Looking back on 50 years of fly-fishing

My usual routine over the Christmas and New Year holiday period, besides watching the glut of college football bowl games, is catching up with my reading and browsing Internet websites and tackle catalogs to see what’s new in fishing gear this year.

And even though I probably have accumulated more fishing tackle and lures than I might ever use, I have already succumbed to the ever-present temptation to add a few more items of the “latest and greatest” stuff to my collection.

A lot of my off-season reconnaissance has been spent compiling a list of all the flies I need to tie to replenish my fly boxes from the past season along with a wish list of patterns I want to try this coming season. While referring to a stack of books and some personal notebooks, it occurred to me just how much fly-fishing has changed over the last 55 years that I have been involved in the sport. That evolution applies not only to fly patterns and fly design but also to most every type of fly-fishing gear.

When I started fly-fishing in the early 1960s, most fly rods were made from fiberglass. Fiberglass rods in those days were generally affordable and durable. Graphite rods came on the market in the mid-1970s. Graphite was a much stiffer material than fiberglass and could generate more power and line speed for longer casts with less effort.

Some of the early graphite rods tended to be somewhat brittle and breakage rates were high. Rod makers quickly solved that problem, and within ten years or so, graphite had replaced fiberglass and revolutionized our idea of what a fly rod should be. A similar transformation occurred with fly lines, fly reels, leader material and even waders over the subsequent decades.

Fly tying also enjoyed its own revolution of sorts over the past half century, with one of the most significant events of that revolution occurring here in central Pennsylvania. About the same time that graphite fly rods appeared on the market, the Metz Hatchery in Belleville, Mifflin County, began raising chickens specifically for fly-tying feathers. Using his knowledge of fly tying and poultry genetics, Buck Metz was able to breed roosters in commercial quantities with long, slender neck hackles in a range of natural colors that were perfect for tying top-quality dry flies. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Metz neck. The quality of the feathers it contained were so far superior to anything else available at the time it almost seemed like science fiction.

The advent of genetic hackle feathers ushered in a new age in fly-tying materials. That ongoing wave of new materials has brought many incredible synthetics that have enabled countless new fly designs that would not be possible without them. Probably the most significant of those is the ability to craft larger flies for bass and numerous saltwater species. Fly tiers have never had it so good with the unprecedented variety and availability of materials for their craft.

Throughout the decades, however, one aspect of fly-fishing has remained nearly the same. Fly anglers have always had the reputation of being snobs or elitists, and like it or not, that stereotype is somewhat justified. I must confess that when I was in my late twenties and thirties, I was quite an elitist when it came to fly-fishing. Countless hours on the stream had honed my skills to a high level, and I developed a deep devotion for the history and traditions of fly-fishing. My singular mission in those days was the pursuit of just about anything that swims, at least in Pennsylvania, with a fly rod. And to a great extent, I accomplished that task.

Some years later, I came to the undeniable conclusion that as much as I loved fly-fishing, I was equally enamored with any method of freshwater fishing. I could have just as much fun and satisfaction tossing tiny jigs for crappies on light spinning tackle or working a spinnerbait through a weed bed on bait-casting gear for bass as I could casting nymphs for trout in a nice piece of pocket water with my favorite fly rod.

I was a fisherman, not just a fly fisherman, and employing other types of tackle and methods did nothing to diminish my fondness for fly-fishing. If anything, my experience with all types of gear enhanced and improved my connection with fly-fishing.

That perception manifested itself in a conversation I had with a fellow fly angler about 15 years ago. We were discussing smallmouth bass, one of my favorite subjects, for sure. At one point, I felt compelled to disclose that I usually do most of my smallmouth fishing with spinning or bait-casting gear. His response was typical for most die-hard fly guys, “Oh, but smallmouths are so much fun to catch on a fly rod.”

I replied, almost apologetically, “Wow, I’ve caught over 5,000 smallmouths in the past two seasons. I didn’t realize I wasn’t having any fun,”

Regardless of where and how you fish or what you fish for, make every effort to get out and fish more in 2020. And by all means have fun doing it.