This story originally appeared in High Country Angler magazine, Spring 2009.
On a recent float trip on the Arkansas River through Salida, I had cause to reflect on both the nature of fly fishing and the diverse motivations and styles of fishermen. This train of thought was stimulated by my disgust at the actions of my fishing buddy Craig, who gleefully tied on a streamer when the weather and water conditions were crying out for a dry fly. A spring day, not too cold, but overcast with light snow flurries – in short: a blue winged olive kind of day. For an admitted dry fly addict, after many months of sub-surface fishing, the opportunity was too much to pass up. As I shook my head in derision at the sight of Craig tying on a JJ’s Special, he defended himself by stating: “Hey, at least it’s not nymphing.” His rationale being that if you kept the streamer close to the surface then, well, it was almost a dry fly.
Now the fact that Craig caught several nice fish, while I proceeded to pull the fly away from the only fish I managed to bring to the surface in a classic case of dry fly PE, is irrelevant. But as my imagination ran wild, I started to think how the venerable Linnaeus, Father of Taxonomy, would have classified fly fishermen in his epic work Systema Naturae. I believe he would have identified three main species of fly fisherman: dry fly, nymph and streamer. Each of these will be discussed in more detail below.
Dry Fly Fisherman: The Latin name for this imperious species from the family Fisherman is Eternalus Optimistus. Just as our distant ancestors emerged from the primordial swamp to breathe cool, clean air, so too does Eternalus fish only on and above the surface of the water. He is regarded by many, particularly members of the same species, as the most highly evolved member of the fishing fraternity, Eternalus is typified by his dogged refusal to be deterred in the face of adversity. Never mind that the water temperature is too cold to induce a hatch, never mind that the wind is blowing so hard that any bug arising would be instantly blown to oblivion, never mind that all those around him are taking fish on nymphs and streamers. For Eternalus, fishing long ago ceased to be about body count. He is the living embodiment of the triumph of quality over quantity. Comfortable in his own skin, impervious to the slings and arrows of derision from his lesser evolved fishing buddies, to him time on the river is all about the search for that one mystical moment when the fish rises to the surface, abandoning the safety of its watery realm, powerless to resist the hypnotic pull of a perfectly drifted dry fly. For this one moment of perfection, this fleeting contact with the divine, he is prepared to forego the hollow sanctuary of numbers.
Nymph Fisherman: One step down the evolutionary ladder comes our intrepid nympher, Fluffius Indicaterus. While he may appear indistinguishable from Eternalus to the untrained eye, several physical and psychological differences mark him as a species distinct. While standing next to Eternalus his posture may appear equally erect and broad shouldered, once he wades into the river, however, he assumes the bent shouldered stoop that distinguishes him. This stoop is a manifestation of years spent with a myopic tunnel vision, focused on the tennis ball sized piece of yarn attached to the end of his leader. This yarn is his security blanket and umbilical cord connected him to the dark realm below that he seeks to dominate. While in any other type of fishing this yarn is called a bobber, to Fluffius such comparisons have been known to induce fits of rage, denial, and in days of yore, challenges to pistols at dawn. This is because, despite his outward bravado and confidence, there lurks inside Fluffius the insecurities and cravings of an addict. For while Eteranlus dwells peacefully within his skin, Fluffius is driven by an unrelenting need to feel wanted and dominant, hence his devotion to the type of fishing that the experts tell him will yield the highest chance of successful conquest. He is undisputed master of the dark arts. He fishes in both the deepest, darkest parts of the river, and the psyche. At times startled by bright light, he is apt to seek the reclusive corners at social engagements, and is known to turn the lights out prior to intimate contact. The warm and secure glow of a twenty fish day quickly subsides, and the next day sees him nervous, irritable and desperate to return to the river for another fix.
The underlying insecurities of Fluffius are further highlighted by his need to fish in the company of his ilk, and in the fixation with the size of his catch. This explains why he is most commonly spotted standing shoulder to shoulder with other members of his species at wind swept tail waters and other high profile fishing locations. Much like a peacock strutting his plumage, he is often enters in to subtle competition with his fellow nymphers seeing who can cast the biggest, brightest, fluffiest indicator, in the mistaken and futile hope of attracting a mate. Along with the indicator fixation comes the ‘size of the catch’ fixation. It is a well-known fact in fly fishing circles that measuring devices such as scales and tape measures are marketed exclusively to Fluffius. This explains that while the solitary Eternalus will often be found roaming the high country, comfortable with his three weight, a dry fly and six inch brookies, Fluffius will be constantly measuring, weighing, exaggerating and preening.
And so to the third of our species, the enigmatic Flyfisher Wannabeus. More often referred to by his common name of streamer fisherman, he inhabits something of a twilight world of in betweens. Indeed, many evolutionary biologists point to Wannabeus as proof of the missing link between fish harvesters and fly fishermen. While to the untrained eye he appears to be part of the same family, intense debate rages to this day over his proper place in the great scheme of things. Those arguing for his inclusion in the family of fly fishermen point to the nature of his equipment, use of terminology and social habits as being almost identical to the Eternalus and Fluffius. Opponents however make a solid case that his differences are more pronounced than his similarities.
Firstly, they point out that while standing in the river he may appear to be indistinguishable from his more highly evolved cousins, to the trained eye it is evident he is not as highly evolved. For while guile, subtlety and an ability to imitate nature are an integral part of the fishing arsenal of Fluffius and Eternalus, Wannabeus is a throw back to the ‘splash and trash’ style of fishing. Not for him the concern of matching the hatch. No need for even a passing knowledge of riverside biology and entomology. No matter the season, no matter the time of day, no matter the river conditions Wannabeus selects the gaudiest, shiniest fly in his box, wades as far out into the stream as safety will allow, and proceeds to pound the far bank with rapid fire casting. Indeed, debate even rages as to whether the contents of his fly box can even strictly be called ‘flies’.
Much like the forebears of our domestic dog, who sought shelter, sustenance and company around the campfires of our human ancestors, so too does Wannabeus gravitate toward the company of true fly fishermen. In bars, camp grounds and fly shops he will be seen nodding sagely and thoughtfully inspecting the latest equipment, all the while making a mental note to top up on his supply of 2x and coneheads. More so than even Fluffius, he is fixated with size and body count. He will tend to dominate conversations, making up for his inadequacies in skill and technique with a loud voice and a frequent blurring of the fine line between fact and fiction.