The Generous Fly Fisher I Aspire to Be

generous fly fisher

I aspire to be a better fly fisher. But it’s not what you might think. Sure, I want to improve my casting so I can consistently drop my fly an inch from the opposite bank. Someday, I hope to put the whip finish on my flies with the speed of a calf roper tying a half-hitch.

I’d also like to think like a fish—as Paul Maclean aspired to do. But I have higher aspirations. I want to be a more generous fly fisher:

What Generosity Looks Like on the River

Instead of hoarding information about my favorite spots, I’d like to be more willing to share helpful intel with others I meet on the river.

Instead of hogging a good run, I’d like to share it more readily with others. If someone watches me catch a trout in a particular run, I’d like to be generous enough to invite them to take a few casts.

Instead of feeling smug when I see a newbie fly fisher cast like I did when I first got started, I’d like to be jump at the chance to offer some pointers and some words of encouragement.

A Fine Role Model

If I have a role model for the generous fly fisher I want to be, it is Craig Matthews. He is the founder and former owner of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Montana. When you talk to him, his responses are enthusiastic, not arrogant.

Ask him a question, and his answer is gracious, not condescending.

What impresses me most about Matthews is a comment he made in an interview recorded in Chester Allen’s book, Yellowstone Runners. When asked what kind of water he likes to fish late in the season when the “runners” are heading up the Madison River, Matthews talked first about the type of runs he likes. But then he made this comment: “I stay away from ‘behind the Barns’ [the well-known runs just inside the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park] and other popular places since I live here, and I can fish anytime and leave the popular spots to elderly angers and visiting anglers.”

That, my friends, is generosity. And that’s the kind of fly fisher I aspire to be.

I recently ran into Matthews in West Yellowstone and he regaled the fly shop with stories of big browns and streamers the size of 56 Buicks. Even in his storytelling, he was warm and giving back to others, making us feel part of his story and the larger narrative of fly fishing.

The Old Man I Don’t Want to Be

Unfortunately, there are always a few fly fishers who think they are “it.” As my podcast partner Dave says about them, “Always confident, sometimes right.” You’d think these folks invented the sport of fly fishing.

A guide in Blue Ribbon flies recently told us about an encounter he had with an older fly fisher at the Barns Pools. There are some terrific people who frequent the Barns Pools every fall. But this guy seemed to have an ego the size of a jumbo jet.

A young teen was fishing with a hopper pattern. Nearby, his grandmother sat watching him.

Meanwhile, the older fly fisher began to mock the young teen, grousing about him using a hopper pattern. That’s not how you fish the Barns Pools. After a couple minutes of this, the guide piped up and told the older guy to shut up. After briefly strutting like a peacock, the older guy came to his senses, shut his mouth, and sulked and muttered as he walked away.

The grandmother on the bank spoke up for the first time and thanked the guide. She said, “This has been my grandson’s dream. All he wanted to do was to fly fish in Yellowstone National Park. Thanks for sticking up for him.”

Age has a way of magnifying our character traits. Our hard edges become sharper, and our soft edges become even more polished. If you practice generosity now, chances are it will become an even more pronounced trait that will not fail you even when your eyes and legs do. That’s the older fly fisher I want to be.