Fly Fishing Jazz: Bonding with the Ax

January 14, 2012 By: Kirk Deeter

Fly Fishing Spey Rod

Spey Mission. Photo by Tibor Nemeth

I DON’T KNOW why more fly fishers don’t fall in love with a single rod and stick with it forever.

My tackle retailer and manufacturer friends will hate me for saying that, but I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile question to consider.

It seems to me that fly fishers are swept up in the marketing hype—the faster, further, stronger hyperbole—more than any other demographic this side of your local golf course. Yet in truth, if ever there were a sport where finding a trusted tool one can master with aplomb can pay dividends for decades, it’s fly fishing.

The music analogies: Willie Nelson is inseparable from a ratty old Martin N-20 (nylon string) guitar he named “Trigger” after Roy Rogers’ horse. Clapton’s most famous guitar is a Fender Stratocaster named “Blackie.” B.B. King’s legendary “Lucille” is a Gibson ES 335. John Coltrane made his best music with a Selmer Mark VI tenor sax. It’s the bonds between the players and the instruments that make the trademark sounds.

Of course, there have been many incarnations of “signature” instruments, and it’s ultimately the style of the player that dictates the distinctive tone. (Mark Knopfler’s sound comes from the finger style, the thumb instead of the pick—but he still adheres to the tones found on Stratocasters and Telecasters to find his music.)

But why are we so eager to switch on a whim? Is it lack of confidence? Marketing hypnosis?

Actually, my wife’s grandfather (who taught me a lot about fly fishing) bucked that trend (before it was a trend). We could give him a new, fancy rod as a birthday or Christmas present, and he’d smile and act thankful. But when he went to the river, it was always the same, old Orvis 8-foot 5-weight, with an oddly oversized cork handle that he liked to fish. The man knew what he wanted.

Truth is (and I’m not complaining about this by any stretch), as a magazine writer, I’m sent “new generation” fly rods to test every year. The rod companies want me to write about them. And I do. And, based on what I write, many of you buy those rods.

But when I go out and fish for trout on my own, for fun and no strings attached, I find myself, more often than not, packing the same 5-weight I got years ago. I call it “Old Betsy” (after Davy Crockett’s rifle), and she’s never let me down. Never broken. And I never felt like I missed a fish, or made a bad cast because of the rod. The brand and model are irrelevant. The point is, everyone has an “ax,” and the real test is to find it, live with it, fish it, make your own music, and go from there.

Sure there are reasons to spread the love—a 5-weight for trout, an 8-weight for bonefish, a bass rod, a tarpon rod… all wonderful. All good.

But there’s something very special, even admirable, about finding a rod that you make friends with, that becomes part of your fishing persona, and sticking with that.