“The Truth about Fly Fishermen,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Bill Tapply casting to trout on a Western river.
Photo via williamgtapply.com

[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I’ll post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]

I arrived at my local trout stream just as the sun was dropping behind the trees. A pickup truck was parked in the pulloff. I stopped behind it, got out, and went to the bridge for a look. As I’d hoped and expected, the swallows were swooping over the water and tiny trout dimples were showing the whole length of the long slow downstream pool.

The two men from the pickup were standing on the bank at the head of the run puffing cigars and flipping lures with their spinning outfits.

I watched them for a few minutes, then called, “How’re they biting?”

“They’re not,” one of them said cheerfully, “unless you mean the mosquitoes.”

“Mind if I fish below you?”

“Help yourself. Plenty of water.”

The other guy laughed. “No fish,” he said, “but lots of water.”

I went back to my car, tugged on my waders, rigged up my four-weight, slipped on my vest, and took the path down to the stream. I had to walk right behind the two spin fisherman to get to the lower end of the pool. They turned and nodded at me as I went by.

I said, “Well, good luck,” and they said, “Yeah, you, too, buddy. Go get ‘em.”

I stepped into the pool about three long double-hauls downstream from them and did what I usually do: I stood there and looked. Pretty soon I located half a dozen rising trout within casting range, and when I bent close to the water, I noticed that the surface was littered with pale rusty spinners, about size sixteens.

Voices are muffled in the evening mist that rises from a trout stream, so I couldn’t make out the actual words the two spin fishermen were muttering to each other. But I did hear them laugh, and I was pretty sure I knew what they were saying.

“One of them damn anglers.” Spoken as if the word angler were a disgusting waste product.

“Dry-fly snob. Thinks he’s better’n the rest of us.”

“Yeah, no kidding. I heard one of them poles he’s using costs over a hundred bucks.”

And so forth. I’d been hearing it all my life.

The complete litany goes something like this:

Fly fishermen in general are bad enough. Even those who fish with streamers and nymphs think they’re special, the way they throw back all their fish and sermonize about clean water. But the dry-fly snob is something else. You saw that movie. Dry-fly fishing is like a religion to him, like he’s got the inside track on God’s design. Probably has more money than God, too, with all that pricey gear he thinks he needs. He speaks Latin fluently and spends more time studying insects and worshipping the wonderments of nature than he does actually fishing for trout.

You can’t talk to a dry-fly purist. If you ask him a friendly question like, “Any luck?” he’ll bore you with stories about the hoary traditions of dry-fly fishing, its ancient and honored roots in England where it all began nearly 400 years ago, where they’re called “anglers,” not “fisherman,” and still wear tweed jackets and school ties and plus-fours and fish by the strict rules of the river: Upstream dry flies only, cast from the bank (no wading, old chap), and only to rising trout. Which is the angler’s way of saying, I’m not actually catching anything, but I’m having a wonderful time.

The dry-fly snob likes to show off his skill, the years it took him to master the delicate art of the fly rod. He loves the beauty of those graceful loops his line makes as it rolls out over the water. He’ll tell you he’d rather catch nothing than demean himself by using anything but a dry fly, and if he does manage to hook something, he’ll make that expensive rod bend as if he’s hooked a monster, and if he ends up netting it, he’ll turn around and let it go. He thinks he’s the Ultimate Sportsman, and he fancies himself a poet. It’s all about the scent of clean air, the gurgle of rushing water, the symphony of birdsong, the fine art of casting, the craft of fly tying. He loves dry-fly fishing for its ambiance, its roots its beauty, its difficulty.

For its purity.

He’s too cultured, of course, to say it, but if the dry-fly purist were to tell you what he really thinks, he’d tell you that the rest of us, those of us who just like get out of the house, catch a few fish, and have a good time, are crude slobs.

He thinks he’s special. He loves the idea of being a Fly Fisherman more than he loves actually fishing.

The fact is, he’s pretentious, effete, condescending and smug.

* * *

That’s what those people are saying about us, mostly behind our backs. Now and then towards evening on a misty trout stream, you can hear them laughing at you.

* * *

I like all kinds of fly fishing. Actually, I like all kinds of fishing. I’m not a dry-fly purist, but it is the kind of fishing I love the most.

I’ve heard the snickering and the sarcasm all my life, and I’ve stopped apologizing and trying to explain and defending myself. It doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, I invite it.

The truth is, we dry-fly fishermen dress and talk and behave the way we do for the benefit of people like those two spin fishermen. We flaunt our expensive gear, our poetry, our aesthetics, our snobbery. We want to promote the image, to perpetuate the myth that we have the inside track on sportsmanship and that we choose to handicap ourselves with whippy little rods, flimsy tippets, tiny flies. We spurn mechanical aids like spinning reels and rely instead on timing and coordination and years of practice to put our flies near fish.

If the people who laugh at us buy into this image, we’re happy, because we’ve got a secret, and already there are too many people who know it. The laugh’s on them.

Here’s our secret: We dry-fly snobs like to catch fish at least as much as the next guy. Sportsmanship, tradition, artfulness, fancy equipment, and aesthetic values have nothing to do with it.

We happen to know that any time trout are feeding on the surface, dry-fly fishing is the easiest, the deadliest – really, the only way to catch them. We can pinpoint the exact locations of specific, feeding fish by their riseforms. We don’t have to guess what they’re eating, because we can see the bugs on the water, and we can tie on a fly that imitates them with confidence. We can watch the way our fly drifts over our target fish. If we see him eat it, we lift our rod and catch him. If we see that he doesn’t eat it, we know that either the fly or the drift was wrong, and we know how to make corrections.

There is no guesswork in dry-fly fishing. When trout are rising, they give us delicious, sometimes complicated, problems to solve. When we solve them, we can take full credit. Luck has nothing to do with it.
That’s why we like it.

* * *

I figured those two guys were watching me, so I did what any red-blooded dry-fly purist would do: I fumbled in my fly box and retied my tippet. I scooped up a rusty spinner, perched it on my fingertip, and whispered some Latin endearments to it. I tied on a fly, doused it with floatant, frowned at it, nipped it off, tied on another one. Made a couple of false casts. Moved upstream a few feet. Fumbled in my fly box.

I played the role.

After a few minutes, the two spin fishermen reeled in and headed back to their truck. Then I false cast once and dropped my fly over one of those dimpling trout, and as it lifted its head and sucked it in, I smiled and thought: You guys with your spinning gear who sneer at my snobbery, you’re the ones handicapping yourselves, throwing spinning lures at rising trout. You’re the true sportsmen. We dry-fly guys, we just down-and-dirty like to catch trout.

I admit it. I was feeling pretty smug.

* * *

I fished until it got too dark to see, by which time I’d caught seven or eight of those dimpling trout. Then I reeled up, waded out, and headed back for my car.

When I climbed the bank by the bridge, a voice in the darkness said, “That was awesome, man.”

Then I saw the glowing tips of their cigars. The two spinning guys were leaning their elbows on the bridge rail.

I went over. “You’ve been watching me?” I said.

“The whole time,” one of them said. “Wanted to see how it was done. I’ve always thought that fly fishing was so cool but figured it was too hard for an old dog to learn. You made it look easy.”

“It is easy,” I said.

“Looks like a lot of fun,” he said. “I gotta learn how to do that.”

“Really?” I said. “You want to be a fly fisherman?”

“Yeah. I always have.”

“We’re terrible snobs, you know.”

They both laughed as if they didn’t believe me.

* * *

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply:

They’re available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc. 

12 thoughts on ““The Truth about Fly Fishermen,” by William G. Tapply”

  1. A wonderful read, and so very true. Yesterday my wife and I fished from a Florida beach with our 8 weights. People walked by and some stopped to watch, mostly my wife. She was calmly laying it out, letting it sink, and stripping in fish. One guy commented that she made it look easy and that he always thought it was hard to do. Little did he know the number of hours she has spent practicing and of course, she didn’t tell him. She just said “you should try it – you might like it”. He replied that he “just might” and wandered down the beach with a smile. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

  2. Hi! I can appreciate what Wiliam is saying.I have been very lucky to have fished with lovely American friends in Montana,Colorado,South Dakota and Minnesota also in England,I have to say here in Ireland ,as a fly fisher for over 30 years,fly fisher snobbery does nt really exist.Every body fly fishes,across all ages,gender “classes”etc.On the big loughs which are free fishing for trout,it is just natural ,no mystique,no big deal. Im a member of a about 5 local clubs,the “craic” as we say is mighty,on the loughs and rivers.I ve also worked in a tackle shop in Donegal.Fly fishing is just a part of local life ,and some thing I love ! of course.Kind Regards and Tight Lines!

    1. It’s the same here in Scotland. I fish all methods but I definitely enjoy fly fishing. I guess In our countries trout fishing was always the poor mans game, the snobs had their salmon. I do agree with the writer that dry fly is the easiest way as there’s no guesswork; get a fly over a rise with a good drift and you’re in. Now nymphing , that’s the hard way, I’m so bad at it that if there’s no risers I’ll switch to the worm

  3. Excellent read, I’ll have to look into finding some of his books. I realized after leaving the Army how much I missed my “outdoors time”. Something about being in the field or down range simply shrunk the world to the here and now. Nothing else existed. A few years ago I found my way into kayak fishing and now have wondered into fly fishing, I’m new at it and have only caught one small bass with my fly rod so far but I think I’m hooked. The world just shrinks away and nothing else exists but the here and now.

  4. Pingback: Tapply was right | Middle River Dispatches
  5. I’m a good ol girl from the back flats of the Arkansas Delta. Got tired of bobber fishing and almost gave up fishing all together, Boring! I’m also a WalMart girl.
    One day was doing the local shopping at my favorite WalMart and saw a $39.98 Cortland fly fishing outfit. What the hell, I got it. I have a pond out back and thus began the rest of my life of fly fishing. No one taught me. Well… Maybe I did watch a few You Tube video’s but, I wore the line and snagged everything around me. Then there was that first time I tied into a bluegill. My 5wt was bent over, the fight was on.
    I caught myself giggling and laughing. Had to look around to see if anyone was looking.
    Yup, it’s true. Now days it’s Sage, Redington and Orvis. My fun had gotten expensive and these days there is a kayak just awaiting the spring for the other local waters.
    Snob? God! I hope not.

  6. Great spin on the dry-or-die mentality. Love how you shed light on the simplicity of dry fly fishing. It can be easy because you can see exactly what they are eating!

  7. I don’t like writing anything nasty on sites like this. But…I am sorry. I understand that this guy is a great writer and I enjoyed the direction I thought he was going. However, he seems to want to have his cake and eat it too. Are fly fisherman persecuted? What a joke. He presumes to be self aware and then precede to tell a pretentious and quite smarmy tale in which he is the gracious sage hero with fly rod in hand. He acknowledges that he prefers dry fly fishing and then precedes to tell us that catching fish is what matter. In his “story”, drys were the right thing. By his logic, what if the trout were taking daredevils or rapalas. Or maybe more realistically nymphs. He is an author and a fisherman, so he does not need to let consistency or facts get in the way of a good story. I enjoyed the writing, but as fly fisherman, we should strive to be less pretentious. Yes people have a fascination with fly fishing, in large part thanks to Brad Pitt. If your don’t think that is fly fishing has reputation of arrogance, then you don’t get out much.

    I love the sport.

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