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Fly Fishing Jazz: Standard Jazz and Standard Fishing

by Kirk Deeter

Sometimes I wonder whether the strike indicator and high-stick nymphing are the best things to happen to fly fishing for trout, or the worst things to happen to fly fishing for trout.

On the up-side, that little trick of dangling nymphs with split shot below a yarn bobber has done much to entice people into fly fishing—and some of them actually become advocates for the resources that make the sport possible.  Nothing fuels interest better than success.  When you’re successful, you’re happy.  At least you think so.

On the other hand, I am completely convinced that there are populations of fish, particularly on some western rivers, that have been beaten into submission by having nymph rigs raked across their faces, day after day.  We use words like “spooky,” and “technical” to rationalize what in reality results from things like “over-pressured” and “foul-hooked.”

I used to think that the “dry fly only” anglers, and those who would only swing flies for steelhead, were snobs.  But the older I get, and the more I fish, the more my perspective changes.  There is indeed something to be said for embracing natural, primal elegance, and endeavoring in the realm of nuance and mystery.

I remember taking part in a debate in a “jazz appreciation” class in college (it was my senior year, and I had earned a “blow-off” elective, though in truth, that class turned out to be more informative and influential than many of the other courses I took.  To wit, I am using that as reference here, though I haven’t applied a lick of calculus in decades.)

The premise of the debate was whether electronic influence had “bastardized” jazz music.  For context, this discussion happened a decade or so after the synthesizer had helped carry “soft jazz” (like Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good”) and jazz fusion (like Spyro Gyra’s song “Morning Dance”) into the mainstream music charts.  Was that good for jazz?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

My contention was that the music, from the composition standpoint, was still jazz, but the live performance was indeed compromised.  Having actually seen Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Rollins, and Oscar Peterson, and Miles Davis perform live… unplugged… I just couldn’t accept how anything electronic could match that.  Emotion cannot be synthesized, and emotion is the root of jazz.

As it is the root of fly fishing.

You see, a fly rod is an acoustic instrument.  And it must be played in that context for full effect.

I’ve been critical of the bobber in the past.  And one of my columns on that topic drew the ire of some guide who contended that I was incapable of understanding the sheer beauty and complexity of indicator fishing.

I could only laugh that off.  If you think indicator fishing is jazz, you probably think riding a teeter-totter should be an Olympic sport.  Sure, I suppose, some can do that better than others.  But fly fishing is so much more interesting when you get your butt off the teeter board.

Where there is the potential for real failure… when you are projecting what you truly feel… when the crutches and barriers are removed… the performance is undeniably more honest, more soulful, and more memorable.

And that’s pure jazz.  And pure fly fishing.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Kirk Deeter is the editor of TROUT, the national publication of Trout Unlimited, and a frequent contributor to MidCurrent.
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  • skywayra tds.net

    Ah yes, connecting with a trout on a single dry fly is the sublime pinnacle of fly fishing. I love it when I can do it. But feeling life at the end of the line is still a great feeling for me every time it happens regardless of my rig and tactics. Jazz fishing my North Georgia rivers in the winter, for example, would reduce my connections with trout to about 1% of my fishing time. Can’t we have jazz and rock and roll and while doing so not try to make those of us who use high-percentage tactics feel badly about how we fish?

    • http://www.midcurrent.com Marshall Cutchin

      Nicely said….

  • Cee Blue

    ‘ strike indicator’ – that’s just funny – it’s a bobba – no more fly fishing than the ‘Stones playing jazz – tho’ they could :)

  • Guest

    Strike indicator? STRIKE INDICATOR??!! Dude, you’re using a bobber. Amazing how a name change elevates the mundane to art. Andy Warhol would be proud. I’m amazed at what I see on the river. Some of the folks I see look like Kevin Costner’s character in Tin Cup, when he loses his mojo and is wearing every device imaginable, “fixing” his swing. Ya know, the fish ought to have a chance too. The beauty of the experience counts as much for me, like the time on Schoharie Creek in the Catskills when a beaver, unaware I was standing there, surfaced five fee away from me, finally notice me and had the most dumbfounded look on his face I’ve ever seen on an animal. No trout that night but a memorable experience. I nymph and use the feel of my hands to sense a strike. I catch a nice chunk of fish too. I wonder if the proliferation of equipment that does it for you isn’t deadening a generation of anglers to the beauty of using their senses.

  • Ray

    Strike indicator? STRIKE INDICATOR??!! Dude, you’re using a bobber.
    Amazing how a name change elevates the mundane to art. Andy Warhol would
    be proud. I’m amazed at what I see on the river. Some of the folks I
    see look like Kevin Costner’s character in Tin Cup, when he loses his
    mojo and is wearing every device imaginable, “fixing” his swing. Ya
    know, the fish ought to have a chance too. The beauty of the experience
    counts as much for me, like the time on Schoharie Creek in the Catskills
    when a beaver, unaware I was standing there, surfaced five feet away
    from me, finally noticed me and had the most dumbfounded look on his face
    I’ve ever seen on an animal. No trout that night but a memorable
    experience. I nymph and use the feel of my hands to sense a strike. I
    catch a nice chunk of fish too. I wonder if the proliferation of
    equipment that does it for you isn’t deadening a generation of anglers
    to the beauty of using their senses.

  • haresear

    Kirk, The more I see of your writings comparing fly fishing to
    jazz or music, the more inclined I am to
    not read it. I’m not much of a bobber
    fisher myself, however, your thoughts on the subject don’t do much to embrace
    fisherman that do enjoy it. Your
    thoughts also go a long way to solidify the perception many have; that fly
    fisherman are a bunch of snobs. You’re
    handy with a fly rod, that’s nice, you fancy yourself an aficionado of jazz,
    good for you. Attempting to elevate yourself
    self to Zen status on the backs of folks who enjoy a different approach to catching
    trout, is not what the sport is about. You’re
    good with words, find a way to express your thoughts that encourages people
    rather than insulting them.

    • bobrick@nyair.net

      One man’s indicator is another man’s bobber- i suppose. I completely agree that the jazz:flyfishing analogy has worn way too thin. It was a stretch to begin with but its long past old.

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  • richard45 wt

    The caster with a desire to enjoy the moment and be in touch with where he/she is, plays the acoustic instrument in their hand; the movement of the fly line is the “note”; the shape, speed and direction is the improvisation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.e.brewick Michael Brewick

    As a fly fishing guide and former semi-pro jazz musician, I can appreciate Mr. Deeter’s comparison more than most; there are definitely many similarities of a deep and complex nature between them. I understand how irksome it must be to those folks who have the urge to catch fish whenever the spirit moves and have access to them via an aggrandized bait fishing rig that he would even suggest they exercise any restraint. After all they are releasing most or all of the fish they catch and using a fly rod; what more refinement can a person reasonably expect? I admit to being a frequent user of poly yarn and weight, and of course sometimes these are a necessity in order to get clients into fish. The rigs I use would, without exception, be impossible to cast any distance with a spinning rod, though. Otherwise I would be using one. This is not true of many rigs around these days, some of which would be much better suited to “gear” rods.

    It is interesting that the author mentions “high stick” nymphing in the same sentence as indicator or bobber fishing. I’m not sure the two are comparable in terms of the context of this essay, unless Mr. Deeter has a different idea of what that technique involves. In my experience “high sticking” is very difficult, requires the cultivation of one’s senses of feel and sight in the extreme and is a truly sporting way of harassing fish. Everything that happens in the process of fishing with such a technique is at close range and the potential for damaging fish too badly is far less than that involved with indicator rigs.

    In terms of the relatively recent advent of widespread indicator nymphing impacting fish behavior, though, I have had mixed experiences. Many of my fellow guides claim that the constant pounding the fish in such rivers as the Bighorn and Missouri get has made them much less likely to rise, even during heavy hatches. I cannot dispute this, having witnessed situations that lend their theories some weight.

    In terms of “spookiness” though, heavy pressure often makes fish less sensitive to a fisherman’s presence. I’ve caught the same fish on the same nymph twice within a few minutes several times now, always in little weird tailwater environs. Maybe a better complaint for Mr. Deeter to make would be that the fish get too beat up!

    I met a young fellow the other day who was fly fishing for the 3rd time, trying to learn it on his own. He had been set up by the folks at the shop with a thingamabobber, split shot and 5wt. I showed him a few things, like how to get away without false casting at all and how to put the ridiculously huge mend into a drift right away and the totally ridiculous set he would need to ever hook a fish on such a rig. Then I told him to focus his efforts on finding fish that are actual “players,” rising to adults, visibly taking emergers within a couple of feet of the surface or the like. Maybe this is the best advice one could give; instead of just fishing what may as well be a nightcrawler under a red/white spring loaded bobber as an introduction to our sport, he should have somebody to clue him in to the fact that sometimes, you don’t even need to cast. Watching them head and tail rise or come off the bottom through six feet of water to eat is reward enough.

  • Abb

    Kirk, Kirk, Kirk – stirring that pot again I see. Your premise, as I see it, is adhering to and finding the ‘root’, or should I say ‘purity’ of fly fishing. The root of any design, regardless of what it is, is constantly evolving because we as humans are smart enough to find ways to make the ‘root’ seem antiquated. With that in mind, if you were to bring back football of the old, how would it fair with respect to football of today. So let me ask this; is football of today still pure? The rules have changed, the attitudes have changed and the equipment surely has changed – hmmm.

    All this talk about the root of fly fishing is complete bunk because if one was so inclined to believe they are at the root of fly fishing just because they tie on a dry, of which the bought, then I say best of luck in your non-pure, non-root endeavor. Throw away that grand worth of rod, 500 bones worth of reel, spin sum gut, go buy a horse and enjoy the road of making your own leader, tie your own fly, etc… When that happens, then I will praise that individual for being at the root of fly fishing.

    Until then, lets just pick on the bait chuckers and drink some beer!

  • http://www.facebook.com/houston.keppinger Houston Keppinger

    Hemingway used live hoppers with his fly rod for heavens sake, but I guess he didn’t know anything about beauty or style. It is not about what you use indicator/dry fly it is about being out there. Fly fishing puts you outdoors and nothing is we do is as pure as nature.

  • Captain Robert Szychowski

    There are easier ways to catch fish and there are harder ways to catch fish. As flyfishermen we have chosen a harder path, we have embraced the difficulties of the sport for reasons known only to ourselves. In flyfishing there are easier ways and harder ways. Once again we choose the way we want to fish. If catching fish was the only reason I fish, I would round up my old spinning rod and chuck jigs at deepwater redfish or dead shrimp on a hook.The reason guides have there clients fish bobbers or huge foam flies is that they catch fish and do it a bit easier than a highsticked nymph or a dry. Nothing wrong with that, but I would rather catch one fish on my terms than my limit in a way that did not please me.