Angler Management: “The Conversation”

Jack Ohman, "Angler Management"IF I REALLY WANT to get rid of someone, I bring up fly fishing in conversation.

Excepting golf, a conversation about fly fishing can, to the uninitiated, work way better at encouraging profound rapid eye movement than Lunesta with a beer back. I have fended off more unwanted conversational partners by bringing up fly fishing than any other personally odious habits I can conjure up. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a wide-ranging conversation about hook points—I do. It’s just that others don’t.

Except if you’re one of Us.

Non-fly fishermen tend to ask a lot of obvious questions about fly fishing. They ask you if you actually use live houseflies, or whether you “fly ties,” or why fly fishing is morally and ethically superior to other types of fishing (it is, kind of). They will ask, “Why do you throw them back if you want to catch them, anyway?” and “How come you need all that stuff?” Believe me, we have way less stuff than the average bass-boat owner. I used to own a bass boat—I know. A bass boat alone requires the ability to do on-the-spot large-engine repair (I felt like a NASCAR pit crew), a constant monitoring of an aerated livewell (worse than trying to keep tropical fish alive), the monitoring of more sophisticated electronics than the USS Nimitz (“is that a carp flash, a bass flash, or a Russian submarine?”), and—because of submerged stumps and obstructions—the eternal vigilance of a NORAD missile silo launch officer.

“Sir, authenticate incoming message regarding bass target.”

“Message authenticated . . . it’s a 3-pound largemouth.”

“Yes, sir.”

In short, a pain in the ass.

And don’t get me started on my old tackle box: 32 different types of Rapalas, plastic worms in a spectrum of colors ranging from infrared to ultraviolet (which worked only in teenagers’ bedrooms), snelled hooks, worm inflators, bobbers, sinkers, swivels, leaders, monofilament, hook sharpeners, PowerBait, pork rinds, Flatfish, Bass-Orenos, Lazy Ikes, Industrious Ikes, Mepps, Daredevils, Jitterbugs, Creek Chubs, Hula Poppers, Skitterbuzzes, knives, gaffs, cotter pins, scales, hook disgorgers, Jaws of Life, chainsaws, backhoes, grapple skidders, piledrivers, dental drills, and a small-theater nuclear weapon for muskies.

Muskies are very dangerous.

In contrast, fly fishing has a rod, a reel, a line, waders, a vest, and some flies. Okay, maybe I understate a bit, but it is still a relatively low-gear operation compared with the Normandy Invasion logistics required to go bass fishing.

Once we have dispatched with conversation with the outsiders, having a conversation with another fly fisherman can be either on the level of one thoracic surgeon talking to another thoracic surgeon about how to resect a pesky aorta, or as gestural as a married couple exchanging the odd glance or nod. I prefer the really arcane conversation myself; it flushes out the pretenders early in the process, like the Iowa caucuses.

For example, you may run into someone who professes to be a fly fisherman at a party. I have been introduced as a fly fisherman as my primary means of getting by in life more than once (not true, but hey…) and someone will volunteer that he, too, is in the brotherhood.

Then you start talking to him.

I have had a similar experience with someone who asserts, falsely, that he’s “fluent” in Spanish. Then you ask him a question with the word “screwdriver” in it (destornillador, thank you) and it all falls apart. Then he says un poco, or something similar, and you know that he all of a sudden is not, in fact, fluent, and that he can barely read a menu at a Mexican restaurant. Same thing with self-described fly fishermen, in many cases.

“Jack, I am a fly fisherman.”

“Cool!” I will blurt out, and launch into some speed rap about tying my own Maxima leaders, and he will stand in stunned silence as if I started asking him for the screwdriver (destornillador) in Spanish. Or maybe I will gently inquire as to how many rods he owns. (He usually says “one,” the answer of someone who doesn’t fly fish. Six is the standard respectable figure.) Or perhaps I will start yammering about the drag coefficient of a CFO IV or something, and I get this kind of blank, helpless stare that says: Please stop. Please. I give up. I am lying. I am a poseur. I am not a true fly fisherman.

Jack Ohman, "Angler Management"Sometimes I will feel sorry for him and say something like, “Excellent! So . . . you have a Pflueger Medalist? What a great old classic!” and this palpable sense of defeat will spread across his face, and he will float to the surface like a squawfish after 30 seconds of barely perceptible struggle. Not that these conversations should really result in a victory, but you just need to know how high to ratchet up the arcane conversation—the more obscure the better.

My friend Jim is a master of figuring out within, say, 90 seconds whether you know what the hell you’re talking about. Maybe less. He usually sets the hook after about 30 seconds. “So…” (long pause) “did you see that piece in Fly Fisherman about the new ant body material innovation?”

And you haven’t. Or, really, you meant to look at that ant body material innovation article, but you just haven’t quite gotten around to it, like making that new overhead storage rack for your garage, or changing all the handles on your kitchen cabinets to match the new stove. You’re gonna do it, of course. Of course.

Let’s say, for fun, that you actually did read the ant body material innovation article. Jim will then probe you about how much of it you really retained.

“Yeah… did you see how this guy figured out how the polymers created all those separate air pockets that not only created buoyancy, but also created a more realistic ant body sheen when viewed through the meniscus?”

“Oh… yes. Yes. The meniscus sheen. Yep. I’m… on it.”

And not only that, he knows damned well that you are totally winging it at this point, and he still doesn’t let up.

“Yeah, but did you see the last three paragraphs of the article… about… segmentation?”

“GodDAMNIT! Fine! I didn’t read the article!”

I once had lunch with John Gierach, the brilliant fly-fishing writer and author of Trout Bum. He started The Conversation almost immediately.

“I really like the way the wings are cocked on the X fly pattern (I couldn’t remember… I went into I Am Out of My League Shock).”

And I was like, yeah, John, uh-huh. Fixed grin. Staring glassyeyed. I had the facial expression of a quarterback looking for a receiver 55 yards downfield, and hoping for a tailwind. Fear. Cleveland’s 240-pound defenders all over the backfield chasing my 5-foot 11-inch 180-pound skinny ass all behind the line of scrimmage. Thirteen seconds left, 4th and 19, frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, and I’m hearing the voice-over: “The executive producer of ABC Sports is Roone Arledge…”

Game over.

Sometimes fly-fishing conversation will not stray that far into the Fly Tying Zone, but will be more about your experiences, which any self-respecting fisherman, bait or otherwise, can chime right in on.

“Yeah, geez… we were on the Deschutes last spring, and the stonefly hatch was on, and a bull trout nailed an 11-incher I was reeling in (credible). And then I hooked 13 fish in 45 minutes (maybe credible), and then I had really great sex with my girlfriend when I got home (maybe, maybe not), and believe it or not, she loves that I fly fish (absolute bald-faced lie).”

Sometimes the conversation will settle into some sort of riff between you and a friend about some ancient trip you took during the Carter Administration, and you can almost not talk in any sort of meaningful linguistic way—maybe you just exchange memes and phonemes:

“Do you remember in 1990 when we went by that rock? Maybe it was 2003. Or 1988.”

“The big rock?”

“No. The other one.”

“Yeah, and they were…”

“Yeah. On a #24 olive midge.”


“Yeah. It was… cloudy.”

“Yes. Yes it was.”

“They were like ALL over the pool.”

“The small pool.”

“Yeah. By the log.”

“The one log?”

“No. The other log.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry.”


Jack Ohman's "Angler Management"The trouble with any conversation involving fly fishing with a fellow angler is how to end it. Any anecdote that you can come up with, a really good fly fisherman has absolutely no problem whatsoever in topping. Just when you think that you’ve finally terminated the 45-minute chat about the relative deficiencies and merits of rubber-headed versus metal-headed hackle pliers, the Opposing Chat Buddy can come up with yet another strong argument in favor of his side. And talking about difficult casts you’ve made is even worse. Every single fly fisherman in America has that one cast that saved the day, or the trip.

“Well, it was just after a thunderstorm runoff, I was hammered on whiskey sours, a 19-inch brown was working in some bullrushes and a barbed-wire fence line across three back eddies, and I made a 70-foot cast in 45-mile-an-hour winds and put this soaked, rusty Renegade with the hackle unraveled right in front of him, and the SOB just nailed it…”

At that point, any further conversation is futile. Like fly fishing.


Purchase the hardcover or the ebook in the MidCurrent Store.  Excerpted from Angler Management: The Day I Died While Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, September 2009, 214 pages, hardcover).