“Patterns of Behavior”

I SUSPECT THAT FISHERMEN have always held strong and sometimes complicated opinions about their flies. The evidence lies everywhere in the old books—the enthusiasms about “killing patterns,” notions about how specific imitations should be fished during certain seasons, the minute and doting particulars about materials. It all sounds quite familiar to the modern angler, possibly because artificial flies have changed relatively little over the centuries. Styles, of course, come and go; that is the nature of style. But even many of the earliest patterns would not look noticeably out of place in a modern fly box. And while new ideas have come about and old ones been updated, the essential architecture of trout flies, their informing ideas, and a great many of the materials have remained fairly consistent. I have no doubt that the Macedonian fly fishermen mentioned by Aelian in A.D. 200 would take one look at a modern trout pattern and know instantly what it was for. Then they would ask you a lot of questions about how to tie it. One difference, however, cannot be ignored: the sheer number of different fly patterns available to the contemporary angler. This abundance of alternatives appears to be a fairly recent phenomenon, at least if the angling books of the past few hundred years can be taken as a reliable guide. Granted, not every pattern in use at the time was recorded in those older texts, but that’s also true of flies and books today. By and large, anglers in previous centuries got along with far fewer patterns with less variety among them.

If forced to theorize on the basis of, at best, a patchy acquaintance with the written history of angling, I would say that an emerging preoccupation with fly patterns coincided roughly with the Industrial Revolution. In one sense, this is obvious; mechanization allowed for something like the mass production of hooks, tying tools, and some materials, making them more readily and widely available. A growing middle class had the means to purchase such things and the leisure to use them. There were simply more fishermen tinkering in the ways fisherman always do, which included tying flies. Less obviously, though, industrialization also brought with it a shift in outlook, a confidence in the application of scientific knowledge for the betterment of the world, a belief in technological solutions to problems of all kinds, from digging canals to housing inmates. This conviction has especially deep roots in America, which from its beginnings has been a culture of better mousetraps, a characteristic that for good or ill explains much of our history and present condition. In any case, by the end of the nineteenth century, even George Bernard Shaw—a man committed to the efficacy of “science” in some of its less savory forms (eugenics, for instance) and a critic profoundly at odds with the world—still had enough in common with his times to voice its prevailing assumption: “All problems are essentially scientific problems.” Today, his assessment seems so self-evident that no one even bothers to utter it.

I bring this up at all because an artificial fly is, among other things, a technological artifact; it is manufactured, in the original sense of being made by hand. (Bait, by contrast, is nontechnological; hatchery fish can be either.) A fly pattern is, in theory at least, an engineered solution to a problem, and in the past three decades or so these solutions have multiplied at a rate somewhere between impressive and staggering. The fly-fishing industry has no doubt driven some of this growth, but by far the greatest share of it owes to amateur tiers who have no commercial stake in things. How this has come about is revealing. The primary cause of all this activity has been a kind of cross-pollination of ideas, techniques, and even approaches to insect imitation among and between fly tiers in the United States and Europe. And what has fueled this exchange is clearly digital technology, which, in its most influential form, the Internet, has greatly accelerated new developments of all sorts in tying. Like the mechanization of the nineteenth century, the information revolution of our own time represents both the expanded availability of commodities and a kind of faith—the same faith, in fact, that looks to technology to overcome problems. The mind-set of industrialization has carried over with a vengeance into the postindustrial world.

We believe in the efficacy of tools, devices, hardware, and systems to overcome obstacles, whether they involve treating disease, waging war, making a phone call, educating the young, or extending the shelf life of our lettuce—“better living through chemistry,” as the saying once went. The proliferation of fly patterns reflects this same trajectory of thinking, and the pursuit of it with such vigor in an age that is—take your pick—enamored with, obsessed by, worshipful of, dependent upon, or enslaved to technology could scarcely be called a coincidence. It probably couldn’t have happened any other way. Nor is it an accident that much of the vigor in fly tying today comes from younger anglers who were born into this time.

It may seem far-fetched, but this notion of trout flies as the artifact and emblem of a technological world is validated by the trout themselves, or at least some of them. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, many of the problems that called for solutions were created by industrialization itself, a feedback loop that has only intensified in the centuries since and has, in the last few decades, extended to trout streams. On some hardfished rivers, particularly the popular tailwaters, trout can grow pattern-shy, resistant to what worked last year or last month or last week. So we devise ever-newer patterns to catch them, using fresh technological solutions to solve a problem created by former ones. It is exactly the same dance that takes place between data-security experts and hackers or between bacteria and antibiotics, for that matter, in which one can no longer distinguish cause from effect, action from reaction. It has often been suggested that a problem cannot be solved by using the same kind of thinking that gave rise to it in the first place, though I’m not sure that this matter can be easily or quickly decided. In fishing, as in the rest of our technological lives, the jury is still busy peer-reviewing proposals.

I don’t suggest any of this as a specific indictment of modern fly fishing or anglers; it is merely a speculation, a theory to explain why trout flies— the object of fascination among anglers for many centuries—have such a particularly strong hold on the angling consciousness today. And in fact when it comes to fly patterns, I snap up new ideas as enthusiastically as the next person. While I have my doubts about technology in general, I seem to suspend them where trout flies are concerned. That the new patterns are not always to my taste is quite beside the point and, in a way, so is the question of whether they work better than what we already have. The search for the perfect fly is bound to produce mostly failures; that may simply be the nature of technological innovation. It certainly appears to be its method. But in just the way that much of fly fishing, and most of what is best in it, exists apart from the mere mechanics of the sport, so a fly pattern is more than merely a product and symbol of technology. Whether we tie a fly or choose a pattern from a bin at the shop, we enlist it in a story of our own making. Our fly boxes tell a tale of what we believe we have learned—from our observations of fish and rivers, the inferences drawn from our own experiences, our conjectures about trout and water, and the provisional conclusions we have reached about them. A trout fly inhabits the space of our best imaginings and becomes a kind of narrative of its own, a plot we construct about a character in disguise. A fly pattern is a form of storytelling in the same way that a theory is the narrative of an idea. Certainly in the end we cast a fly on the water for the same basic reason that we test a hypothesis or read a story—we want to see how it all comes out.