An article written by Ron Holloway.
Changes for the good in fly fishing are welcome, however changes for the worse
should be challenged by all who really care for our sport. The problem is however,
who, other than the individual, can arbitrate on what is good and what is not? One
thing for certain is fly-fishing has progressed through the years and tackle and
methods of use have developed exponentially with the introduction and use of
sophisticated manufacturing technology and space age materials.
Experience also teaches us “old stagers” of fly fishing that fly fishing today is
now somewhat different to fly fishing as we knew it in 1958. Whether all the
changes these tackle improvements have spawned have been for the good is open
for debate. There appear to be signs that the historic attitudes and ethics within
angling and present day fly fishing in particular, have changed or are coming under
threat. Maybe it is that fly-fishing has been inevitably led to change since those
halcyon days of pre 1958, and that these are due more to environmental and human
social changes beyond our control? What ever it may be, there is a growing
realisation within the ranks of us “old stagers” that fly fishing as known in earlier
times has lost or is in danger of losing contact with its historic traditions, sporting
ethics and philosophies. All of which have been handed down from generation to
generation. On the other hand today’s “old stagers” are not advocating returning to the
tunnel visioned, dogmatic Halfordian attitudes that shackled dry fly fishing in bygone
It has, in many cases, been the traditions and sporting ethics set down in the writings
of the recognised influential doyens of the early days of fly fishing that have
influenced and attracted so many people into a life long love of our sport once they
have been introduced to its beauties and complexities. This wonderful sport of ours
has, through absorbing its rich literature and in its practical participation with a rod in
hand, afforded so many thought provoking natural challenges, endless enjoyment,
peaceful relaxation and personal satisfaction to so many human beings. It has been
that way for many generations of fly fishers, and above all it has greatly enriched so
many human lives along the way.
The great technical advances in modern tackle design and manufacture has
encouraged the development and use of some new and very ingenious methods for
catching game fish, some of which, it is feared, now bare little resemblance to fly
fishing as it was known in 1958! As these new methods have evolved and are
developed and used under the heading of fly fishing then it is surely for the individual
angler to voluntarily impose upon himself any arbitrary regulations he sees fit that
maintains their sporting use. The criteria for setting these arbitrary conditions should
be to maintain a code of sporting practice that respects the prey and contributes to
the maintenance of the written and unwritten voluntarily accepted ethics and sporting
traditions of the art of fly fishing.
Is it little wonder many “put & take” fishermen eventually tire of regular predictable
angling experiences? Some either give up fly fishing altogether or as their skills
improve some acquire the urge to move on to seek further challenges to their fly
fishing skills by becoming an AAPGAI instructor or by hunting genuine wild species
of fish either in the sea or fresh water. It does not take much time for these true
sporting fly fisherman to appreciate the new challenges that nature offers. The
measure of the quality of the fishing experience, allied with the appreciation of the
natural beauty of the surroundings are both inversely proportional to their artificiality.
Could it be the lack of fly life that is responsible for stimulating some of the observed
changes in fly fishing attitudes? Or could it be the methods now employed by some
anglers, which, in turn, may indirectly be compromising our sports historic traditions
and ethics? Changes that now see people fishing the hallowed dry fly chalk stream
beats for trout “across and down” with brightly coloured weighted lures because there
is little or no active fly life these days to bring trout up to the surface to feed. Except
maybe when the May Fly are up.
New tactics have evolved to catch trout and grayling. These fishing methods are
quite legal and there is little doubt at times that these methods are very successful at
fish catching but can some of these methods really be classified under the heading of
fly-fishing? Where can a line be drawn, or in fact and more importantly whether such
a line should be drawn?
This being the case should we as fly fishermen even care? Just as the
“upstream dry fly only to a rising fish” code of practice developed a hundred plus
years or so ago, should then similar arbitrary decisions be made by fishery managers,
fishery owners as well as the individual fly fisherman of today. The question is who
determines if, how, when and where the use of these modern techniques are
acceptable or not. To date no one appears to be willing to come out and take a
definitive position one way or the other.
If we really think about it, have things changed all that much during the last fifty
years? It is a matter of personal choice whether a fly fisherman adopts or adapts to
these modern changes. The most important thing is that today’s fly fishers continue to
happily fish legally in the manner that suits them, abide by the local rules and in
doing so maintain and protect the historic values and philosophies and sporting
guidelines all of which have underpinned the evolution of our wonderful sport.
One of our greatest privileges as fly fishermen is to be in a position to release some of
our catch of genuine native and wild trout if we want to. This is not out of a
sentimental avoidance of the act of killing a wild or native trout. It is the awareness
that on many waters of this country which are still able to carry self sustaining stocks
of wild and or native brown trout from season to season, that wild and native trout are
now far more valuable as sport, or the promise of sport than they are as food for the
belly, or sops to the vanity.
So where does all this leave us today?
One of the most influential pieces of angling writing on this subject is
encapsulated in an essay by the late fly fisherman, writer and conservationist,
Ed Zern which appeared in the “Field and Stream”some forty or more years ago
entitled “The Ethics of Fly Fishing”. In essence that essay, at the time sowed the
seeds from which have grown my present heartfelt feelings concerning the wonderful
sport which has been such an integral part of my life for the past fifty years or more.
Thirty years of which were spent as a river keeper on the Upper River Itchen in
Hampshire. When given some thought, it seems that all the problems of life are
ethical problems and so to attempt to separate out the ethics of fly-fishing is found to
be rather difficult.
The essence of our sport of fly-fishing and dry fly fishing in particular, is skill, and
the voluntary imposition or acceptance of arbitrary conditions demanding these skills.
Fly fishing usually requires more skills than fishing with metal spinners or heavy
spoons, fly casting generally requires more skill than spinner casting or bait casting.
Fly fishing encourages the development of collateral senses and skills as in the
powers of observation and ability of identification of insects and the dexterity of
tying accurate imitations of the same. Dry fly fishing hones the skills in adept field
craft it encourages a stealthy stream approach and delicate fly presentation. Dry fly
fishing can in my opinion be a more sporting and exciting way of catching trout we
see feeding off the surface of the water. If, at times the spin and bait and the Czech
style nymph fisherman catches more fish than the fly fisherman is irrelevant because
it could just be the other way around, but then who really cares?
The sport of fly-fishing is surely not a game or a competition between fishermen, it is
an end in itself. If we look at those great figures in the historical tradition of fly-
fishing, they are not the men who caught the largest fish or hold an array of cups and
shields and medals for the greatest numbers caught. They are those men who like
Ronalds, Francis, Mottram, Sheringham, Halford, Marryat, Skues, Lord Gray of
Falloden, Dermot Wilson, Theodore Gordon, Lee Wulff, Frank Sawyer Vincent
Marinaro, John Goddard and Peter Lapsley and many others who have given to our
sport, lasting contributions of thought and knowledge, of the fish themselves, of fly
fishing and fishing philosophy. All of which is set down in their writings and
illustrated above all by their good sportsmanship.
There have always been those fishermen who could accumulate more fish in their
catch returns than anyone else. They belong to a fraternity who have that over
whelming desire to be seen to have caught the most fish. Why is this? Because it is so
important to them, but fortunately no one seems to remember who they were. If our
precious rights to pursue our sport are to survive unmolested into the future and our
angling waters protected and well maintained for the benefit and use by our children
and our children’s children to fish, then maybe a good start in this direction would be
a movement away from today’s media driven statistics angling culture where, “must
be seen to catch”, size, weight and numbers appear to be paramount.
The time is rapidly approaching for us all to pause and seriously reflect on how our
sport has evolved in our lifetime and envisage how we wish it to progress in the
future. Finally and more importantly we should question in what state we leave our
beloved sport of fly fishing to future generations.