Where the Lines Are Drawn

by | Aug 2, 2017 | 26 comments

I’m fascinated by the arbitrary lines people create for themselves. Nowhere in life do I see the tendency to define and delineate so strongly as it’s seen in fishermen. Anglers constantly draw lines about how they fish, about what kind of fisherman they are, and more emphatically, what kind of fisherman they are not.

One person fishes only dry flies, but the next fishes dries to rising trout only inside perfectly circular rings. Anything less is simply unsporting, you see. One subgroup fishes nymphs on a tight line only, while the next insists indicators are superior — as long as they aren’t called bobbers, right? The streamer purist is something I never expected to see, and yet here we are. There’s a distinct faction of fishers who insists the only way they get their thrills is by watching a fish eat the fly. Nymphing is too lazy and passive; fishing dries could be fun too, but it’s just so easy …

These extreme opinions aren’t all that common, but I tend to believe there’s a bit of it in all of us.

Thankfully, most of the people I run into these days are the type who say, “I don’t care how other guys fish, but this is what I like, and it’s all cool.” There’s a growing diversity of angler styles and an acceptance of other methods that parallels it. That’s important because the world is getting smaller, and we’re all going to need each other’s cooperation pretty soon.

I’m glad we’re at this point, really. Fly fishing needs to lose the grumpy elitism that hangs around its neck. Shed the weight. Open up and breath a little.

Yet, the irreproachable lines of some anglers that I still encounter defy logic. Last fall I met a guy who rigidly and relentlessly opposed the fishing of nymphs. “It’s no better than fishing bait,” he sneered. He was quite certain his lines were drawn correctly. Everyone else was missing the target. He defiantly told me he fished only dry flies and — get this — streamers. Really??

I rarely poke the bear in moments like these because it accomplishes nothing, but I just couldn’t help myself. After all, my new friend clearly wanted to tell me more, so I asked the question. “Aren’t your streamers pretty much like baitfish imitations?”

“No,” he insisted. “Who knows what they take a streamer for. And nymphing is just like fishing worms.”


“What if I dead drift a streamer then?” I prodded. “Is that OK, or is that just bait fishing too?”

“Same thing,” he said, and walked away.

I’m not so sure the guy had actually thought things through before drawing hard lines and judgments around the labels of bait fishing, nymphing and streamer fishing.

About once a month, someone becomes angry with me for fishing with the Mono Rig and writing about it. That’s not fly fishing, you see, because you’re not using a fly line. Ahhhh, so if I put a bobber and some split shot on a shorter leader and use fly line, then it’s fly fishing again, huh? And if I put an ultra thin plastic coating around some thick monofilament and print “Competition Fly Line” on the box, then am I fly fishing again if I spool that up? (I think comp lines are great, by the way). Where’s the reasonable line to be drawn then? Is it fly fishing because of the specific thickness in the taper of a fly line? Or is it the length of the leader itself? So 19 feet is not fly fishing, but a 17 foot leader is fly fishing? That makes no sense.

People are eager to defend their own fishing positions, so much in fact, they often preemptively shield themselves without being attacked. When it comes up in conversation that I’m an avid fly fisher, some guys quickly tell me they “just fish conventional gear and don’t know how to fly fish.” They often seem shy to admit that they fish bait. My usual reply is that I fished minnows for two decades of my life, and I’ll probably fish minnows again soon. The term fly fisher carries too much baggage, and I often feel I must apologize for that.

There’s constant comparison among some anglers — too much competition. And life could probably be a little happier, easier and freer without it.

Photo by Austin Dando

I have my own lines, of course. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t kill wild trout. So what. I used to, and that history never leaves me. So I keep an open mind toward others who kill their catch.

I guess all these lines and delineations come from human nature to defend the choices we make. Something about a fishing rod in hand seems to amplify this character trait, and some anglers will defend their choices as if they’re unarguably the best.

I suggest to draw your own lines, decide why and how you’ll fish, and figure out what makes you happy out there. But keep an understanding that the lines, the delineations, are yours alone.

Be happy. Be fishy. Have fun.

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


Photo by Austin Dando


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. I could not care less how a person fly fishes for trout, most especially if they release what they catch. I fly fish all methods, probably not great at any of them, but adequate at all of them.

    I can see why an individual would specialize in a certain type of fishing being that is what they have the most confidence in. They may be strapped for time and only have a certain window to fish in so they default to where they think they have the best chances.

    I say to each his own. Whatever gives one the best chance to connect, I am all for it.

  2. Well said! I guess I’m guilty but I don’t want to give up the line I’ve drawn because I think I’m right. My favorite stream is a Class A wild trout stream and I don’t understand why the state allows people to keep and kill the trout. As it’s been said before, “they’re too valuable to catch only once”. All other aspects of fishing I try to accept people the way they are. Am I wrong?

    • I don’t think you are “wrong” to want those wild trout to thrive in your small stream. But I also don’t think the next guy is wrong if he wants to kill his limit and eat some trout. I really don’t. Sure, I WISH that more wild trout streams were catch and release, but the next guy probably wishes the bag limit was still ten fish.

      Like I said above, I think a great solution would be slot limits on wild trout streams.

      As long as wild trout streams don’t get stocked trout on top of them, I’m OK with no regs. I’ve seen that most catch and kill anglers lose interest in an unstocked creek after some time. MOST, I said, Of course not all, and where they do kill a lot of wild tout, it makes for some interesting, challenging fishing, trying to find the big ones that made it.

      Again, I say slot limits are a good answer.

  3. I’m trying to figure out what my ‘lines’ are. I think I’m a militant universalist; I draw the line at fishing with people who live their lives by the Halfordian code. There’s way too much fun to be had out there. What possible harm can come to you by opening up your fly fishing bag of tricks and letting a little sunshine in? Learn something new! Yes, you may look silly for a moment but who cares! We’re too proud by far, we need to laugh at ourselves more.

    Now, having disparaged the High Churcher’s, I must confess I’ve recently had some wonderful moments throwing small dries upstream to rising fish. Great fun but it’s just a piece of our fly fishing DNA, not the whole genome.

    …so I guess that’s my line. Don’t be a militant one trick pony with me and I won’t be a multi-tool zealot with you.

  4. Thanks ! Really great enjoyable stuff.Not fishing much but these keep me sharp and new!

  5. I only fish dry flies to fish rising on the river right bank, under low- hanging willow branches on waning gibbous.

    • Those who can, do. Those who can’t, fish subsurface!

    • I do the same only under ficus tree branches

  6. I live on the eastern cordillera of the Andes in Northern Peru, and I have my Winstons in 4-5-6 weights to keep me company when I go looking for introduced rainbows in the mountain creeks. I am a pretty dedicated dry fly guy, and I’ll fish streamers, too. Nymphs are only for when I really NEED a fish. I draw lines. BUT, I’m headed to the jungle on Wednesday -big trib of the Amazon – and the lodge is strictly cook-your-own food with a pretty limited bodega in the village from which to select your meal choices. So I’m gonna touch my spinning rod for the first time in years, and expect to be using it more than the 6-wt with streamers. This time I’m drawing the lines around meat, not sport. BTW, nice photos in your articles!

    • Sounds like an unforgettable trip, and when you’re fishing for your food – that’s pressure. I just booked a trip to Argentina in January, Patagonia. I’m thrilled.

      • Have a blast. I went to Coyhaique in Chile last January. You bet your bootie I’m goin’ back to Patagonia! It’s freaking awesome!

        • Coyhaique is dynamite!

  7. To each his own, no right or wrong, as long as your “line” is legal and ethical.

    I happen to believe that trout deserve the sanctuary of deep water (Lee Wulff). I just perfer the challenge of hunting/stalking trout at our natural boundary line.

    Regardless of method, do the trout a big favor and crush your barbs.
    Going “barbless” is a WIN(trout)-WIN(angler)-WIN(fly)

  8. Great post and I certainly agree. I am someone always searching for where my lines are but when I look back at my fly fishing “career” the only trend is that my lines seem to always be changing. I can even say that this season alone I went from feeling that fishing to rising fish in the evening was probably my favourite way to fish until I had some incredible mornings tightline nymphing and catching fish out of water I previously ignored. Heck, I even picked up the 8wt, ignored the trout and targeted pike which was a first for me. This sport is as rich and interesting as you make it to be and by simply “pigeonholing” yourself I think you may miss out on other aspects. Of course if you know what you like that’s cool too.

  9. Great post. There’s also a great deal of difference with how much people share in a fishing report. The elders at my local fishing club seem to think a fishing report should contain the stream name, flies, water temps and several other information. I’m one to believe the person providing the report can share as much or little as their comfortable with. There’s also the issue of people trolling the internet for stream locations. I’d love to get your take on this.

  10. The dry/nymph line is real (& severe!), but a new division line emerged awhile back: Fly rod & Tenkara.

  11. I like to think I don’t have lines, but everyone does to varying degrees I guess. For me, the tug is the drug, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get the tug. Because “transitions are hard,” I even carry two rods now, a 3 wt. 10 ft nymph rod with a 30 foot Henns leader for tight lining, and a 9’6″ 5 wt for streamers or dries (I also use the 10 footer to throw dries by quickly swapping out the leader via a trick I learned here. Thanks, Domenick). I tight line most of the time because I catch more fish that way. I must admit to feeling good about ditching the bobber, but that’s not a line! I don’t judge. 🙂

    Lastly, the buddy that showed me the fly fishing ropes is a hard-line dry guy who over the years has given me a raft of shit along the lines you mention, “You may as well be using corn!” However, because I outfish him every time now, he has loosened up and occasionally deviates from his dry-only mantra. See, Domenick? Even old dogs can learn new tricks. 🙂 Begrudgingly.

  12. I appreciate receiving your newsletters. I’m always entertained and/or informed.

    Izaak described what we do as being ‘ the contemplative man’s recreation.’ A most fitting definition. Surely we all feel that way about our pastime.

    But now we have competitive fly fishing tournaments. As do bass fishermen. Big business. What could possibly be contemplative about these activities? They require participants to ‘ fish hard.’

    Your presentation usually signs off with ‘ fish hard ‘ which I find upsetting. I don’t understand how a contemplative fly fisherman can be expected to ‘ fish hard.’ Maybe you’re addressing the competitive guys.

    • Bob, thanks for the comment. Very interesting.

      While I certainly agree with Walton that fishing is for the “contemplative man,” I don’t see that at odds with fishing hard. In fact, I think they go hand in hand. What’s the point of being deeply thoughtful about something but not acting on it with determination and ambition? That’s what “fish hard” means to me — to try to improve, to take fishing further than a mere hobby, to consider the best way to catch a trout, to dig in and get after it, rather than accepting that the fish just aren’t bitin’ today.

      • Domenick, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I understand what ‘fish hard’ means to you. To me it introduces a sense of urgency which I find very much at odds with the conduct of the ‘contemplative man.’ We’re talking about fly fishing here. Not something like global warming.

        After each outing I come home relaxed and at peace with myself and with the world. I’ve been in a beautiful place where I have had a chance to catch a trout. If I didn’t that’s ok. It’s still a beautiful place. As Judge John Voelker said, when the fish are bitin’ you’ll likely get some but when they’re not you likely won’t.

        All of that is good enough for me. Thank you for your important work and for inspiring me to contemplate all of this.

        • I think “fish hard” is less about urgency than intensity, and less a battle cry than it is an ethos – at least to me. When I come back from a day on the water I’m exhausted, even the next day. I’m spent from concentrating harder and longer than I otherwise do. So, “fish hard” speaks to me. I get it. 🙂

  13. The only line I have is that I won’t go out of my to fish for stocked trout. I tend to fish streams that have wild fish in them. If I catch a rainbow in a class a wild brown stream, I might cringe to myself. I get into arguments with a fellow at work about my shots of wild Brookies, and his keystone select “pellet heads.” My line is that I would rather catch a 6” native than a 24” pellet head.

    • “Pellet head.” That’s a good one. I might opt for the 24 incher given that choice – but I otherwise agree with you!


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