“Foundationless Opinions”

February 19, 2011 By: Thomas McGuane

EVERY FLY FISHERMAN has an unreasoning view of fly rods; and I am no different. Generally, we are united in the belief that all rod design has been progressive and that the ideas about fly rods in the past were so bad as to make it amazing that people were able to fish at all. This is based in good American fashion on the belief that angling is progressive and is chiefly concerned with efficiency. “I stepped into the water,” a fly fisherman was recently heard to say, “and proceeded to empty the pool.” We, his listeners, were bowled over by the picture of efficiency. The trout stream as modern toilet. Now I understand that this sort of hyperbole is part of the fun; but its humor is based on the idea that we are trying to be efficient.

Aren’t we? I don’t think bamboo rods, for example, are as efficient as glass and graphite. But I like the smell of varnish when I open the rod tube! I had a graphite tarpon rod whose hook keeper wouldn’t take anything larger than a #10 dry fly hook, an understandable mistake when you realize it wasn’t made by a fisherman but someone who looked with equal interest upon golf shafts, riding crops and umbrella handles. Yet I dearly love graphite for helping me put some poetry in my loop and for relieving the tennis elbow I acquired, not from tennis, but from steer roping.

Anglers have begun to crave conformity. This has not always been the case. Now some of us crave leadership, someone to tell us whether we should have a fast action rod or one that loads with less line. Fast was it until recently; but slower, softer rods have claimed the moral high ground.

The evaluation of rods is completely subjective. The dream is of the perfect rod but there is no such thing. A fly rod has to meet too many criteria and many are contradictory. Think of a rod for western rivers that must make delicate presentations in high wind. Is the rod matched to the fish, the fly being cast or the atmospheric conditions? The rod needed for casting large streamers on western rivers in the fall is as big as some people use for tarpon. But the fish haven’t gotten any bigger since August. A five weight easily handles the sparsely dressed flies we use on bright sand bottoms for tarpon but it would never land the fish. The perfect distance for a trout rod to load is probably around twenty-five feet. But who wants to try out a rod down at the fly shop with twenty-five feet of line? And no rod casts nicely with split shot, though some tolerate it better than others. In a perfect world, fishing with split shot on the leader wouldn’t be fly fishing at all. Neither would monofilament nymphing and maybe even shooting heads. Lee Wulff said that the fish is entitled to the sanctuary of deep water. That’s where most of us used to set the bar in trout fishing. We fished on top and tried to devise ways of catching big fish that way, fishing at night, fishing with greater stealth, hunting remote places that rarely saw an angler.

So many rods are now designed for micro-niches, extreme line sizes, weird lengths. It is a great pleasure to use some of these rods when the conditions for which they were designed are perfect. It would be useful to remember that conditions are rarely perfect in angling. Long ago, when I started fly fishing, the standard trout rod was an HCH, a six weight, eight to eight­and-a-half feet long. After four decades of evolution in material and ideas, I have concluded that that is still the case, especially when you consider what it takes to make an all-day rod in most places. The rod might have grown to nine feet. A full day in one of my local rivers might require the angler to go through five sizes of dry flies and three of wet. The wind will range from zero to forty. A five weight rod is not enough and a seven is too much.

In my view, fly rods have some mysterious ergonometric range of length that is hard to explain. The same is true of hammer handles, oars, tennis racquets, golf clubs: the variations in length are surprisingly small. A trout rod significantly under eight feet is too short, and significantly over nine, too long. If it is too short, it leaves too much line on the water for good drag control and speeds up the casting cycle. Too long and the rod becomes a handful in the wind and helps produce tailing loops. I had a ten foot summer steelhead rod that I loved until the wind came up; and then I wanted to swap it to someone unsuspecting enough to daydream too much about line control, just as I had. A rod better have a great reason for being over nine feet or under eight. Nine is a wonderful length for a trout, tarpon, or billfish rod. It’s a length the human body likes. Just today I got out an old favorite, a seven-and-a-half foot trout rod, and fished half a day with it. I hadn’t used anything shorter than eight-and-a-half for so long that I was unpleasantly surprised to discover the extra drag problems the lower angle between rod, line and water produced, not to mention the hurried casting cycle. The speeding technology of fly rods has finally just emphasized some basic truths. Even in the days when bamboo was king, light and fast were the ideals, sometimes called “dry fly action.” Describing a rod as having a “wet fly action” was tantamount to admitting that it was a clunker.

I know that I’m not going to stop anyone out there from acquiring a bunch of overly specific niche rods. I’m probably not even going to stop myself. I haven’t so far. The dream of fly fishing is one of simplicity; and most pursue it in the same way: acquire a blizzard of flies and gear in the belief that you are casting a wide net and that, at some point, you will get rid of all but the few perfect items and angle with the dreamed-of simplicity. For most, the pile grows until death brings it to a stop. If fly fishing weren’t still more or less esoteric, yard sales would never recover from this epidemic.

The biggest problem with fly rods is that you must not only meet all the physical criteria for the fishing you do but that you must also “love” the rod. For example, I have a six weight rod that is far and away the best trout rod I have ever owned. It is fast, light, and has the quickest damping stroke imaginable. It was designed by probably the greatest fly caster of all time. It is also cheesily built with porous cork in the handles, disco guide wraps and decal graphics that give the codes that distinguish this product from the other recreational products from the same company. I’m going to have to work at loving this, the best trout rod I’ve ever had. I’m going to have to almost wear it out. Its ultra modern decor is going to have to sink into history and become sort of campy. I may have to break it. I may have to defend myself with it during a holdup or use it to stand off a bear. Right now it’s a kind of yuppie artifact with less soul than a paper clip. It casts a thousand times better than the beautiful old Garrison I have which takes the same line.

I think we can work it out. But this great new rod is made of materials that are part of a rapidly evolving technology. My rod may be obsolete by Thanksgiving. I may be given cause to worry that the modulus of elasticity of my new rod may be trailing others. I’m actually capable of thinking about crap like that. I kind of like it. The other day, I put this soulless wand away for the day and, instead, fished with that fine old bamboo I’ve had for several decades. By comparison, this beautiful wooden shaft with highly individualized handwork and matchless esthetics, was a dog to cast. Someone compared the classic action of a bamboo rod to a cow pulling its foot out of deep mud. This one was better than that; but compared to the disco rod with the cheesy graphics and porous grip, it was pretty much of a dog.

Gough Thomas, the English gun writer, warns against the vice of “poly gunning,” which means using too many guns and becoming master of none. I could point out that this same malady afflicts anglers; but what’s the use? We’ll always have too many rods; but back to my topic: a trout fisherman can do it all with a nine foot for a six line.

A nine foot for an eight weight line will cover most of the rest. If the angler is a fisher of riverine salmonids, those two rods will cover it all. The eight will do perfectly for bonefishing and for small tarpon. I have seen tarpon over one hundred twenty­five pounds landed on eight weights. It’s an ideal snook and redfish rod. For repetitive casting as demanded in steelhead and salmon fishing, it’s as much as most of us want to cast all day long. Plenty of people use their six weight rods for steelhead.

I know, nobody’s listening. But I’m giving you very good advice. Is it because I have about twenty fly rods?

Let’s see what my excuses are. I have an eight foot Garrison for a size six line. I keep this and still use it because it is so full of fishing memories. It was owned for years in the middle of its life by my former brother-in-law. I had to buy it back from him and he did well in the transaction. I also keep it because I remember my consultations with the builder and the giddiness of those years when there were relatively so few of us fly fishing.

I have a six foot three inch Bob Summers “Midge” because it reminds me of my original fly shop, Paul Young’s, where Bob originally did his beautiful work. Also, it reminds me of the follies of A.J. McLane and Arnold Gingrich and Lee Wulff when they were promoting these impractical flea rods and suggests that even the very great are prone to foolishness.

I have a four weight nine foot Light Line Sage which is, to me, so far the most exquisite use of graphite I’m familiar with in a spring creek type rod. With this rod, I caught my best public water dry fly trout, last June, after forty-five years on the job: a 25½ inch male brown, on a size 20 Pale Morning Dun, from Silver Creek near Ketchum, Idaho. I think this rod kept me from breaking the 6X tippet and from suffering the avalanche of grief that would have followed the loss of that fish.

I have an eight-and-a-half foot Winston for a number five line. I have followed this rod throughout its evolution of materials. This one is of IM6 graphite. To me it is the five weight trout rod against which all others are measured, although the Scott of the same size is right in there. These are the best rods for the small freestone rivers of the kind that I fish. I do most of my trout fishing with this versatile rod.

I have a seven-and-a-half foot bamboo rod for a five line built by John Long, a gift from a builder I’ve never met. A fine piece of work and an extremely pleasant small stream rod.

I have a seven-and-a-half foot Payne, two piece, for a five line because I always wanted a Payne and even named the hero of one of my novels after this maker. I consider Payne to be the finest cane rod builder of all time. When you pick this rod up you can tell everything you need to know: it’s startlingly good.

Now the rod I discussed earlier: a nine foot six weight Loomis GLX, a tremendous fly rod, designed by Steve Rajeff and otherwise a thoroughly impersonal artifact. The guides are single footed; there is glitter thread in the windings; the reel seat is air weight spun nylon. It’s the fly rod as pure idea. It tracks perfectly, dampens perfectly; the action seems to progress through infinity without ever hitting bottom. You forget about the rod and think about the line. I don’t think it weighs three ounces. I can fish big western rivers for ten hour days and never feel I brought the wrong rod.

I have an eight foot nine inch Russ Peak Zenith for a seven line. Russ Peak was a genius and understood what could be done with glass better than anyone. He was the ne plus ultra rodmaker in the seventies when I was fishing two hundred days a year; so there is sentimental value. By today’s standards, it is a deliberate rod that requires the angler to recalibrate his timing somewhat. I find that when I fish with it, usually on the Yellowstone in the fall, I quickly fall back into its rhythms. It is perfectly built.

I have an eight foot nine inch Winston cane rod, for a seven, goes best with a Wulff 7/8, that was built by the great Glenn Brackett and was a gift of the Winston Rod company. I enjoy fishing this rod enormously. It is entirely in the spirit of the West Coast glory days in steelheading when Winston and Powell were kings. I can accept the extra weight of the rod because of the time between casts in steelheading. It is a great roll casting or single-handed Spey casting rod.

A nine foot two piece Payne light salmon for an eight line. I just traded for this rod. It’s beautiful with a detachable fighting butt, ferrule plugs, case and canvas overcase. It weighs the same as a thirteen weight billfish rod. What will I do with it? I’ve got to come up with something.

The eight weights and the age of excess: A Sage eight foot nine for an eight line, an outstanding, wind penetrating bonefish rod, doesn’t seem to be good for anything else I do. A Sage nine foot for an eight weight, the 890 RPL, as much of a classic as the old Fenwick FF85. A Loomis four piece nine foot for an eight, an outstanding travel rod, an outstanding rod, designed by Steve Rajeff and Mel Krieger, the only rod I know of better in the multipiece than in the two piece.

A nine foot for a ten line Winston graphite, my faithful permit rod. It is somewhat sluggish by current standards but seems to absorb the vagaries of big, heavy permit flies better than stiffer rods. It’s a good all around striped bass rod, too.

A nine foot for eleven weight Sage built for me as a gift by George Anderson. I use a twelve weight line on this rod and it is a rod adequate for big tarpon, used carefully, which will not wear me out on active days the way the twelve does. It is simply built, no fighting grip, and is full of happy memories. I couldn’t replace this rod though the twelves and thirteens are nicer after the fish is hooked.

I think I will leave out my three Spey rods. I have good singlehanded steelhead and salmon rods but I may never go back to them. The Spey rods just work too well. I subject this reader to this inventory for two reasons. First, I myself love to read this sort of thing, sniffing around the author’s tackle room; and second, to suggest that there is something at work here that has nothing to do with necessity but rather with the elaboration of the dream that is fishing.

Most reels are sold to the public by suggesting some unheard of emergency involving a running fish and guaranteeing that this product is the only available product capable of bringing the potential trophy to a standstill before it changes area codes. Right now, there is a large variety of magnificent reels available. Most have one thing in common: they are far better than they need to be. There hasn’t been much evolution in reels. The ninety year old Vom Hofes are still among the best.

The backing on a trout reel usually dies of old age before it sees the light of day. It’s rare for a salmon or steelhead to go a hundred yards though most reels designed for this fishing carry a quarter of a mile of backing. If a tarpon, permit or bonefish gets more than a hundred yards from you, you’ve got problems that have nothing to do with your backing. The last time I got spooled was on the Henry’s Fork when a big rainbow got downstream of me where I could not wade after it. It didn’t matter how much backing I had. I was meant to view the spindle.

I don’t know about the great drag systems either. I don’t think any freshwater reel needs a drag at all. A good, strong click will suffice. Anyone who is not enough of a hand to palm the reel or put a couple of fingers through the arbor is already fighting a fish too big for him.

Leader strength is based as much on margin of error for nicks and abrasions as it is on real breaking strength. Many anglers feel that the ultra thin leader materials now available do not equal their breaking-strength counterparts because the thin stuff weakens steeply if at all abraded. There is a very long list of things which can quickly change the breaking strength of tippets which includes touching bottom, hinging at the knots, scarping on teeth and gill plates, and so on. There is a real reason why many anglers, especially steelheaders and salmon anglers who cast a lot between bites, stick with the low-tech stuff. It doesn’t have to be terribly heavy because there are few rods which are comfortable to cast that can break anything over ten pound test at all.

I asked the greatest trout fisherman of my era who is himself an out-of-control proliferator of equipment and technical doo­dads, what percentage of his annual catch of fish he would catch if he were reduced to Adamses and Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear nymphs. His answer? “Certainly over ninety percent.” When pressed about the staggering variety of patterns available in his fly shop, he said, “I don’t sell flies to fish.”

I have become fairly avid about my fly tying because it is, as I do it, a modest craft that I can master. More importantly, it enables me to tie flies so that they look exactly right to me, which means that I will fish them with conviction. I think that’s important. For example, my usual searching pattern combines several favorite traits: moose-hair tail because there is something that feels right about those crisp black fibers; the body is wrapped turkey quill barbs as on my first favorite fly, the Borcher Special, a Michigan favorite, white calf body hair wings, a la the Wulff flies, brown and grizzly palmered hackle as on an Adams. When I look at it, I believe I am going to catch a fish. That feeling effects the way I cast and read water. You have to have that feeling. Wait-and-see is an approach preferred by losers. If you are anxious to kick major butt on your local stream or lake, try my fabulous fly. It is called the “McGuane.”

There are many things in fishing which separate the men from the boys; but in my opinion that one thing we should all work toward in becoming better anglers is what I would call, for want of a better term, smoothness. Many of the great anglers I have fished with have had this trait above all others and it is the one thing that I continually strive for. It is the trait that unites sportsmen as diverse as the Grand Prix driver Juan Fangio who was so smooth he rarely strained the cars he drove, golfers like Bobby Jones and baseball players like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. There are always a few blessed with genius and inspiration, towering casters, lead-footed deep river waders, anglers with astounding vision, and so on. But the angler who sets out to accept his gifts and limitations, who recognizes the importance of keeping his fly in the water, who abjures tackle tinkering once he reaches the river and who strives to fish coherently throughout the fishing day will usually, finally, succeed. Steelhead and salmon fishing exaggerate the importance of this; and sometimes, relatively unskilled anglers, who are otherwise persistent and capable of sustained focus, will outfish flashier types, better casters, and even more experienced anglers. I have seen steelhead rivers act with great leveling effect on men of hope, rewarding the scrupulous if limited anglers and penalizing mere technicians, tackle nuts, distance casters and fishing experts. A great angler like Bill Schaadt was a tremendous caster, an outstanding schemer, and intimate of the rivers he fished; but what impressed me about him the few times we fished together was that he was tougher and more persistent than anybody I’d ever seen. He kept the fly in the water more than anyone, ever. He was smooth, efficient and tough. All of his strength and talent, indeed the overall design of his life, was at the service of keeping the fly fishing which begins by casting a straight line. There are arm­chair anglers who can cast four kinds of curve but can’t cast a straight line except in dead still conditions. A late start in the morning prevents the fly from fishing; a crooked cast delays a fly from fishing; fly changing, leisurely meals, a forgotten bailing can all play a part in preventing the fly fishing. Bill Schaadt’s term was “lost motion.” Every angler should strive for its elimination, not to become an automaton, but as part of the smoothness that seems to be a part of angling when it is done beautifully and effectively.

Why do fishermen lie? An interesting question, it ought to be dealt with because it is the single thing we are most famous for among the general public. I have a theory. I think that most who love fishing do not wish to compete but have found no successful way to avoid competition when fishing with others. I, for example, do not wish to compete and therefore do most of my fishing alone so that I may absorb its mysteries, poetry and intimations of mortality. On many occasions, however, I find myself fishing with others and it is then that I helplessly find myself competing, crowing at hookups, admiring some great thing about my tackle when I really mean my self. The lone angler or even the angler who has just been able to get around the bend from his companions may fish and dawdle as he pleases, take in the migratory birds, the soaring hawk, the hunting mink, the glancing light on the riffle, the sound of hollow bank. He may even catch fish. Later, upon meeting up with his companions, he may dispense with matters of competition by lying about his results. How did he do? “Major poundage. A semi-load.” The most incredulous of his companions have probably come by their incredulity honestly: they’ve been lying too. So, all is well. A day in the life has been suitably taken in and in an avalanche of lies, truth has been served. And the only people who are the wiser are the general public.