Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: A special philistine edition, defending mall culture, and chumming with a fly rod

Here’s another potentially heretical question. We chase stripers on the fly around Long Island, sight-casting when we can. But I’m considering trying something different. Anchoring up, chumming and running a sinking line with a bunker pattern through the slick. Like the yellowfin guys do in the Gulf. Is this an outrage to fly-fishing orthodoxy? — Andrei Bogolubov

Absolutely! Isn’t that part of the fun of it, though? Recall that in the old days, dry fly purists would consider you a criminal or pervert just for nymph or streamer fishing. I always prefer dry flies when the fish are interested. There’s no more satisfying way to catch fish. But most of us nowadays wouldn’t think of going fishing without plenty of nymphs and streamers in our box. Meaning we must think of new ways to upset the old order. Personally, I do it by throwing all manner of non-flies on my fly rod from shad darts to little atrocities known as Mini Mites, which are smaller and which sink and jig better than nearly all of my streamers, and which are smallmouth and striper-catching machines that actually benefit from the additional animation that a fly rod gives them.

As anyone who has done both knows, in most ways, fly fishing is preferable to the kind of fishing practiced by our bait-slinging brethren. It doesn’t make us superior people, mind you. Many of us, I’m told, are insufferable bores and prisspots. Head into the fly fishing section of any bookstore (if you can still find a bookstore), and you will immediately and overwhelmingly confirm that the one attribute we possess in spades over bait fishermen is that of self-regard.

Yet because of the nature of our tackle and the places we fish with it, I’d submit that we do tend to savor each fish caught, on balance, more than the average bait fisherman. Not only because fly casting is more fun and the majority of fish we catch come by hand-tugging them in with our primitive (albeit, often overpriced) tools. So that we’re frequently meeting fish without the joy-killing buffer of a reel, a contrast in sensation that could be compared to running through a field of sunflowers naked (fly rod) vs. running through one in a hazmat suit (spinning rod).

But since our flies aren’t real food, our deception has more integrity than that practiced by bait fishermen. I can, in good conscience, look a greedy striper in the face, and tell him that he had a hand in his own fate when he decided to murderously smite my Lefty’s Deceiver, even if I let him go with a warning. (I let all fish go with warnings.) Much harder, however, to look him in the eye if I caught him with a live-lined spot, spot being a food item that is on his natural menu — thus decreasing the sport of it all. Put yourself in the striper’s place. If you got hooked by biting into a tetherball, you’d say, “That was dumb of me, and I got what I deserved.” Whereas, if you were hooked by biting into a juicy ribeye, you’d say, “What do you want from me?  It’s a steak, and I was hungry.”

I would never, of course, chum for trout or freshwater bass. If you can’t cut a river down to size to catch them, then maybe you don’t deserve to. That said, without diving birds or clouds of panicked baitfish, stripers can be hard to find in large bodies of open, unreadable water. As the estimable John Gierach writes in his vastly entertaining 2011 book “No Shortage of Good Days,” when fishing the Sea of Cortez, Gierach’s guide told him that some fly fishermen were loathe to fish over chum, a common technique in those parts. The guide’s cure for which was “to take them out on featureless blue water without a fish in sight and ask, ‘Okay, where do you want to cast?’”

Of course if you do this around Long Island, your friends will all think less of you as a fisherman. And I probably will too. But now would be a good time to ask yourself who you’re fishing for. You, or us? Whether you catch stripers on a lonely fly, or on a lonely fly in a chum cloud, we aren’t going to enjoy your fish either way. Whereas, you will, both ways. And from the striper’s perspective, so long as you let him go, chumming has its upsides. If you catch him honestly, all he gets is a lip piercing. But if he gets to ingest a wake full of fish guts before smacking your clouser, at least he had some hors d’oeuvres to show for his troubles.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.