Angler Types in Profile: The Old Expert

by | Oct 29, 2019 | 28 comments

Backed comfortably into a corner and sitting contently beside a crackling fireplace is the old expert. For sixty of his seventy-plus years of roaming the woods and water, he has fished for trout — fifty of those years with a fly rod, and thirty dedicated to sharing his vast, accumulated knowledge.

The old expert helped shape an industry, but he remembers a time when there was no fly fishing industry — no fly shops or umbrella companies in a niche market, a time when a breathable raincoat meant unzipping at the collar and loosening the drawstrings of a yellow vinyl hood.

The old expert reminisces about flies purchased through a mail order catalog. Some were also selected from a cedar box, separated into four-inch-square bins inside a gas station that sold a handful of wet flies and two dries — one dark, one light, both #10.

He remembers traditions that are long since lost, of anglers with a common, respectful river code and a time of killing your catch rather than catch and release, when the largest trout were shown off dead — in black and white pictures, fish hung vertically, with the angler’s full hand behind a gill plate.

In a lifetime of fishing, there was a decade or more, somewhere in his prime, when everything clicked for the old expert, when all his practiced techniques were refined through extensive time on the water — when it all locked in. He caught more trout than anyone else. He fished more than anyone else. And he became a local legend. The books and articles followed. Classes, clinics and lessons were given. Trout were caught, and word was passed beyond the region of a fly fishing expert.

Around him and others, around commercials and the romanticism of movies, around parallel lines drawn above the river, an industry accelerated. Large companies poured money into what was once a mysterious hobby, and new anglers sought out the old expert. He taught and wrote and shared more. And through this adoration, the old expert reaffirmed his conviction that his way was the best way. He rejected synthetic materials on a fly. He looked sideways at new methods of fishing modern flies, and he refused many of the advancements of an industry teeming with new ideas from fresh-faced anglers.

“We cling to the familiar, because we know the things that worked before. Life passes quickly, and holding onto our past is one way to slow things down.”

The old expert became comfortable — complacent, disagreeable and cross in the midst of so much change. With a closed mind he built walls that boxed him into just one way of approaching the river — his way.

At best, the old expert remained a generous teacher for those who deferred to him. To those with nodding heads and reverent smiles, the old expert was an earnest instructor.

At worst, the old expert was a closed door. And he discouraged students who came with questions about new ways and novel ideas.

The legacy of the old expert remains. His contributions, his discoveries and his influence is undeniable. Through him, generations of anglers learned to appreciate wild trout and protect the rivers they inhabited. Those anglers, in turn, passed these traditions on to their children, forming family bonds and building deeper relationships, all centered around the act of catching a fish.

And perhaps one of those children will become an expert in his own right. Then maybe, surrounded by a world that moves faster than ever, this new angler will understand that there is no end to such learning — that change will forever offer the next opportunity — that expertise dies when it refuses to grow.

— — — — — —

This story is not about any one angler. Instead it’s a composition of what many of us have witnessed in our aging mentors. Maybe this is your grandfather. Or maybe it’s you.

In truth, the difficult side of this old expert is what I’m determined not to become. Now in my early forties, I have a long way to go (I hope). And I’ll continue searching for new ideas for as long as I cast a fly rod.

It’s easy to become set in our ways. We cling to the familiar, because we know the things that worked before. Life passes quickly, and holding onto our past is one way to slow things down. Fishing is the perfect model for all of this. We can find success in a handful of tactics and shut out everything else, or we can continue our exploration into the twilight.

No one reaches the end of learning — at least they shouldn’t. And staying open to what comes next is the key to a lifetime of interest and happiness.

Fish hard, friends.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

 

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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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28 Comments

  1. As a member of the particular age group alluded to in this article, there is one key error in all this. “There are no experts” in the world of flyfishing. Only those with one hell of a lot of experience being humbled by a wiley trout – the true expert. And an occasional opportunity to turn the tables.

    Reply
  2. Excellent article! I know, and often fish with this guy(s). Most have stopped learning, and fish the way they fished at their peak. I fish with one, however, who never stops learning. He will be 80 next year, still hikes high with me, and just picked up tight lining a few years ago. He is who I aspire to be.

    Reply
    • Same here. Most anglers, regardless of their age, seem to latch on to some early success and close out other ideas. But the handful of guys that I enjoy fishing with are lifetime learners.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  3. I’ve never met that guy yet, but if I do, I hope he will be opened up by my desire to learn and passion to connect with a trout on a fly.

    Reply
  4. Well, in terms of the age thing, that’s me. But I’m a girl, 83 years old, first flung a fly rod, under my dad’s tutelage, at age 9. Still hiking and fishing. And, still learning. Love working on new techniques, new skills.
    Old doesn’t mean closed to learning!

    Reply
  5. I’ve seen this in my life, now 58 I’ve witnessed the era of fishing magazines, mail order catalogs, an era of long learning curves and storied bait shop secrets. I’ve counted out of town license plates in the parking lot along with the number of boats in the opposite lane while driving out. Like my first Zebco it was an era gone by. It’s gone by but the fishing, specifically fly fishing, hasn’t. Yes we now have apps on our phones and GPS to replace our paper maps- but fly fishing still takes aptitude, still takes the love of being outdoors with long hours spent only to be humbled by our quest and lonesome spirit.

    Reply
    • Well said. It still takes gumption. And it always will. Fly fishing will become trendy off and on through the years, but only a handful of those people will become dedicated anglers. The river sorts them out.

      Dom

      Reply
  6. Dom,
    My reply to your composition with a loud and thunderous, good Southern prayer meeting, “AMEN, Brother!!!!” I think this applies to way, way more than fly fishing. As a small business owner with junior associates, like you, I fight the urge to be the grumpy entrepreneur who knows everything and to not let my success in one area bleed over to others. Just because I’m good at what I do doesn’t mean I should tell you how to invest your money, how to raise your kids, and how to make the best margarita…! Great job, and I look forward to fishing with you as my guide someday…!

    Reply
    • Good call, Tim. Learning never ends, no matter what we’re into. And you’re right, fishing is a great model for the rest of life. I think that’s why we all love it so much.

      Come out any time and we’ll fish for wild trout.

      Dom

      Reply
  7. Having just become a senior citizen this year, I’m finding myself becoming more sympathetic towards the old pro who is not keeping pace, much like I’ve become more sympathetic to the older driver who doesn’t quite keep up with the flow of traffic around him. It’s just what happens when you get older. I used to keep track of all the current musicians and film stars, but now, I’m happy just to listen to James Taylor and CSNandY and music of my generation, and let the hiphoppers and rappers do their thing without me. I’ll take “To Kill a Mockingbird” any day over the high tech, special-effects-laden, plot-deprived movies that are ubiquitous in the theaters today. Maybe I’m missing out on some really good music and movies, but it’s not worth sifting through all the trash to find the very occasional gem.

    So if an old fly fisherman just wants to fish the way he loves and disregards the torrent of new products coming out of the market like water coming out of a firehose, God bless him.

    As for being crusty and dogmatic about advocating the “only way” to do it, I don’t think I’m there yet and I hope I never am that way. But give me a few more years and who knows?

    Reply
  8. I’m a beginner, less than 4 months experience, I was doing amazingly well fishing/catching with your exact monorig setup….until….. the “old” guys I’ve been fishing with kept digging at me about my “ridiculously long leader”, so I went back to a 9 foot leader (despite their advise of 7 feet), and when the monorig went so did about 90% of my success. I’m not exaggerating and I AM going back to the monorig. It really does make a difference, even for a beginner, or maybe I should say….Especially for a beginner. It’s all about the drift.

    Reply
  9. Sounds like me,old guy,fished a lot,thought idea of an indicator was radically non flyfishing till started using one. And after a day of more then 10 trout start getting uppity ideas maybe I AM an expert,course till that next day when your thankful for that 1 ten incher. Nice writing and informative articles

    Reply
  10. I am 54. Started flyfishing at age 10. You write well and I always enjoy your posts. That one touched me. Fish on!

    Reply
  11. Every stream I have and will step in to until I can no longer is the learning experience for me. The thing is to try to figure out the fish. You are in the process of becoming an old expert that values learning. The variety of old equipment and boxes of unused old files you have are the signs of being a life long learner. The main thing is to enjoy the ride.

    Reply
  12. I am one of the old guys who has had a lot of success with my old leader setup. I have no doubt about your long leader monorig and have a friend who swears by it. When I stop having success with the old ways I will gladly join you. Until then, I still love to cast and I still love to change quickly to a dry fly when they are hitting the surface. Also at 78 I don’t wade well anymore, so I can’t get out into the water well enough to get to the fish all the time. Give us old farts a break and understand that change is hard as you get older. Success for me is one more day on a beautiful stretch of water with a friend. believe me at 78 I see the end of this wonderful journey called fly fishing and that ain’t fun. I mourn the Lefty’s and Schwiebert’s of the world. Don’t blink, 78 will come too soon for you too.

    Reply
    • “Success for me is one more day on a beautiful stretch of water with a friend.” That line says it all. Part of the journey is figuring out how to stay in the game with well worn parts. We should all be careful here. Just because we aren’t seeing the latest iteration of the perdigon in Uncle Harry’s flybox doesn’t mean he’s stopped growing as a fisherman. Could be he is pioneering techniques that you will pursue when you get to overtime. What looks like closed mindedness at 45 may become genius at 65. Fishing with 3 legs is not the same as 2, just as the world looks different through cataracts. The guy with nitro in his fishing vest may know some things about risk that most of us don’t.

      Reply
  13. As an old timer, approaching my 79th birthday and 50 years since I bought my first fly rod, I am asking myself how long I will be able to continue fly fishing. I have two friends whose bad knees have forced them to become former fly-rodders. But for me, so far, physical problems have hardly slowed me down. I am hoping for another decade, but at this age it’s all a crap shoot anyway!
    One of the advantages I have is where I live – outside of Houston, TX. There are no wadeable streams and certainly no trout within a couple hundred miles of my home. What I do have are dozens of nearby ponds with self-sustaining largemouth bass populations. This has meant a major shift in what and how I fish, leaving me with boxes of size 16 nymphs and dries, etc., from my days of wading small streams when I lived in California. The bass ponds have muddy bottoms, making wading dangerous and, given the size of the water, pretty much unnecessary. So I walk the banks, with floating and sink tip lines. I have had to learn a whole new skill set, not a bad activity for somebody my age.
    I recently saw a picture of a 90 plus steelhead flyfisher from Oregon. I figure if he can do that, I can count on waiting a few years before having to say, “I used to fly fish.”
    Tight lines!

    Reply
  14. Dom,

    This year I did finally concede, after 40 years, to using an indicator in certain situations, and the one that I use is the Dorsey. Thanks for posting the Dorsey article and video.

    I also tried the all mono system for the first time this year, even though I first read about it in Joe Humphrey’s first book when it came out in the late 1970s.

    I didn’t really like the all mono, although I’ll try it again. The mono rig fishes well, it’s the casting and line handling that I didn’t like.

    My friend and I have had 20+ and 30+ fish each days on wild fish in your area by using Joe’s fly line nymph methods, and no indicator. (We’ve also had 1 and 2 fish days). By what percentage do you think we could improve our catch if we got the hang of the all mono rig? I’m asking because one of the commenters said that his catch rate dropped by 90% when he stopped using the all mono rig. I don’t doubt that the mono rig is more effective, but I’m skeptical about the 90% difference.

    Regards,

    Reply
    • Hi Tim.

      Thanks for the comment.

      In short, what matters most is how far away you are fishing. I too learned to nymph through Humphreys’ books. I used his standard leader for a very long time. And it is still successful at short enough distances. Bottom line is that as soon as fly line is out of the guides, now you have to manage the sag/drag of fly line. Can it be managed? Certainly. You can watch your angles, wade closer, add weight to counteract that drag, etc. But mono simply sags way less, allowing for different presentations and more control. That’w why Humphreys used it himself, I’m sure. And he writes about that.

      90 percent? Maybe. Just depends on the angler and how good they are with either leader.

      Very wishy-washy answer there, I know.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Well, to be fair, the first time I tried all mono I used Maxima Ultragreen 20#, which of course was a problem. I tried again with Chameleon, but it was on a 38 degree day, in a piece of water I had never fished before. I will try it again.

        I doubt that on a day that I caught 30 trout with fly line, that I would have nearly doubled the catch with all mono. However, it is conceivable that on a fly line day with only three fish caught, maybe all mono would have caught me five trout, which is WAY better than three. I hope I’m making sense.

        Reply
  15. Well, to be fair, the first time I tried all mono I used Maxima Ultragreen 20#, which of course was a problem. I tried again with Chameleon, but it was on a 38 degree day, in a piece of water I had never fished before. I will try it again.

    I doubt that on a day that I caught 30 trout with fly line, that I would have nearly doubled the catch with all mono. However, it is conceivable that on a fly line day with only three fish caught, maybe all mono would have caught me five trout, which is WAY better than three. I hope I’m making sense.

    Reply

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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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