Vested Interests

by Bob Scammell, Canadian Fly Fishing Editor

A fishing vest is a sleeveless garment with mazes of pockets and pouches in which fly fisherman can hopelessly misplace the multitudes of items they do not need anyway. It was one of the early inventions of the young Lee Wulff, who died in 1991. Several years before he died I had the opportunity to thank the great one himself, not only because of the way the vest permits the fly fisherman to keep both hands free, but because we sociologists of angling can tell more than we really need to know about a person from the kind of vest he has, its condition, and what he loses in those pockets.

It is an industry secret that all fishing vests are made by a single anti-fishing misanthrope in Hong Kong. The vests are then shipped to the u.s.a., where the label is put on and the price tripled before they are shipped hither and yon, even to Japan. It is only a matter of time until the label inside the collar will be replaced by the big manufacturer’s logo on the back of every vest. Yuppie perfection will be attained when every wearer is obliged to advertise precisely who it is imported this ridiculous garment.

Just for starters, almost every fishing vest you see is made of such shiny, almost white cloth, that it is one of the better fish repellents, ranking with those clunking stream cleats and the white, “Tilley” hat. Should you accidentally stumble upon a human wearing a camouflage vest and hat, blended into the underbrush and impersonating an old stump, beware! Check your location! You have either bumped into the late Charlie Brooks, West Yellowstone angling author of consummate skill and cunning, or you have stumbled upon the rare, canny old veteran still among us here on terra firma who has the money to get his vests custom made, or the time to get them artfully aged, faded and soiled in camouflage like patches.

All fishing vests that have been worn even once will be heavily soiled in the vicinity of one particular pocket: the one used to store the fly dope (not the insect repellent) the dry fly floatant. Fly floatant illustrates the prime principle of marketing to fly fisherman: take a common substance the world produces in abundance, divide it up into minuscule quantities, give it a dumb name (“fink” for example” multiply its price a thousand fold and sell it like hot ... no ... like dope to addicts. Better yet, sell it in a container cunningly designed to leak under all conditions and positions and you will sell even more of it. All of the technology of the industry is now concentrated on the tendency of some floatants to solidify below 95 degrees F. If they could make it remain liquid and leaking day and night, profits would double or triple.

Should you encounter a stream any human wearing a fishing vest without the filthy stain on that one pocket, he is either a land surveyor, a timber cruiser or the only non purist in the world who does not either fish only the dry fly, or claim to. In this latter case, the whole vest may be full of fly sinkant, another dumb name, noxious substance, (“Dunk” or “Dink”) divided, subdivided, priced multiplied, etc. as with floatant, but for some reason the manufacturers have not yet perfected a container that will faithfully and reliably leak sinkant.

Small quantities of substances more expensive per ounce even than single malt whiskey, both to make floating flies sink and sinking flies float will be lost somewhere in virtually every vest worn by any fisherman. But that fact in no way exhausts the propensity of fly fishermen to guzzle snake oil. A caution: to blame the manufacturers and dealers would be as unjust as to blame the snake for the product rendered from its mortal remains. Caveat emptor! of yourself! Exhibit “A”, somewhere, in a growing number of fishing vests, will be a tiny container of a new wonder substance to take the shine off a new leader and, also, to make floating flies sink. Its dumb name? “Mud.” Something found in natural abundance and free along every trout stream I have ever frequented anywhere in the world. My case against the dope trade to fly dopes and other substance abusers not only rests, it is prostrate.

The sociologist neither experienced with anglers nor, God forbid, one himself, could be forgiven for expecting that somewhere in any fly fisherman’s vest there will be two flies: one floating fly so the owner can buy sinkant, yea, even Mud, and one sinking fly so the owner can properly develop the stain on that one pocket of the vest, the badge of the Fink addict. You can rest assured that any native fly fisher will have two flies. There will be one on the leader, as local wisdom insists that the best lure for Rocky Mountain Whitefish is a wet fly “sweetened” by a maggot. There will be a second fly somewhere in that vest, tackle box or creel in case the first is lost. If the second is lost? No problem, the nearest Bait and Jig Boutique is only $5 worth or gas away and they sell Japanese wet flies for 29 cents. But if what we have is a real, unsweetened fly fisherman, there will be hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of flies in boxes and bottles everywhere in that vest.

All those flies are tickets to gamble against the “theory of selectivity,” invented by outdoors writers, a game with more combinations and permutations than Lotto 6/49. These writers credit the trout with the palate of a professional wine taster, the eyesight of a bonefish guide and the intelligence of an Einstein. For a long while I believed that the writers produced this tripe because the quarry would not be worthy of the fishing, or the writing about it, if not imbued with super-human qualities. But gradually, as I get to know more and more angling writers, I have come, sadly, to suspect the theory of selectivity may have something to do with the simple fact that so many of them are also in the business of peddling fly dope and flies, or, worse, books on aquatic entomology.

In my “slush” pile, I have a superb article called “The Petit Jury,” in which I argue that a “jury” or only six fly patterns will cover any angler for better than 90 percent. of all the conditions he will encounter on any water in North America. Proudly, I once told a writer, tackle dealer friend about this article. When he recovered consciousness, he excused himself to make a few phone calls. This article, somehow, has never been published, but has earned me in “kill fees” ten times what it would bring if ever printed, even in one of the “big three” of the hook and bullet press. The article is like a banking card: any time I’m broke, I stick it in the slot, sometimes to a publisher who has already paid me “kill fees” for it. No matter, back it comes with a kill fee. I wonder who my writer, dealer friend had to phone so badly that he had to do it even after being so suddenly sick like that? My final word on the millions of flies in the vest of a real fly fisherman is this: fly fishing itself is founded on the capacity for self delusion of a beautiful, wild creature with a brain the size of a pea; the fly fishing “industry” is based likewise on the similar capacity of the beautiful dopes addicted to fly fishing.

The vest of any real fly fisherman will likely contain more glassine envelopes than a dope-peddler’s stash, but these will contain leaders; there will also be dozens of tiny spools of material to construct sill more leaders. Leaders and their design are subjects fraught with more depressing formulae and schools of thought than nuclear physics. There is the very rare school that believes most trout just do not care, that therefore the best squeeze through the eye of the hook. But there is a warning : if you spot a person astream who appears to be pulling cobwebs from the sky, rolling them up and measuring thin air with a $600 micrometer, and muttering darkly in mathematics, take my advice and leave. This person is of the psychopathic school of leader design, which believes if it is strong enough to hold any fish, then it is too thick to fool him in the first place. These maniacs strive always for the longest, strongest, thinnest leader, and are revolted by the very feel of trout in the hand; thus, they never have use for net or creel as they specialize in the thirty foot release.

There will probably be no room in that vest to lose anything else, after dope, leaders, tippets and flies are stowed. Researchers will then have to study what is hung on the vest and about the person of the subject. If there is a thermometer prominently displayed, for example, what you have is a person who does not even know the best time to go fishing is when the boss or Herself says he can go. Most people who own water thermometers either do not know how to use them, or cannot remember the best temperature ranges for the various species of trout. You should always let your fly, leader and line trail downstream as you knell for the minute or so necessary to get a reading. If you get a fish on that dragging fly, it is definitely the right time to go fishing. If you do not get a thermometer fish, you can carry on fishing against all odds, or you can use your thermometer to see if it is time to drink the beer yet.

There may be a set of forceps clipped onto some protuberance of the vest. This device is an ambiguous sign. It can mean that the wearer fully intends to release the fish should he ever manage to catch one. On the other hand, he could be a lost urologist, and you should back up against the nearest cliff and clap your hands over your privates. If the forceps are distinguished by that dull sheen, that patina of heavy use, it means only that this is one of those boneheads who habitually fishes in the company of his bird dog and that bonehead is back in the bush looking for yet another porcupine to eat, so his master can ply those forceps once again: pulling quills.

Other ambiguous signs are the presence or absence of nets and creels, both of which have become controversial since catch and release became politically correct. Clearly, the old fashioned wicker creel is passé, the only purpose of such an antique being as obvious as that of the crematoria at Dachau. Some people can get away with a small canvas creel. If challenged, the owner will swear he only uses it to carry out the litter abandoned by other anglers. Even much beloved Charlie Brooks was held in suspicion in some quarters because he favoured a huge canvas water bag with the top cut off and a shoulder strap added. One day I went on a safari with Charlie to the third Barn Hole on the Madison and recalled, after I regained consciousness, that he could transport and cool en route in the desert no less than a flat “24” of what it was he carried in that creel. Dimly I recall Charlie saying: “If you can carry them out empty, you can carry them in full.” But then, Charlie never could be serious about equipment, or a cliché.

Nets are optional. Strangely, the most crazed fish releasers who completely reject creels find nets acceptable, especially if they are very tiny, hand sculpted and cost more than a Van Gogh original. If the reason given for wearing one of these things is that it makes it easier to release fish, you know you are talking to a very modern fly fisherman. Those cheap aluminum nets hung from a rubber cord around the neck are out, for a very practical reason: if you look closely at habitual users, they will have no front teeth, the result of having turned around to see where the net was tangled in the bush just as it wasn’t anymore. That, and not to release fish, is the reason such persons now carry the lethal thing stuffed down the waders.

Actually, while in England for the World Fly Fishing Championship, I learned to favour those marvelous Norwegian folding nets that the British have to conjure like a silk hanky from the sleeve of their tweed jackets, because the Brits do not favour fishing vests at all. With the extension handle of these folders, they can net any fish out there at the farthest end of their cast that is even thinking about taking their fly.

Certainly you will hear no British angler going on about the use of these nets in releasing fish, a practice they regarded as bad form and even a tad vulgar, like breaking wind anywhere, let alone in your own waders, which is why the Brits don’t wear them much, either. But then you do not need to judge British anglers by what they wear or use, they all have to be upper class, or at least stinking rich to be fishing in the first place.

From Bob Scammell's excellent book Good Old Guys, Alibis and Outright Lies.