Why fly fishing?

I read an article on the Hatch Magazine website, Different Strokes for Different Anglers: How do you find the right balance in your angling? by Todd Tanner and it had a few ideas I have long thought about.

I’m a firm believer that there’s one overarching reason to choose fly fishing over the alternatives, and that’s because it’s more fun and more enjoyable. There are easier ways to catch fish, of course — bait fishing and spin fishing both come to mind — and it’s obvious that those other methods don’t require as much skill, or as much perseverance, or as much of a financial investment. If we want to be frank, we should acknowledge that most of us prefer fly fishing in spite of the fact it’s not the most efficient way to spend our time on the water.

by Todd Tanner - Tuesday, Apr 27th, 2021


The author says a few things that I think I agree with but I have some doubts about much of what he wrote. First of all, there are absolutely times where fly fishing is the most efficient way to spend my time on the water. During a good hatch or fishing extremely shallow and calm waters, you really can not compete with the ability to cast small, nearly weightless flies without causing much disturbance. There is a potential for stealth and delicate presentations that is really difficult to duplicate with spinning gear and pretty much impossible with baitcasting gear. And this is not only true for chasing trout but also on saltwater flats for Bonefish or Great Lakes flats for carp. As I wrote about elsewhere, I had a day fishing for spawning Bluegill where the fly rod out-fished conventional tackle - and it was not even close - because of how delicately a fly could be laid on the water compared to a fly and a casting bubble on a spinning rod. Anytime fish are shallow and ultra "spooky", fly fishing likely gives you a leg up.

Me with a Smallmouth Bass
A nice pre-spawn Smallmouth Bass from the Menominee River on an opening day weekend with friends.

I think the other great advantage to fly fishing comes when fish are relatively shallow and tight to cover - like a shoreline or mid-channel boulders. Smallmouth Bass are what first come to my mind. There are times where if they do not hit within a couple of feet of shore, they are not going to hit. Fly casting allows the fly to be cast close to shore, worked for a few feet and re-cast, allowing the angler to very effectively fish cover. With conventional gear, you need to complete the retrieve to be able to cast again. And I am sure it is mostly experience but I am much quicker and more accurate casting to an object with a fly rod.


There are Easier Ways to Catch Fish


Without a doubt, there are easier ways to catch fish. There is little question that learning curve for fly fishing is pretty steep and I am sure there are no shortage of people that have tried and given up. I can remember my struggles - hell, some have been in the past year or two and I have been at it for over 30 years. I am sure had many "gear" anglers read the above quote, they would have bristled at the author's statement that "it’s obvious that those other methods don’t require as much skill". There is certainly a lot of skill required to be a good angler of any kind but fly fishing certainly has more moving parts.


So, Why Fly Fishing?


No bones about it, if all I was interested in was catching the most or the biggest trout, I probably would not fly fish. There are certainly times where fly fishing will catch more fish, particularly around the hatches. However, if all I wanted to do was catch trout, I would be fishing with a spinning rod and a near weightless worm fished dead drift on a tight line. It is basically "Euronymphing" and it may be the single most deadly way to catch trout. And throwing spinners, jigs, and crankbaits for trout, particularly in larger, less accessible streams is likely to result in more large fish.

Big Spring Creek from 30 years ago.
An old photo - one of the first I probably took of a Driftless trout stream.

For me, I learned to fly fish because I was moving to a much "troutier" place for college - Platteville - and I had someone that could help me learn. I had fished all my young life for about anything I could but growing up near Madison on the less fashionable east side, trout were never much of an option. I grew up in one of the counties without a single trout stream or Great Lakes tributary. The few trout I had ever caught were in northern Wisconsin fishing worms in the then Nicolet National Forest or in Marinette County streams. But I knew at least a bit about fly fishing as my great uncle was a fly angler and would talk about it. And when we would go to visit them in Kiel, his fly tying area was on the edge of the living room (for more, reading my post, In Praise of Mentors). I tied flies before I ever fly fished, a rarity, I am sure.


Ultimately, "why fly fishing" for me is because it is more entertaining and challenging to me. I have the attention span of a five year-old so doing something all the time - wading, casting, thinking about where I need to be to make a better cast - keep my mind occupied. Fly fishing suits me well ("Euronymphing" does not).


Financial Investment


I winced a bit reading this part of the author's article mostly because it seems a bit elitist. Only some of us can afford to fly fish. Are those that fly fish largely those that can afford to do so? That is certainly the perception of many and let's face it, it is something played up by the media and the industry. There is no way that A River Runs Through It is about a family of worm dunkers or spinner chuckers.

San Juan River tailwater, New Mexico
Fly fishing - it doesn't have to be trips to the famed San Juan River tailwaters.

I am well aware of the fact that you do not need an $800 fly rod, a $200 to $300 reel, a nearly $100 fly line, hundreds of dollars of wader and boots, or any other number of expensive pieces of gear. But at the same time, a reasonable fly fishing setup is going to cost more than a comparable spinning setup. The cost of flies and how many a reasonably well stocked angler should carry is a conversation for another post or two but yeah, it is not cheap and no, tying your own is quite unlikely to save you money.


Of course, if I were a "bass guy", I might well have around $50K to $100K invested in a boat and a truck to pull it with. Go look online - this estimate is not extreme - a new top-of-the-line bass boat will go for $50,000 to $75,000. The story here, as with all hobbies, you can get as deeply and financially involved as you wish. I have certainly spent less on fly fishing than any person that I see launching their bass boat in the nearby Mississippi River. I know home brewers that have spent thousands of dollars to make beer and wine, hikers that have taken trips to New Zealand, cyclists with $10,000 bikes - hobbies can be as expensive, or as inexpensive - as you want to make them.

I am sure that there is a self-selection for those that can afford - or are willing to afford - to fly fish. Does cost keep anglers from getting into fly fishing? I assume it does. Does that make us snobs? I hope not.


More Fun and Enjoyable


This is, of course, quite subjective. What I find fun and enjoyable may not interest others. There is no question that I find fly fishing more fun and enjoyable, but I understand why others do not feel the same way. Learning to fly fish can be a pretty frustrating and not necessarily an enjoyable experience. There are certainly ways to flatten the learning curve - hire a guide, getting casting instruction, fish with experienced anglers.

We all fish for different reasons. For many, fishing is about getting dinner. Or about getting away. Or, for some, it is something they do with friends or family once in a great while. For others, it is about a learning process and a sense of accomplishment. No angler would tell you that they like to fish ugly places with lots other anglers around - but yet the Root River in Racine will be loaded with migratory salmon and anglers again this fall. Point is, there are all sorts of reasons why people fish and then there are reasons why people fish the way that they do.


The Learning Process


This is where I will probably come off sort of snob-ish...


I think a lot of what attracts anglers to fly fishing is the figuring it out part of the equation. Having to figure out what is working and how that changes over the course of a season or even a day is what draws many to fly fishing. It is what drew me to fly fishing and why it continues to be my favored hobby. Understanding more about the aquatic insects and their life stages, habitat preferences, hatch timing and what affects hatches can - but does not have to be - part of the learning process for a fly angler. Again, you can make as much or as little of the hobby as you would like but for many, myself included, that there is a lot to know and learn is a draw to fly fishing.

Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.)
Understanding the hatches - like these Chimarra Caddis - are what draw some of use to fly fishing.

I have friends that know a lot more about hatches who actually keep up on the changing taxonomy and other fly fishing friends that would give a blank stare if I asked if it was a Grannom or Chimarra caddis hatch. Some friends are almost strictly warmwater anglers, trouters that might dabble a tiny bit in warmwater fishing, and others fish everything - trout, warmwater, saltwater - with a fly rod and travel all over the place to do so. Some routinely hire guides and others rarely, if ever, hire a guide and like me, they take pride in figuring it out for themselves. I know people that break out the tying vise a few times a year and others that tie more days than not. And friends that fish a hundred or more days a year and others that get out three or four days a year. Like any hobby, it is going to be what you make of it.

Me fishing a small tailwater river, Colorado
Your's truly fishing a small Colorado tailwater on a trip with friends. (Mike Kuhr photo)

Certainly a huge part of what got me interested in fly fishing and why I have continued to do if for most of my life is the continual learning process. I learn something new nearly ever day on the stream. Fly fishing suits me well and I do not much care if it is not the most efficient way to catch fish. I do not fish to be efficient. For some, catching as many or a big of fish as possible is why they fish. For me, it is the learning process and I am sure that can be accomplished in other ways but fly fishing is what does it for me.


Why do you fly fish?

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