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To weight or not to weight, that is the question splitting fly fishers

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2001

STEAMBOAT, Ore. (AP) -- 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 nonbelievers, 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 fishermen, 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. He declared 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.

''I love this river. It's been my life,'' Moore said.

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.''

Fly-fishing rules took centuries to solidify, and the etiquette can vary river to river. Izaak Walton himself, in the 1653 tome ''The Compleat Angler,'' was not above using worms to catch Atlantic salmon.

By the late 1800s, fly fishing was taking form in southern England as the province of the tweedy upper classes, whose exclusive clubs owned their own streams and dictated that the only proper way to fish was to present a dry fly upstream to a rising fish.

But when dry-fly purist Frederick Halford published his 1889 treatise, ''Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice,'' George Edward McKenzie Skues was beginning to fish nymphs -- flies imitating the early lifeforms of mayflies -- underwater, where trout do most of their feeding.

To settle things, The Flyfisher's Club held a debate in 1938 between Halford and Skues on the ethics of fishing nymphs. The dry fly remains the highest calling of the fly fisher's art, but the effectiveness of nymphing has spread it throughout the world.

When Western writer and gentleman sportsman Zane Grey proclaimed the North Umpqua the premier fishing river in America in a 1935 article in Sports Afield magazine, he was basing his pronouncement on the British tradition of Atlantic salmon fishing -- casting down and across with an unweighted fly on a floating line and allowing it to swing back across the current.

Grey landed 64 fish the summer of 1934, and his son, Loren, 100. Still, the author wrote, ''It was the steelhead I raised and could not hook, and those that I hooked and could not land, which counted.''

But there was a dark side to Grey's tradition. He was not above posting local toughs to keep others from fishing his favorite pools.

Purists dismiss the use of weighted flies underneath floating strike indicators as ''bobber fishing.''

But Dean Schubert, Hickson's old fishing buddy, 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 fly fishing -- 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.

Unlike the newcomers coming out of fly-fishing schools, Howell learned to fly fish as a kid nearly 50 years ago when he ran into a white-haired stranger on the river. Howell's dad was a log truck driver, and Joe would fish with a spinning rod, a bubble and a fly until 4 p.m., when he had better be on time for his dad to pick him up, or spend the night out in the cold.

But one day this old man -- Howell never learned his name -- showed the kid how to cast a fly rod, and Howell's life course was set.

Howell agrees that the steelhead that spend the summer in the North Umpqua need protection against being caught so often that they may die before spawning. But he doesn't like the fact that the rules take away using weighted nymphs for steelhead in the winter and trout in the spring, when water levels are higher and people are fewer. That difference has driven a wedge between himself and Moore.

''We all want what we want because we want it,'' Howell said.

Even when weighted flies were legal, Howell never fished one under an indicator. For him, it takes away the fluid pleasure of casting and the supreme moment of the grab -- when a fish comes from out of nowhere to take the fly and go darting downriver, peeling line from a screaming fly reel and leaving the fisherman's heart thumping, hands shaking and knees feeling kind of sleepy.

That moment is lost watching an indicator, but keenly felt fishing a fly on a tight line swinging across the current, in the Atlantic salmon style.

He has also seen too many weighted fly fishermen tying up a hole for hours on end, ignorant of the etiquette of fishing through and moving on.

''People were no longer satisfied with one, two or three steelhead in a day. They had to hook 10, 12, 16,'' he said. ''If I cared about numbers, I'd be a bait fisherman.

''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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