Taboos, Piracy, and Dry Fly Purists

What’s happening to the unwritten dry-fly code of conduct?

by Derek Bird  (illustration by Diane Michelin)

Unless you wear an eye patch when you fly fish or you consistently poach another angler’s water, I don’t think fly fishing and piracy have very much in common. We brandish rods, reels and lines; whereas, the pirates of yore drew swords and muskets. A fly fisher’s purpose is to catch fish, but a pirate’s purpose is to capture loot. Maybe all we have in common is that we each share a code, that in the words of Captain Barbossa is “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules…”

When I speak of the code, I’m not referring to angler ethics pertaining to the way we handle fish or the way we treat others when we’re out on the water. The code has more to do with an unwritten set of “guidelines” that are not made apparent until somebody has broken one. A new angler can’t grab a copy like they would a magazine from the shelf or download them like new regulations. The guidelines exist only in the minds of seasoned fly fishers, like a secret knock allowing club members entrance to a childhood fort. They’re waiting to be stumbled upon by the unsuspecting soul who reaches for a nymph on a trout stream in July or grabs an egg pattern in November (or any month).

Though the code applies to areas beyond flies, possibly the most guarded portion of the code relates to the status of the dry-fly method—ironically right at the top of the list. Its position is so sacred, with so many taboo traps surrounding it that I must tread extremely carefully here. The mere mention of presenting a #16 Blue-Winged Olive imitation on 6x tippet creates a particular angler hubris. So before I go on to discuss a taboo topic let me state that I’m fully aware of two concepts. First, I firmly believe that dry-fly fishing is the most enjoyable way to catch a trout. And second, I realize the word taboo’arrived in the English language by way of Captain Cook after a tour in the South Pacific, where he encountered a group of people who had a number of tapu foods and rituals, and to partake in any way could have negative affects on such activities as hunting and…fishing. This fact is not lost on me specifically as the new year approaches. But back to the taboos surrounding dry flies (I’ll stick with entomology not etymology).

I grew up in a place and time where many anglers considered dry-fly fishing for trout to be the only way to catch a trout, especially during the summer months. But recently, I’ve noticed a shift away from that particular mentality. More and more anglers I meet share a “use what the fish are feeding on” mentality, which makes me wonder if this has marginalized the dry-fly purist’s voice. If this is true a number of contributing factors are likely fostering the shift.

Presumably, the most prevalent cause has to do with a change in general culture which in turn affected our niche fly-fishing culture. More specifically, because media no longer primarily functions under the watch of the gatekeeper, more content reaches the general consumer, and the herd mentality declines.YouTube, for example, provides a platform for anyone to create/share a message and then the population determines what’s important or entertaining. I realize I’ve simplified the matter, but for sake of speaking about fly fishing rather than social media, I feel justified.

So how does this affect the person with a fly rod? He or she unintentionally cares very little about what the purist thinks. The purist is happy doing what he’s doing during the summer and early autumn, while the other anglers are happy to offer trout what they’re feeding on at each stage of the season. If the fish are feeding on dries, then the anglers throw dries, but if the trout are not into dries, then the anglers are not adverse to going subsurface, regardless of season or scorn.

As a product of my fly-fishing generation, I subscribed to the “if they don’t want dries, they can do without” belief. But a particular circumstance a few years ago hijacked this conviction, and now I’m less rigid about always adhering to the code.

It happened when a friend and I fished together on a small Rocky Mountain stream. In one run we spotted a particularly large trout and we decided we’d each take a turn trying to catch it. Because of his age, my friend, who I’ll refer to as Collin, cast to the trout first and brought him up on a #14 Parachute Adams. Collin, though an extremely seasoned angler, set the hook too soon and barely touched the trout’s mouth. He reeled up and then I took my turn. I drifted a tan #14 Elk Hair Caddis right over the large trout. To my surprise, it came up again, and I also pulled too soon, touched him on the lip, but missed a good hook set, and back down it went. Hope overwhelmed our knowledge, and both Collin and I took a few more turns without resting the fish. Then on one of Collin’s turns I saw the fish move towards what I initially assumed to be a high visibility post on a parachute mayfly pattern, but then it disappeared without a trout’s mouth breaking the surface. What my mind failed to register is that Collin had fixed sheep’s wool to his leader. He wasn’t casting dries; he’d drifted a nymph. He’d broken the code.

They’d outwitted me—Collin and the trout. I netted his enormous fish and immediately noticed a classic Pheasant Tail Nymph embedded in its jaw. As I handed Collin the net, I said, “You didn’t play fair to get him,” to which Collin simply smiled as he took the net and fish from me.

I thought about this fish quite often after the fact and something just didn’t compute: according to the dry-fly code, Collin was less of an angler for catching the fish with a small nymph under an indicator, but he’s an angler who I deeply respect and who stood there that day holding the largest trout I’d ever seen taken in that particular system.

It didn’t take me long to deconstruct the “summer months equal dry fly only” belief I held so deeply for so many years. I reevaluated what was most important to me at this time in my life when I’m seeking trout. After melting away all the fluff and hype, I was left with two premises: I enjoy the challenge of figuring out what the trout feed on, and I enjoy the fact that I’m out in nature taking part in all that goes on around me. Fly fishing allows me to do this, and catching trout is an essential byproduct of the two.

This concept, mixed with my core belief, grants me the freedom to move beyond the dry-fly box once I’ve exhausted all possibilities. And when it comes to the code, I guess I can say the Madam X used to mark the spot, but now my treasure chest of flies includes more nymphs with gold bead heads than it did before. Am I a dry-fly mutineer? Definitely not—but in certain circumstances my allegiances run deeper than my dry-fly box.