Do Unto Smelt Thumpers

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1994

Do Unto Smelt Thumpers

The six commandments of fly-fishing humility
By Randy Wayne White

Fly-fishing, at its best, is a craft and so affords a studied, even serious approach, though that doesn't mean that those who approach it must also always be so serious. Many are--more and more, it seems to me.

Fly fishermen themselves sired the caricature of the pensive, self-absorbed angler in pursuit of oneness with nature, religious truths, scientific truths, many kinds of truths (God probably keeps a list; I don't), all the while yanking unsuspecting fish from sparkling waters. Which was harmless enough back when only a few men and women pursued the sport, but this is the 1990s, and, you don't have to have been a saltwater guide for many years, as I was, to know that fly-fishing is trendy. The tidal flats and rivers have been thoroughly invaded by nouveau casters, a few of whom are arrogant enough to act as if they were better than the rest of us. But I, for one, have too much class to associate with these snooty bastards. More important, I am determined to distance myself from their pretensions. If you are a fly caster, or if you know a fly caster, I suspect you feel the same. That is why, in recent weeks, I have polled other fly-fishing experts across the land to compile a list of rules outlining acceptable behavior for anglers. Read it. Live it. Share it with others.

Don't annoy the rabble. A common conceit among fly casters is that people who use live bait or lures to catch fish are slob primates, members of the great unwashed, dumb as bald tires. But who are we to judge? I know several fly casters whose personal hygiene is abominable once they strap on waders. No, it is up to God to judge these filthy brutes, not us. To ensure that you are not mistaken for a fly-fishing snob, never refer to bait fishermen as gear jerkers, meat pigs, smelt thumpers, or worm-stoked bogtrotters. The preferred term is "casting impaired." There are two reasons for this. First, bait fishermen have far better instincts than most nouveau fly casters. It's painful to admit, but true. They somehow manage to catch a lot more fish, so name-calling has a sour-grapes resonance. The second reason for eschewing snob nomenclature has to do with personal safety. Use an unkind term around the wrong pond, and you may find yourself whacked and stacked in the bed of some maggot baiter's pickup truck. Remember: These people don't practice catch and release.

Admit your freakish interest in animal parts.It's my experience that beginning fly fishermen go through predictable stages, one of which is collecting fly-tying materials from unusual sources. If a novice says of a passing woman, "She's got beautiful hair!" it's probably not his libido talking, but rather his desire to weave her hair with chenille on a No. 2 hook. If he says of an old man, "Great beard!" it's not because he admires the gentleman's barber, but because he imagines a heartier body for the gray Cahills he is crafting. If the novice asks, "Don't you own a yellow cat?" the wise pet owner starts keeping his cat inside.

But the weirdness doesn't stop there. On fast country roads in fly-casting country, mammals and game birds can often be found mashed flat like miniature bear rugs, and it is not uncommon to see otherwise respectable men and women hunched over the corpses, snipping away with scissors. In such places, roadkill is a joyous daily source of hackles and bristles and anything else that will sit prettily on a hook. Such behavior is understandable because there is something wonderfully satisfying about tying a fly from materials you have foraged, then bringing that fly to life in front of a feeding fish. It's a kind of Frankensteinian high. Still, you don't have to be uppity about it. Just admit, "I have a freakish interest in animal parts." You will be left alone and happy in your work, take my word for it.

Don't be a name-dropper. This rule has to do with the verbal sparring that takes place between fly-casting snobs who are newly met. It's a method they use to establish expertise and stake out territory. Dogs do the same thing, only they use trees. Usually the exchange begins shortly after introductions. One angler whines to the other about some minor discomfort--tendinitis is a favorite--that was exacerbated while wading Henry's Fork too soon after a week on the Flaming Gorge. That wouldn't have been so bad except the trip to Christmas Island with Lefty Kreh left him too jet-lagged to call Tom Brokaw's physician, an expert on casting injuries, or so Jane Fonda said that time on the Ponoj River in Russia, where the salmon ran big and true.

Yes, when you meet a name-dropper, antiemetics are recommended. All gag reflexes should be on war footing.

Other names that should raise a red flag: South Platte, South Fork, South Pole, the Madison, Manistique, Miramichi, just about anywhere in Montana, Silver Creek, Boca Grande, Boca Chica, Bocas del Toros, Walker's Cay, Cat Cay, Norway, Billy Pate, Mel Krieger, and any of the thousands of men and women named Bonefish Joe.

By all means, fish these places and with these people. Just don't talk about it.

Unless you're carrying paint in your creel, you're no artist. No one knows when the pretentious first started calling fly-fishing an "art," but the seeds may have been sewn as early as 1496 by Juliana Berners, an English nun who wrote The Treatise of Fyshynge wyth an Angle--a work that Izaak Walton shamelessly pilfered 165 years later in writing The Compleat Angler. It was Berners who first instructed fishermen to be philosophers, idealists, and nature worshippers. She was the first to suggest that a real fisherman should be able to make his own lures, lines, and rods, and that he should develop his "art" to perfection.

Whoever started it, the association between fly-fishing and art has been faithfully--and thoughtlessly--parroted ever since. This wouldn't be so bad if such nonsense didn't encourage a queue of unattractive nimrods and doofuses who genuinely believe that purchasing a fly rod somehow makes aristocrats of them. Worse, it intimidates people who might otherwise try the sport. The truth is, fly-casting is a mechanical technique--several techniques, really. It's not difficult, and it certainly doesn't require any mystical aptitude or a nonlinear stroke of genius to become competent. If you don't believe it, just spend a few minutes watching the nimrods and doofuses.

In selecting Izaak Walton as the father of modern sportfishing, history has chosen to ignore and otherwise forget the true founder, Dame Berners. If it weren't for that, I'd say she deserves all the blame. Which leads us to our next rule.

All fly casters are almost equal in the eyes of a fish. Don't get me wrong. This is not one of those obligatory hands-across-America, everyone-is-beautiful concessions to the brain leech that is political correctness. No, this rule has been forged from honest observation and experience. Women learn the techniques of the sport faster than men, they cast with far more grace, and they are less inclined to approach the sport as competition--which means that on the water they often make better casting companions.

So the question is, why do some fly-fishing snobs treat women as if they were physically impaired members of an irksome lunatic fringe?

As one Vail guide told me: "We've all seen it. You give a guy an hour-long casting lesson, and the next day you find him on the river giving advice to very competent fishermen who happen to be women. The guy couldn't catch his own butt with a grappling hook, but there he is, playing the role. They treat kids the same way. And as anyone in the business knows, women and kids learn the sport a lot faster than the blue-blazer types who think fly-fishing is all style and ego."

Exactly. So Rule Number 5 is for men--and probably a few women, too. It is a general rule, kind of like "go and sin no more." In short: Resist the urge to act like a superior ass. Your betters resent it.

Lighten up--and humiliate those who refuse. The history of angling is rife with methods to lampoon and generally humiliate those whose egos are inflated and who foist their humorless acts upon the rest of us. As individuals who have a mature and abiding interest in the outdoors, it is our right--indeed, our duty--to bring these sour mullocks to heel. There are, of course, the standard gambits: placing plastic upchuck in the coffee mug of a shipmate prone to seasickness, slipping a rubber snake into the waders of a river companion. In fishing, as in all good things, the classics never die.

This final rule is designed to reassure us that adolescent behavior is perfectly acceptable behavior. Be creative. Be bold. Don't be cruel--unless your victim deserves it, in which case it's OK as long as you avoid the police. And please don't use my name.

But be forewarned--fly-fishing snobs are tricky, and practical jokes can backfire. An example: In my early teens, I often fished with Lowell and Marlin, two brothers who lived on a neighboring farm. We used spinning gear and earthworms to catch bass and catfish. But then Lowell learned to use a fly rod, and he was soon lording his new sport over us.

Marlin and I endured this behavior because Lowell was older and bigger. But Marlin finally hit upon a scheme whereby, if we could not actually beat Lowell, we could at least use him. In the division of their family's labor, Marlin was paid a bounty to control pests around the farm, namely rats. The big hog runs were infested with them. Marlin realized that Lowell's ingenuity and newfound interest in animal parts (he was tying his own flies) could be used for profit, and also to make his big brother look dumb.

To enlist Lowell's help, all we had to do was convince him that a rat-tail streamer would be effective on big bass. Lowell fell for it, and soon he was ordering us to plug the honeycomb of rat holes around the cement hog runs. It took hours. We used rags and rocks and anything else we could find. We sealed all the holes--all but two, in accordance with Lowell's plan.

At dusk, armed with clubs, the three of us took our positions: Marlin and I stood over one hole; Lowell, holding a baseball bat and a garden hose, stood over the other. Then, with great deliberation, Lowell inserted the garden hose into the ground and opened the water valve, saying as he did, "Surf's up, vermin."

I could imagine the water moving through the subterranean grottoes, miles and miles of tunnel, sweeping along like electricity through conduit. Ten minutes passed. Nothing. Fifteen minutes. Silence--except for the inexorable gurgle of flowing water.

Then I heard Marlin say, "I'll be go to hell. What's that?"

Protruding from our hole was the head of a rat--large, dark eyes set over a long, skinny snout. He looked not unlike a scrawny little barrister wearing sunglasses. I tightened my grip on my club.

Poised with bat overhead, Marlin whispered, "Wait till we get a clear shot...wait...e-e-easy..."

"Just don't hit him on the tail!" Lowell whispered back.

The rat exited; Marlin swung and missed. He swung and missed again. I moved to join in the chase but then stopped, awestruck, as a writhing, squealing cloud of rats exploded around our feet, flooding the barnyard like a furry brown delta.

I was frozen--never in my life had I seen so many rats. I would never see so many again. After a long moment I recovered. I raised my club and went to work. But hitting those rats was not so easy. As I said, they lived around hogs and so were quick on their feet. I would swing at a covey of 20, and all 20 would move in unison. It was like trying to chase beads of mercury. I finally did hit one with a glancing blow. I golfed it high into the air past Lowell's face.

"My God," screamed Lowell, "they can fly! Watch your ears, boys!"

Lowell immediately assumed a more defensive posture, while Marlin and I--because we stood to profit--remained hard at it. Then I heard Marlin give a strange, soprano yelp, followed by, "Hey! Whoa! Lordy mercy!"

I turned to look. Marlin had dropped his club and was doing what seemed to be a strange dance, an exaggerated goose step in a tight circle, slapping at his thighs. I expected to see flames at any moment, for that's what he resembled: a man who had caught fire and was eager to put it out. But Marlin's odd behavior was explained in the next moment when he shrieked, "A rat! A rat! A RAT'S GONE UP MY PANTS!"

I could see it then: a fast-moving lump, tunneling beneath Marlin's coveralls. Lowell could see it, too, and he sprinted to Marlin's aid. Unfortunately for Marlin, Lowell brought his baseball bat along.

Lowell: "Hold still! Quit running around!"

Marlin: "Gad, my zipper's stuck!" He collapsed on the ground, slapping himself and kicking in agony.

Lowell: "There he is!" He swung the bat, the barrel of which thunked the earth, just missing Marlin.

The rat was momentarily forgotten. The following microsecond of silence was a mixture of terror and astonishment. "You idiot!" Marlin wailed. "You almost hit me in the clangers!"

Marlin tried to scramble away, crawling backward like a crab, shouting, "Leave the rat. Don't hurt the rat. He's my rat." Then he leaped to his feet and took off running. But Marlin wasn't fast enough. Neither was the rat.

A week or so later, when Marlin could walk with only the barest trace of a limp, he and I took up fly-fishing. But we didn't catch anything, even on Lowell's new rat-tail muddler minnow.

We had missed the hatch, Lowell explained.

The whole of which illustrates at least two points. One, it's hard to trick a fly-fishing snob, because they're tricky by nature. Two, like all aristocrats, they have an excuse for everything.

You, of course, have no excuse for being one of them. So follow the rules

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!