Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: Fly fishing vs. fly tying, brother vs. brother

Matt Labash Columnist
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Can I ask you about bugs? You mentioned that, as a practical matter, you don’t necessarily fish a huge variety of flies. To what extent can I get away with minimizing the study of insects? I realize if you find yourself in the middle of some big hatch it helps to know enough to get something similar on the water. But in general, I’m finding that I have way more energy for grinding away on my casting, mending and line management skills than reading about insects or jacking around with a dozen different sizes. I remember your take on the distinction between fly fishing and fly tying and being relieved because so many instructional figures and materials seem to try to emphasize the integral relationship between the two, and I have exactly zero interest in tying. I’ve also read all about the apparently eternal presentation versus imitation debate and would like to hope that a good “basic” selection of flies, fished well, is enough. Can I dodge most of the entomology and still be most of the way there? — George C.

Now that we’ve completely lost the general-interest reading audience, let’s punish whoever’s left and have a good old fashioned intra-denominational civil war, hoping the uninitiated can salvage some universal principle for their own edification. Because here, the fishing vs. tying debate rears its head again, this time under the favorite refuge of fishing snobs and scoundrels-entomology. The former (fly fishermen) always feeling guilty and inadequate if they don’t become the latter (fly tiers/bug experts). But to ask a very basic yet heretical question: why? Nobody stipulates that you can’t be a good hunter without becoming a gunsmith. No right-minded person would assert that you can’t be a good surfer without becoming a board-shaper. Yet fishing acquaintance upon fishing acquaintance of mine insists on the necessity of dividing time between the vise and the river, telling me how I’m cheating myself out of the full fishing experience by not bringing fish to hand with flies of my own creation. As if the legions of knowledgeable fly tiers before me haven’t already figured out the fishing basics and can’t now knock out every nymph I’ll ever need for 75 cents apiece in a Sri Lankan sweatshop, so that I can do what God hath called me to do — go fishing.

Make no mistake: if tying just the right shuck of Z-Lon onto your Sparkle Dun makes you feel one with the fish, by all means, follow your bliss. But here’s what makes me feel one with the fish: catching the fish. I’ll match the hatch when I know what’s hatching. If I see blue-winged olives coming off the water, I’ll throw blue-winged olives. And if I don’t catch with blue-winged olives, I’ll say oh well, throw a parachute Adams, and will probably catch a few in spite of my inexactitude. And if you’re fishing for wild, uneducated brook trout in an unpressured mountain stream, you can throw belly-button lint and still catch them as readily as you do bluegill in a subdivision pond. (Incidentally, I fish for both in both kinds of places, eagerly and unapologetically.)

While trout can certainly be fussy if you don’t get in the general ballpark of what they’re eating (emphasis on general), fishermen are quite often fussier than the fish they’re pursuing. Remember that they have a brain the size of long-grain rice (the fish, not the fishermen.) So it’s easy to forget that if feeding fish see nothing but hamburgers washing down the aquatic conveyor belt, yes, they’re going to feed on hamburgers. But sometimes if you throw a hot dog, they might eat that too. Fake food is fake food. Everyone likes a free meal, and a little bit of variety. Often, there’s not just one answer. Besides, there’s lots of fish to catch in addition to fussy trout. Recently, I caught 106 hickory and American shad in an afternoon on a fly rod. And not a single one of them failed to pull four times harder than any trout I’ve caught all year.

So if you want to spend your days twiddling with feather and fur, head cement and whip finishers, may the Good Lord bless and keep you. You’re a more patient man than me. And feel free to send finished flies my way, because I’ll gladly use them — giving you full credit while you’re tying, and I’m fishing. But tying, to me, represents confinement. I’m already sitting down indoors for 3/4ths of the day. So if I have time to tie, I have time to fish. Winters, included. (That’s why God made sewage treatment plants with warm-water outflows.) Tying isn’t fishing. It’s craft time. They used to make me do crafts in Vacation Bible School, and I sucked at them. Though my Judas Iscariot diorama wasn’t half bad. I’d always end up misplacing the scissors, then eating the paste. (It tasted like chicken, basted in glue.)

This is not to say that everyone who falls deeply into tying is a fussy little trout teapot. Take my fishing co-conspirator and the esteemed editor of this site, Tucker Carlson. Tucker, to his credit, prefers throwing big leggy monstrosities to largemouth bass, some of the unfussiest fish on the planet. And he’d just as soon endure a tax audit than sit streamside with a cheesecloth, trying to match the hatch while cataloging bugs by their Latin names. Yet after years of resistance, he recently caught the tying bug, badly, and is now knocking out one little beauty after another, such as these peacock bass flies:

Tucker’s most sincere aspiration is to successfully fish “dog hair flies,” taken from his springer spaniel, Meg, who dives for and catches brook trout and pickerel in Maine. Meg’s fur is therefore believed by Tucker to have magical fish-attractant properties. But Tucker is a builder of things. Creating something from nothing brings him pleasure in and of itself. He has a woodshop in his house, and if/when the bottom falls out of the journalism industry, he is well-suited to become a carpenter, just like Jesus before him. Whereas I like to chop wood, to burn wood, and even to pop wood, as my lady friends will attest. But I couldn’t make so much as a paper weight from wood if my children’s lives depended on it. Building things isn’t for everyone, and fly tying isn’t either.

Yet as I gladly and defiantly tell my tying friends, I catch enough fish every year that not tying doesn’t seem to have affected me adversely on the water. Would I be a better fisherman if I were a religious bug expert? Maybe. Or maybe I’d be too married to the hatch chart to throw weird flies that are not seen in nature, but that are proven fish-catchers, like this little act of rebellion. Still, from the sheer volume of the tiers’ insistence otherwise, I too occasionally doubt myself. So I recently put the question of whether I should start tying to one of America’s finest fly shop owners and Riverkeepers, my friend Theaux Le Gardeur,who runs the Backwater Angler in Monkton, Md., on the Gunpowder River.

I half expected Theaux, a skillful fly tier himself, to tell me to buckle down, to assume the position behind a vise, and to get to work. Instead, he smiled guiltily like he was letting me in on a dark secret. “Why tie when you could be fishing?” he said, in the hushed tones of the apostate. “Tying is like dating the head of the math club. Fishing is like going to prom with the homecoming queen. Given the choice, always fish.”

As for entomology, follow Theaux’s advice: “Do the spider web trick. You start off with a gin ’n’ tonic, and leave the house at four in the afternoon. When you get to the water, peer into a spider web to see what it’s catching, then peer into your box, and try to get close. No muss, no fuss, no Latin involved. Just hard physical science. Then tie something on, and go fishing. When you return home, go to the same liquor cabinet and pour a little scotch. The gin keeps the wandering mind focused. The scotch quiets it down after feverishly trying to match the hatch.”

“If you’re the kind of person who would actually write letters to the editor of Scientific American,” adds Theaux, “then tying is for you. If you’d rather look at the pictures, you really should go fishing. We have poets, and we have engineers. Basically, everyone is right.”

Of course, after Theaux said this, he sold me 30 bucks worth of flies that I didn’t need. Another reason not to tie — fly shop sages like Theaux deserve to be subsidized.

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.