Nice Catch

Why Fly Fishing Is the Key to World Peace

In a Massachusetts convention center, people of all classes gather to delight in the tying of flies and graphite rods. Why does fly fishing break down so many barriers?

01.21.15 10:45 AM ET

The first thing you notice when walking in to the Fly Fishing Show is the smell. Equal parts preserved animal pelt, overpriced cafeteria food, and the peculiar blend of smoke, urine, and wool that comprises an old man’s musk, it hangs heavy as you walk through the Royal Plaza convention center doors in Marlborough, Massachusetts, setting the tone.

James Joiner

Different fly patterns on display.

A roving consortium of vendors, instruction, and demos, the show sets up weekend-long shop in seven locations up and down the eastern seaboard and Colorado through the first two months of each year. It’s been around long enough to take on a feel of tradition, a mecca for those who obsess over the sport.

It comes at precisely the time of year when, unless you happen to pilot an ice breaking barge, the opportunity to immerse yourself in all things angling is most needed. Besidesif they did it in the spring, summer, or fall, no one would come, as they’d all be out fishing.

After elbowing your way through registration—a confused cattle call of oddly-clad men with bushy facial hair and fanny packs triangulating en masse on several wildly patient, cheerful women seated behind a faux wood table—the show proper is laid before you.

A long casting pool takes center stage, running nearly the length of the airplane hanger sized room, providing ample space for casting demonstrations. Arranged around it are booths of varying sizes laden with rods, reels, books, lures, clothing, and loads more arcane miscellanea.

Poster-sized displays are dedicated to artfully designed flies, some seeming no larger than the head of a pin, and depicting entire life cycles of various species, such as caddis flies. Residing next to many of these are the tiers themselves, squinty eyed alphas exuding a carefully cultivated air of wizard-like mystery even as they demonstrate proper technique to gaggles of gawkers.

According to the oracle on the Internet mountain that is Wikipedia, fly fishing got its start around the second century. The core concept hasn’t changed much.

Essentially, an angler casts a lure made to look like an insect—preferably one seasonally and provincially appropriate—into the water and attempts to mimic its behavior, coming across as naturally as possible.

If one does a good job, and a fish happens by and is hungry, an epic battle can ensue. Fly rods are generally neither as stiff nor burly as their spinning counterparts, and the lines are not reeled in after every cast, making even small fish a vigorous opponent. It’s a sport that has drawn many a famous participant, from kings to Benjamin Franklin to CEOs and presidents, and, for a long time, was as much a status symbol as pastime.

Fly fishing is currently undergoing a renaissance (although this show’s attendees skew older, with my best guess at a median age of around 65). Nowadays the sport has developed a broad base: enthusiasts from all walks of life are flailing at the water, particularly in the American West, where trout streams during a hatch can become as crowded as a WalMart chip aisle on game day.

This popularity brings about all manner of disgruntled localism, but also has the benefit, as fly fishing always has, of bringing environmental issues such as clean water and fish conservation to the cultural foreground, spawning organizations like Trout Unlimited.

It has also drawn a heavy following amongst the intelligentsia, for whom the obsessive focus and mental exercise required to put oneself inside the mind of an insect takes on a romantic air, leading to the publishing of thousands of long winded books on the subject. Here, in the convention center, the rapt fascination is reserved for the vivid flies themselves.

“It’s like an 80s haircut!” cackles Page Rogers, inventor of a legendary salt water pattern called the Slim Jim, to which many a coastal angler owes a nod when they brag about the striped bass they’ve bagged, as she finesses some sparkly hair on to a hook.

Grahame Maisey manned a booth of vintage lines and expensive, yet sought after, hand-bent hooks. He laughs when asked how he found himself at the show.

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“It’s my hobby gone awry,” Maisey, who is an energy sustainability consultant, explained. “People are more passionate about this than they are saving the planet.”

Around the corner Ryan McDonald displayed items from his company, Finn Utility, which offers American made boutique accessories.

“Fly fishing is something I grew up with. I have my grandfather’s fly tying kit. It’s the connection,” he said. McDonald worked for major sports apparel companies until he felt a calling to go back to his angling roots.

McDonald is part of a new guard coming up in the sport, prompted by either nostalgia or simply a love of the outdoors and the Zen-like act of repeated cast and retrieving. His is one of many boutique brands offering high quality, hand made equipment.

As with any large gathering of aging men, there is a lot of milling about and harrumphing going on. Beyond the front desk ladies, there are very few women in attendance, though some sit at fly tying booths or lean, bored, against displays. Again, this lack of disparity is regional, not, in my experience, representative of the sport at large.

The current surge in popularity has, just like everything, a lot to do with economics.

Rods, which are now more often made from graphite and fiberglass than the traditional bamboo, can be had for as little, or as much, as one wants to spend.

But once you’ve caught and landed your first fish on the fly, it’s down a rabbit hole of accouterment that runs the gamut from the necessary—a reel and assorted lines such as floating and sinking—to the aspirational, like the aforementioned meticulously hand-crafted split cane bamboo rod or $900 pair of designer waders.

Then there is the simply arcane, such as 20-year-old hand-bent hooks from England that somehow, you have convinced yourself, will help them to con some trout that much better.

Yet fishermen are a wily bunch. As a demographic they’re famous liars and cheapskates, and the fly fishing subdivision is no different, it’s just a little snootier.

And so they flock to the Fly Fishing Show, seeking a deal or hard to find relic of the craft to add to their sprawling collections of gear, knowing as they wheel and deal that such an item is worth as much for the bragging rights as it is coercing a hapless fish to take a swipe.

There is no shortage of colorful characters in attendance.

Frumpy old farts with stained khakis and rumpled, sweat stained pastel dress shirts discuss the relative benefits of wader design with dapper chaps in tweed who look as though they just popped in from safari.

Two hippy bros with cargo pants and tie dyes haggle over a mummified deer tail (to be used as fly tying material) with a severe behemoth of a man bearing the facial hair equivalent of an exploded grizzly bear, looking like he hopped off tour with his Norwegian death metal band just moments before.

Your run-of-the-mill outdoorsy dude in head-to-toe Patagonia gear compares rod flex with a bespoke-suited yuppie whose gold watch alone could be traded at any time for a hunk of land the size of Rhode Island.

Above all else, fly fishing, while it holds itself haughtily above other forms of attempted fish-catching, is, to the initiated, an equalizer.

Many sports can boast that their fans become as one in the heat of the moment, but that sense of camaraderie fades as quickly as the emotional upheaval of victory or defeat—once they take to the parking lots and step back into their lives, the connection is lost.

But with the singular obsessiveness of angling addicts coupled with the subculture’s breadth of output—from magazines, movies, and books to art and, of course, merchandise—the connection formed by something so seemingly simple, the theatrical embodiment of an insect, can cast aside caste and race and societal preconceptions.

In this pursuit, all are of equal merit—the trout doesn’t care about the individual that rises from the rubber boots it sees breaking the flow of the stream, and as such, such a thing doesn’t matter to anyone involved.

And that’s why, at the end of the day, we don’t mind the stench of old men, or the entitled elbowing of hurried people who are used to spending long stretches of time alone with just their thoughts and, hopefully, a fish or two. While the rest of the world is falling apart, this is something we can all understand, more and more a rarity these days. Is it ridiculous, that something so seemingly trivial could transcend stereotypes and norms? Maybe. But it’s also kind of beautiful.

At his accessories stall, Ryan McDonald tells me he still sees his grandfather who introduced him to the sport. He is in his 90s now. “Afterwards,” McDonald says, “I get a little emotional, go into the basement, open a bottle of wine, and tie some flies.”