Do Unto Smelt Thumpers
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Outside magazine, June 1994
Do Unto Smelt Thumpers
The six commandments of fly-fishing humility
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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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!
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