Why I Fly Fish

Why I fly fish – it’s pretty simple to explain. I often get asked, “Why do you fly fish? What do you like about it?” This question typically comes from folks who are dabbling in it or thinking about trying the sport. If that is your question, let me try to answer it.

Several years ago, I tried to improve my golf game so that I could spend more time with a friend. I soon realized that I didn’t love golf. In fact, I found it frustrating. I remember golfing on the Cottonwood Hills Public Golf Course just west of Bozeman, Montana, and looking down the hill at the Gallatin River. I longed to be fly fishing. My friend didn’t fly fish. So I found other ways to connect with him. We both loved to play softball. But I decided that day I was done trying to do things I didn’t enjoy.

But exactly why do I love fly fishing for trout (and salmon at times)?

Engaged with the Outdoors

Fly fishing allows me to experience the great outdoors in an interactive kind of way. I love mountains and the clear rivers or streams that flow through or below them.

Obviously, there are other ways to experience my favorite parts of nature. I’ve done outdoor photography, backpacking, hiking, and a bit of non-technical mountain climbing. I even reached the summit of Long’s Peak in Colorado (14,259 feet) twice. All these were great experiences. But unless I’m photographing my fishing trip or heading to a high mountain lake or stream, neither photography or backpacking does it for me. There’s something about standing in thigh-deep water as the snow softly falls or sneaking up on rising fish that allows me to interact with nature in a way that other pursuits do not.

This is not a knock on outdoor photography or hiking or anything else. It’s just a reflection of how I’m wired. Pursue whatever lets you engage with nature most fully and brings joy.

Addicted to the Riser

I’m also addicted to seeing a trout rise to take a dry fly and to the fight that follows. What else can I say? Fly fishing gives me an adrenaline rush and a sense of satisfaction that most other outdoor sports do not.

One exception is calling in bull elk during the rut in archery season. But nothing else quite compares with fly fishing.

Connected to the Art and Skill

Years ago, I fished with a spinning rod and a box full of Mepps spinners.

That brought me a lot of joy at the time. But I love the aesthetic side of fly fishing. There is a grace to casting (when done well). There are also endless ways of improving my craft – reading waters, identifying insect hatches, tying flies, maneuvering a drift boat, and casting.

Fly fishing gives me the chance to be part of something that I can never fully master. It offers a lifetime of learning. Even the literature of fly fishing is rich and often reflective.

I should add that fly fishing is more doable at this point in my life than other outdoor sports that bring me joy.

As I mentioned, I also love bow-hunting for elk. The crisp September mornings, the bright yellow aspen leaves, and the echo of an elk bugle across a canyon make me happy. But this is where reality kicks in. I no longer live ten minutes from good elk hunting.

A decade ago, I moved to the Chicago area.

The time and cost of hunting elk in Montana as a non-resident are simply prohibitive. It’s the cost, mostly. So out of my two outdoor passions, I’m grateful I can still pursue one of them. Fly fishing for trout is generally less expensive. I can afford to go to Montana at least once or twice a year to fly fish. Besides, I can find great fly fishing three seasons of the year (spring, summer, and fall) as opposed to a three weeks of the year (for bow-hunting elk). I’m hoping to bow-hunt for elk again one of these days with my brother in Colorado. But until then, I’m content to fly fish.

If fly fishing appeals to you, give it a try. The sheer thrill of landing a trout on a fly rod might turn out to be something that brings you as much joy as it brings to me.

Louis L’amour Helped Me Find New Waters

When I was a 19-year old college student in Montana, I got addicted to Louis L’amour western novels. They were potato chips for the soul. I became fond of the Sackett brothers, mesmerized by a Texas Ranger named Chick Bowdrie, and enthralled by Kilkenny and the way he protected Nita Riordan. But one of my all-time favorite Louis L’amour characters was the kid at the crossing, a rugged western character who called himself Flint. In this post, I apply a principle from the life of Flint to my life as a fly fisher.

Flint didn’t do any fly fishing. Regrettably, none of L’amour’s characters did. But the novels are set in the post-Civil War West. A few characters caught trout with their bare hands or with a worm on a hook. But there were no fly fishers in the bunch. Still, I learned something from Flint that has helped me find new waters to fly fish.

Early in the novel which bears his name, Flint recalls his early days in New York City as James T. Kettleman. What he did to become a wealthy financier and speculator is something I’ve learned to do to become a better fly fisher. I’ve learned to listen.

Flint’s first job in New York City was driving a hansom cab—a horse-drawn carriage, which was the forerunner of a modern taxi cab. He discovered that business leaders often discussed their affairs as though the driver was deaf. One day, Flint overheard a discussion between two businessmen about a building they planned to put up and the way they intended to acquire the property for it. The next morning, Flint moved quickly and bought an option on an adjacent lot. He sold this lot two weeks later for a substantial profit.

Then, Flint spent a year working as a messenger for a brokerage house. He kept his mouth shut and his ears and eyes open. Using the information he gained, he made good investments and watched his net worth grow. Later, Flint developed an information service of office boys, messengers, waiters, and cleaning women. They listened for him and then reported back to them. The information helped him make a fortune.

The Flint Technique

I’ve applied this technique to finding new water to fly fish. Over the years, I’ve overheard many conversations in fly shops or a local café when I’ve pretended not to be listening. Usually, I just listen. Occasionally, I’ll ask a question. Sometimes, people volunteer information because they think the person who asked for it will not follow through and try their secret run. But I do. And find new water.

I have dozens of scraps of notes in a drawer near my fly tying bench. I’ve written names of streams and maps of stretches of river which might be productive. I don’t fish all of them. But I fish some of them, even years after I’ve scribbled the information on a business card or the back of a copy of fish and game regulations.

In the mid-1980s, I heard a couple guys talking about fishing Tower Creek and the Yellowstone upriver from Tower Fall in Yellowstone National Park. I filed away that information. A year later, I used it and hiked up from Tower Fall. I discovered some magnificent water there that I’ve fly fished over the years. I’ve landed dozens and dozens of cutthroats over the years as a result of listening closely to a single conversation.

Listen and Find New Waters

So do yourself a favor.

Listen closely when your fellow fly fishers start bragging or telling stories about a great day on the water. They might just mention a stretch of water that will be worth trying. And if you need any guidance on the art of gaining information from careful listening, pick up a copy of Louis L’Amour’s novel, Flint. But remember. Reading these novels is like eating potato chips. You can rarely stop at one.