Fly Fishing Minimalism

Last updated on February 8th, 2024.

I caught the fever when I was 12. A teacher lent me some fly fishing magazines, showed me how to tie flies and took me fishing.

We went to a stream near my home in the Adirondacks where the water was dark with tannin and the brookies chased the crude flies that I was learning to tie.

On a typical outing I’d bushwhack into the stream through spruce trees and swamp. I had two flies- a Mickey Finn and a few Zug Bugs. I knew to fish the streamer down and across and look for strikes when the fly reached a seam in the current. Or I cast the Zug Bug up and across letting it ride down stream for a while, rod tip held high. Occasionally I’d see fish sip bugs off the surface which gave me butterflies but I didn’t have any dry flies or know how to fish them. That stream, called Big Brook, became my place, the place I wanted to be more than any other, a place to go in all weather, hot or cold, blackflies be damned. When I wasn’t there I just thought about how I could get back to it.

A brook trout in the water
Fly Fishing Minimalism: Brook Trout

In the decades since then, I realized that, even as my collection of gear and flies grew, my fishing fever cooled. What was the relationship between gear and passion for me?

I looked at my equipment in the basement, each piece an artifact in the museum of my interest. My Pflueger six weight rod bought from Vic in college for a trip to the Beaverkill. My ten weight rod made from a kit for a trip to Nova Scotia. I never hooked any salmon on it but I did catch a striper off East Chop on Martha’s Vineyard, then slipped on a jetty and broke the tip. And there were reels, fly line, a few other rods and so many flies, mostly dries bought a few at a time from the local shop on every trip in exchange for intel on fishing conditions. 

I had fished for decades but I seemed to have less faith in my skills as the year passed, not more. I couldn’t name all the types of dry flies I had and wasn’t that good at fishing them. I didn’t have a home stream that I knew as well as Big Brook. And my fishing friends had reached an age when they were able to spend significant money on thickets of rods and clinking bags of expensive reels filling up the trunks of their cars.

Then came COVID, a time of reflection for me when I thought a lot about fly fishing. I knew I’d lost the passion and I wanted it back. Where had the old joy gone? I looked at my equipment and realized that I suffered from the paradox of choice. All the rods, flies and options that should have made me feel some secure measure of control, just made me feel like I needed more – a different fly, a longer rod, a better location at a different time for my next outing. It was a vacuum of desire that would never be filled. And I realized that I had to get back to how I fished when I was 12 and had no options. It was fly fishing minimalism. I’d get rid of everything and start over.

I thought about how I wanted to fish, how I had first learned to fish. I decided with only one lifetime to learn and not that much of it left, if I wanted to get really good at fishing I needed to focus. I’d fish nymphs for trout with a rod I made and flies I tied. That’s it. That would be my fly fishing experience.

A fly fishing flink attached to a fly rod and detail of the blank: fly fishing minimalism
Fly Fishing Minimalism: Detail of a fly

So I sold my 10 weight rod and most of my flies at a yard sale and gave away my other rods and reels. The vest too, I would never need that many pockets again. Then I ordered a rod kit from Cabela’s and headed into the basement during the worst of COVID. As a wrapped guides and brushed on epoxy, I thought about where and how I’d fish. And I began to get excited again as I pictured how I’d use this four weight, eight foot, six inch rod to cast nymphs. I also tied flies, only nymphs. I tied them over and over until I could tie them well – bead head hares ear, zebra midges and others that looked buggy with bead heads and scrubby wraps of hare’s mask dubbing. I got down to one fly box which meant I could use just one small over-the-shoulder bag containing that box, a few leaders, forceps, weights and a container of strike putty. 

I did splurge on a reel though. I bought a Hardy Ultraclick, an object as finely crafted as a mechanical watch and designed with a minimalist aesthetic suiting my new approach. Every time I wind line onto that beauty, it reminds me that, despite my smug minimalism, I still suffer from an inordinate love of beautifully made objects and I wonder if there might be another Hardy model just right for nymph fishing on a small rod.

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