Is landing a fish all that important?

It’s Groundhog Day and lately, my thoughts have steadfastly turned to flyfishing.

Of course, winter is only about half over, and more cold and snow are sure to come, but subtle climatic changes of late suggest the slightest weakening in winter’s grip on the surrounding landscape.

For example, sunny days are notably brighter than those of just last month, and daylight lingers a bit longer every evening. Many of the lower south- and west-facing slopes are now only thinly veiled in snow, and the thick layers of ice, which have virtually sealed area rivers and streams for months, are slowly receding. The signs, though tenuous they may be, are unmistakable, and in a few more weeks, a variety of waters should be open and fishable.

Indeed, some rivers almost unfailingly accommodate flyfishers, even through all but the worst of winter’s fury. Tailwater rivers, or those flowing from dams, like the San Juan below Navajo Lake, the Gunnison Gorge near Hotchkiss, and the Frying Pan near Basalt, are renowned year-round trout fisheries, and I’ve managed to pull several nice fish from their icy waters over the years. Their regulated flows are predictably consistent, water temperatures fluctuate but a few degrees season to season, and conditions overall, afford exceptional habitat allowing for the production, survival, and reproduction of large healthy trout.

But as idyllic as the tailwaters seem, they are too popular with today’s wide-ranging angling public. As the human populations of mountain-state cities continually swell, even the more distant watercourses draw large crowds nearly every month of the year. With viable space typically at a premium, fierce competition quickly develops, tempers ultimately flare, and disturbing conflicts inevitably arise. At once, one’s “angling” experience can be reduced to something more akin to combat than a satisfying day outdoors.

As with any lifelong ambition, flyfishing becomes a way of life for those who pursue it seriously. Its almost overwhelming complexity commonly effects a course of evolution through which most aficionados pass, before settling on a particular interest or specific style that best suits them personally.

As for me, I first took up flyfishing shortly after moving to Colorado, and immediately devoted every possible moment to perfecting technique. I lived on the Eagle River then, and while working nights, fished from dawn ‘til dusk nearly every day.

At first, I just wanted to catch a trout on a fly. Then, I hoped to catch every one in the river, and for awhile, I would only take fish on flies I tied. At some point, I worked to refine my tailwater skills, in order that I might land the largest river fish available. But in time, I realized that size and number were really unimportant, and that bringing wild trout up to dry flies was all that mattered. Today, however, while I still prefer fooling fish with classic dry-fly patterns, I am willing to employ a wet fly or nymph from time to time, provided I do so, while incorporating them with the use of a traditional bamboo fly rod and raised-pillar reel.

I don’t mean to sound pretentious in view of those preferring other methods or equipment, nor am I suggesting I’ve figured anything out that others probably haven’t. But as I look back over 30 years of innumerable and glorious, if not incredibly diverse, flyfishing experiences, I find the ongoing progression of angling as it relates to my own way of life at least mildly amusing.

And, without a doubt, it’s not over yet.

For instance, in recent years I’ve often wondered if catching a fish is really that important at all. Now, it seems, on virtually every occasion I am more content with basking in the entire experience, rather than strictly immersing myself in the course of fishing, as in days past. The chosen venue for a particular foray — usually with inherent solitude and magnificent scenery, lavish vegetation, and abundant wildlife — is most pivotal, while the fishing has become more an excuse to go, rather than the sole reason for being there. I can say this with some confidence, because on outings that might span eight hours or more, I may actually fish only two or three, while the number or size of fish taken invariably holds little relevance to the level of fulfillment achieved.

Of course, I can’t deny the feeling of instant gratification that still comes from hooking and landing a nice fish now and again, but over time, I’ve managed to solve most of the mysteries involving procedure. For me, the real challenge lies in actually fooling a fish and invoking a strike, particularly when little or no natural insect activity is apparent, and few outward signs suggest the presence of feeding trout.

Once accomplished though, and a fish is on, any elation quickly turns to concern for its well-being, and an immediate and gentle release becomes paramount. Conventional wisdom suggests that if a fish is freed in good physical condition, there has been no harm, and therefore, no foul. But some are now questioning the morality of catching a fish at all, if it’s only to be let go “unharmed.” With that in mind, I now grapple with another concept that, once again, may revolutionize my fishing.

In light of modern “political correctness” and mounting pressure from various special interest groups, including anti-hunters and animal rights advocates, some seasoned anglers have turned to fishing with “hookless” flies. Granted, the idea is somewhat bizarre, but it does allow the perpetuation of “challenging” fish, without subjecting them to potential injury, physical or otherwise. In fact, I’ve fished with barbless flies for decades, and this might just be the next step in my own evolutionary process.

Fortunately, there is ample time to consider such potentially life-altering choices, because, as I’ve said, the availability of a variety of fishable waters is still weeks away.

Besides, neither I or any of my fly-tying friends have successfully fabricated a viable, hookless dry fly that effectively floats upright. To date, we’ve only experimented with conventional flies, after snipping the hook off at the end of the shank, near the bend. Sometimes they float properly, and sometimes they don’t.

Though the solution likely involves weight redistribution to account for the lack of a significant portion of the hook, it is an interesting problem that may define the dawn of a new angling technique … or not. Time will tell.