Truthfully, it is more about what a person enjoys; the same question could be asked why we fish out of kayaks, instead of powerboats or on foot. I will never really know what drew me to the fly rod so many years ago. This was before the age of social media or the internet that drives us to buy or try new things. Heck, we only had one fishing show where I lived back then, and ol’ Red the host certainly wasn’t a fly fisherman. My father had fly fished in the past but even though he was an avid fisherman and a great mentor/instructor, he really didn’t have an interest in getting back into it.
So there I was, a kid around twelve years old, staring at a cheap fly fishing “kit” on the wall of the local store. You have seen them: rod, reel, line, and backing all packaged with a tippet and a small assortment of flies. These kits serve one of two purposes. They either frustrate newcomers with whippy rods and crappy lines till they never pick up the long rod again, or they are like the first hit of a powerfully addictive drug that hooks its victim by the deepest reaches of their soul.
My experience was the latter of the two - I refused to be defeated by that buggy whip. I practiced casting in the front yard until I could no longer keep the loop out of the neighbor’s bushes. This was before I had ever heard of Lefty Kreh, or Flip Pallot, or any of the other well-known fly fishing celebrities. Had they known how badly the fat kid from Alabama was slaughtering their sport, I am sure they would have scheduled an intervention.
My casting had to be moved to a longer area - not because my form had improved, but because I built up enough muscle to force the line where I wanted it to go. The only big open area was the road in front of my house, so that became my practice field. Little did I know that the hot Alabama asphalt would soon melt enough spots in my fly line that it became a “float for 6’, sink for 4’, and float for 3’” line. This is not something I have seen in any big name fly line manufacturer’s selection.
The other problem with “muscle” as it pertains to fly fishing is the sickening “CRACK” of the tippet behind you when you rush a forward cast. I became proficient at locating whatever fly had been attached to my tippet before being snapped off during the violent change of direction, but more often than not it was in rough shape. I didn’t even know enough to practice with a dummy fly instead of ruining the few flies I had.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though, because when I needed more flies, my dad was with me and passed on some knowledge. I wanted the flies like the ones in the kit. He looked at me and said “There hasn’t ever been a rainbow trout in south Alabama,” then handed me a Betts popper. As I stared at the balsa-wood-and-rubber-legged creation, he said, “This is what you need to put on your fly rod.” His instructions for fishing it were simple - “Put it in a fishy spot, and let it sit till something eats it.” This info was spot on and worked perfectly except for one small detail: remember the whole “muscle cast” scenario? The moment a small bream or bass would hit that popper I would snatch so hard it would rocket past my head and into the trees behind me. I spent a lot of time listening for fish rustling in the leaves so I could find them to release.
I slowly learned to control my hook sets, and my casting continued to improve (still working on that, almost thirty years later). My parents must have thought I lost my mind, but figured at least I wasn’t getting into trouble. The next thing I knew, they handed me a box that turned out to be my very own fly tying kit! You think that fly fishing is addictive? Handing some folks a fly tying kit is like giving an addict his own dope manufacturing plant!
Through the years I have enjoyed the fly rod, and have long since replaced the old kit with better rods and reels. The line I use now costs three times what the whole kit cost back then. Even with all the changes, I still feel like a kid when I pick up the long rod. It doesn’t matter if I am creeping up a mountain stream, stalking a salty flat, or fighting the beautiful river bass near my home.
There is something magical about a tight loop of fly line in the air, or the few extra feet a double haul will add to your cast. Rod down, slowly stripping the fly line waiting for a crushing blow on a popper, or doing the “raptor stare” at a swirling indicator waiting for the first sign of a strike… Feeling the tension of the fish as you become the reel and drag, until either the fish is landed or the fight is safely transitioned to the fly reel… I will never forget the first time I had a fish fight me to the reel; it was a powerful and humbling experience.
I have since passed on my love of fly fishing to my son, and it is incredible to watch him on the water. I doubt he could answer the question of “why fly” either. Is it a limitation? Does it give you an advantage? Is it fun? Is it frustrating? Is it easy? Is it hard? I would say at times each of those could be answered with a “Yes” or a ”No”. The closest I can come to answering the question “Why?” is that it is peaceful, almost therapeutic. With the hectic world around us, there are few things that calm the noise better than the drip of water off a paddle blade, or the swish of a fly rod in the air. I still fish with conventional gear and carry far too much “stuff” at times, but those days that I just want peace and quiet (or if I need an attitude adjustment) I reach for the fly rod. I can still see the packaged kit hanging on the wall in that store. Turns out it was the best purchase this twelve-year-old kid could have made.