Fly Fishing's unwritten rules: That's Cheating
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Fly fishermen have been splitting hairs over the “proper” way to fly fish for over a century. Some claim as long as you’re within the legal guidelines, all is fair game. While technically this may be true, other camps of anglers see certain techniques as “cheating”. Whether it’s; too easy, too new age, or too simple, each camp seems to have justifications for their opinions.
A few summers ago, my fishing partner Ty and I were out braving the heat on one of our local spring creeks. The hatch had came and went, and with the whole afternoon in front of us and no desire to head home yet, we packed our rods and hiked downstream to explore a section of water we’d never seen before. Our hope was to find a secluded rifle or run we could return to at a future date. Instead, as we rounded a bend and bushwhacked our way down to the stream, we came across a man who was more than enthusiastic about sharing his “trout fishing recipe for success”.
Before we could turn invisible and vanish back into the woods, he started educating us on the proper technique for threading corn kernels onto a size 12 hook, and how to cast without losing them to gravity. After his “tutorial”, he looked at us with eyes lit up and a wide grin on his face as to ask if we were blown away by his “game changing” technique. I couldn't put into words what I was feeling, and knew he wouldn't want to hear them even if I could. Instead, I blanked. I wanted to continue wading down stream, but a personality characteristic of mine is to act like I’m interested when people are talking. Don’t get me wrong, most of the time I genuinely am. This... this was not one of those times.
The fly fishing spirits must’ve been looking out for us, because after a long 15 minutes of being shown the “secrets to success”, the guy’s beer drinking buddies pulled up. Some were in the cab and others in the bed of the truck, and they all piled out at the same time laughing and shouting like they had just arrived at their high school senior party. I’ve been known to join in on that type of parade in the past, but that day I was thankful for the smokescreen they created that allowed Ty and I to sneak off further downstream.
To me, corn on a hook is cheating.... most of the time. I’ll get back to the corn debate in a minute. The truth is, all of us, whether we know it and or admit it, have a line that if crossed, we consider “cheating”. I believe this comes from our human nature to experience a challenge. A challenge that’s enough to keep us busy for a while, but not so much that we get skunked every time we go out. This varies for all fishermen, and I think most of it depends on your personality and the true “why” behind your fly fishing.
If your true “why” is catching fish, maybe you view fewer things as "cheating” than would someone whose why is to "do it the right way and let the chips fall as they may”. If your true “why” is to enjoy the great outdoors and catching fish is secondary, maybe you only use techniques that allow for simplicity and eliminate the time consuming habit of obsessively changing flies and adjusting tippet. (If this is you, check out our Tenkara page)
I’ll try to refrain from pushing my personal opinions, but I have to admit, I’ve been on the water with anglers around me engaging in what I would consider “cheating”, and discreetly turned to my fishing partner, or at least whispered under my breath, something like: “look at those yeahoos with their [fill in the blank]. They might as well fish with a bobber and worm.” Judge me all you want, I’m just being honest.
Back to the corn debate. On a fishing trip last summer, we stayed at a campground that's right next to one of our favorite streams. When I say right next to, I mean I’ve caught rising fish within smelling distance of the morning’s sizzling bacon. We woke up the first morning to the shouting of three boys who’s tone gave away the seriousness of their mission. You know, the: “Follow me!” "I think I see one!” enthusiastic commands that only kids can perfect. Throwing off our blankets and stepping outside, we saw three 10 yr old boys with no shoes or shirts on, “sneaking” along the stream bank. One barking orders of strategy, one holding a tree limb with fishing line and a hook tied to the end of it, and one with a bucket of……...you guessed it, corn.
It didn't take long to see their plan was to lure fish to the area by dumping the contents of the bucket into their “honey hole”, and hope the trout would key in on that one kernel attached to their improvised rod. I didn’t say it out loud, but I’ll admit, the, “look at those yeahoos” thoughts stirred in my head.
After a little teamwork, loads of determination, and a pinch of luck, they ended up hooking one. The trout wasn’t even to the bank yet, but they could already picture the look on the adult’s faces as they would march back to their campsite and be deemed trout heroes for the day. If you were to look up the definition fun in the dictionary (do they still have those?), you would find a picture of the smile on their faces right next to it.
With their mission completed, the trout troops swaggered back to their camp to show off their prize.
As the silence that can only be found next to a small spring creek returned, I sat down at our picnic table to fuss with tackle and wait for the coffee to brew. While repairing some boogered up leaders and tying on new tippet, my thoughts kept returning to those kids. I don’t know if they were "cheating”? (Hell I'm pretty sure what they were doing isn’t even legal), but what I do know is that I saw them having fun. They were on an adventure, taking on a challenge, doing it their own way.
When it comes right down to it, I believe the real “why” for most has to do with that little kid inside each of us. Our own version of adventure, challenge, and especially...... fun.