The Last Word


It strikes me that fly fishing, as a field sport, is alone in one very important respect, the fly angler doesn’t actually have control over the outcome.

Should you go hunting with a rifle, and with sufficient practise you are able to make your shot, the vagaries of wind, distance, muzzle velocity and such all carefully calculated then once the bullet leaves the barrel the demise of your target is assured. No matter how perfect your presentation of the fly might be, success is never guaranteed.  Fly fishing can be a humbling experience, in a world where we control so much, the fly angler lives in a space where control of the outcome has to be let go, because it isn’t within the sphere of our control.


Certainly other field sports put demands on the participants, you may have to ride a horse or stalk your prey, study the behaviour of your quarry and spend endless hours reloading or target shooting, but in the end, the final moment you make the decision. You pull the trigger and it is all over, your quarry doesn’t know a thing about it.

Even with bait fishing one might argue that the fish makes a decision but then that choice is a little bit fudged because you are offering up something that is at least eminently edible, even though it might disguise a carefully hidden hook.

With fly fishing you don’t have that advantage; the fly is quintessentially not edible, no matter the pains to which you go to make it look so. It doesn’t have the taste or feel of food, and the fish has to make a mistake. It has to choose to eat the fly and therefore, for all our machinations, plans and preparations the final moment of truth lies not with you but with the fish.

I would suggest that this above all else is what makes fly fishing far more of an intellectual pursuit than a mechanical one. Certainly being able to cast well helps, the ability to tie suitable knots in reasonable time, to read the water, to recognise the hatches, they all contribute to one’s success or lack thereof but you don’t ever have the last word. The fish always has the final say and that puts us all in a rather uncomfortable position, we can only ever attempt to outwit our prey, beyond that things are pretty much in the hands of the Gods.


Personally I suspect that this is why fly fishing tends to attract a rather thoughtful and intellectual band of followers. Not to say that one form of sport is superior to another, simply that with fly fishing you have to think about what you are doing and not simply do it.

Over decades of fly fishing I have met fly anglers from all over the world, people from completely different walks of life, with different educations and various philosophies on virtually any aspect of the human psyche that you might care to mention. Religious, Atheist, Republican, Democrat, professorial or pragmatic, taxi drivers, plumbers, business executives, Lords, Ladies and rock stars.  But always amongst the best of them there is a golden thread, they all spend a lot of time thinking about fly fishing and all have remarkably enquiring minds which are rarely still.


They have learned that, as one never has final control of the outcome, it behoves us all to control that which we can. So hours are spent reading, discussing, pontificating and analysing, everything is checked, rechecked and questioned. There are no rules for the best anglers, there are just guidelines, certainly over the course of time there are certain aspects of our sport that are pretty well defined but even then occasionally things that aren’t supposed to work do. Whilst avoiding drag on the fly is pretty much accepted as a necessity there are those days when swinging wet flies downstream is the ticket to success.

Matching the hatch can be effective but just now and then chucking out something far too large or completely different will result in a take when the best imitations of what the fish are consuming have failed to illicit a response.

You have to take the rough with the smooth, in the end the fish has the final say not you.

Good anglers will change flies when they are not working, but very good anglers change flies even when they are working. They are constantly looking for that edge, “if this one works maybe something else will work better”.  They lengthen leaders, adjust the diameter of the tippet and fiddle about until something works. Good anglers do what their fellows are finding successful but great anglers, at least some of the time, will do the opposite just to see what happens.

There is a thought process to fly fishing, an intellectual ping-pong game inside the heads of fly anglers that I suspect is primarily driven by the fact that we don’t hold all the cards and never will. It might well be expected then, that the fish that outwit us, those that refuse our best efforts and scoff at our imitations with a derisory flip of a pectoral fin are in fact the ones which we remember most clearly. At least for me that is most certainly the case and they haunt my memories in glorious Technicolor whilst the thousands deceived are but flickering and out of focus images fading to sepia in the photo album of my mind.

It’s not fun to be made a fool of by a cold blooded beasty (pretty though they are) with a brain the size of  pea, but I suppose that in the end the very fact that we sometimes fail is indeed the reason that fly fishing begets such passion. It would be dreadful if they all gave in too easily.


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2 Responses to “The Last Word”

  1. M Says:

    Reblogged this on A FRESH START and commented:
    Excellent article

  2. What’s Luck Got To Do With It? | The Fishing Gene Says:

    […] The Fly Fishing Blog « The Last Word […]

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