately; I’ve been nymphing instead. The whole act may fool some people. I’m wearing waders. I’m standing in a river waving a fly rod above my head. I’m catching trout. It’s easy to make people think what I’m doing is fly casting, but I know it’s really not. In a way it’s only nominally fly fishing. But nymphing is deadly effective once you put aside notions of refinement. It may not be an elegant game, but it catches fish.

Learning to nymph required that I unlearn all those things I taught myself about fly fishing. The hardest unlearning of all was convincing myself to stop casting. To nymph effectively you usually have to pinch quite a bit of lead onto your leader to get the fly to bottom-hugging trout. But you can’t throw tight loops when you’re trying to deliver a couple of BBs along with your bobber and whatever assortment of flies you’ve tied to the end of that rig.

It isn’t just that a dropper rig is difficult to cast. Try throwing loops and inevitably you’ll nick the tip of your rod with all that hardware. It probably won’t break when you hear that sickening tick above you’re head. Instead, it will give way for no apparent reason months later, just as you shove off for a three-day float on the Smith.

That’s the way it is with modern graphite rods. The tips are finer, but can be brittle. Still, these rods are technological marvels, with each season’s batch of new models more powerful and lighter than the ones just a year old. When you hear about some new, high-modulus rod, that’s what the sales pitch is getting at: the graphite fibers keep getting stiffer and lighter.

The result has been a fly rod arms race a little like what’s going on in the world of craft beers, where brewers seem determined to push past reasonable boundaries of taste. Brewers are forcing lushes such as myself to drink overly hopped IPAs so bitter they’ll almost drive me to drink wine. Almost.

The high-modulus arms race may have peaked. While these new, “faster” rods are impressive for the way they can punch 60 feet of weight-forward fly line directly into the teeth of a Northern Rockies afternoon gale, for the shorter, tight stuff, 25 feet in where you catch most of your fish, they cast a dry fly with all the delicacy of a pool cue.

Still, that power pays off when you’re slingin’ lead. Modern rods make it easy to lift that dropper rig out of the water and sling it back upstream. Repetitive “casting,” or maybe I should say “chucking,” is the goal. When you find a fish-holding run you want to keep working it, drifting that dropper rig through until you’ve bumped the nose of every trout in the pod with your fly.

My old man didn’t fly fish, but he taught me how to fish bait. Those lessons pay off whenever I’m nymphing.

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