STEAMBOAT, Ore. -- The people who fly-fish have long felt that the demands of the long rod set them on a truer path to that confusing mix of blood lust and spiritual quest that is steelhead angling than those mere flingers of bait and lures.
Here on the North Umpqua River, one of the ancient and holy sites of fly-fishing for steelhead in Oregon, there has developed a rift within that exclusive congregation bordering on religious schism.
Like all good religious rifts, this one is based on what, to non-believers, appears to be a rather insignificant part of the ritual -- whether or not you put extra weight on the fly to make it sink.
But within that tactical decision rests the very heart and art of the sport: If you weight the fly to take it down to the fish, rather than enticing the fish to the surface to take the fly, are you really fly-fishing?
Pressed by conservation-minded fly fishers, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife decided last year that on this river -- Oregon's first to be designated fly-fishing only in 1952 -- you are not.
Norman Mclean, in ''A River Runs Through it,'' expresses the position of true believers, when he declares that in his family, fly-fishing bordered on religion, and that his father held that no one who did not know HOW to catch a fish should disgrace a fish by catching it.
''A lot of people call us elitists. I'm not an elitist. You respect the art of fly-fishing,'' said Frank Moore, who at 80 still climbs the steep banks of the North Umpqua, as he has since 1946, deftly presenting his fly and making it look easy to entice a 10-pound fish to rise from the depths by dancing a little deer-hair muddler across the crest of a riffle.
After fighting across France in World War II, Moore came here and built the Steamboat Inn, raised a family, served on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, and patterned his proposal outlawing weighted flies on regulations protecting Atlantic salmon in Canada.
''I think we should use a method that gives the fish some protection,'' said Moore.
Moore has been an unflagging champion of these steelhead, fighting the U.S. Forest Service over logging that sends choking silt into spawning beds and pushing the Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt some of the most restrictive fly fishing regulations in the country.
But the weighted-fly debate mirrors conflicts repeated all over sport -- innovation pulling against tradition: Snowboarders vs. skiers, mountain bikers vs. hikers, snowmobilers vs. cross-country skiers.
Dave Hickson, who as a young California trout bum in the 1970s brought weighted fly fishing for steelhead to the North Umpqua with his buddy Dean Schubert, said, ''Fishing is about going out and challenging yourself to find new techniques, making yourself better.''
He had sharp words for those pushing rules governing technique: ''It's sort of like the Taliban of fishing. They want to dictate it.''
Purists dismiss the use of weighted flies underneath floating strike indicators as ''bobber fishing.''
But Schubert, a former Orvis fly fishing instructor, argues there is no more demanding fly-fishing technique, from casting to controlling the line to presenting the fly underwater.
For Schubert, as long as you are using a fly rod, fly line and fly, you are fly-fishing. He would no sooner tell another fisherman how to fish than he would tell another artist how to paint.
''You are under the assumption that I am out here to please you,'' he said of his critics. ''I'm not. I'm out here to please myself.''
The increasing numbers of people flyfishing -- grumblers blame the movie version of ''A River Runs Through It'' -- have been good for business for Blue Heron Fly Shop owner Joe Howell, but the changing face of fly-fishing has been breaking his heart.
''It's changed from people who fished all over the world for everything from tarpon to Atlantic salmon and several steelhead rivers to yuppie types who got bored with tennis and golf and thought they'd try this,'' Howell lamented. ''I just want all these people to go back to their golf courses and tennis courts.
''It's supposed to be about the love of the river.''
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