It was late in the evening, on a Friday night in 1987. I sat near my father’s workbench, organizing the fishing gear in my tan cotton vest. It was big, but I’d grown into it. At twelve years old, the anticipation for our trout season opener the next morning felt like Christmas Eve. I couldn’t sleep. The basement had the familiar, earthy scent of springtime. And pouring over gear while imagining the opportunities of the next fishing adventure was a ritual that passed the time for me. When I was satisfied with the complexity of my fishing vest, I moved to the exterior pockets of my green nylon creel.
The fluorescent shop lights buzzed, and I heard water running through the pipes, echoing in the rafters overhead at a rhythm that signaled our family’s bedtime routine. I knew Dad would soon call down and demand that my head hit the pillow — because our rise was early at 4:00 am.
I fingered the vest pockets one last time, accounting for the split shot, double hooks and minnow needles. I would carry all of that, extra of everything, and more of what I would never use but that a twelve year old kid imagines might be good to stick in a pocket — like band-aids, old Twizzlers and a snake bite kit. Satisfied that the vest was stocked, I slung the creel over the same hanger and hooked them on the pegboard next to my rod and reel in the corner. I cut the buzzing lights and walked up the steps in darkness, just as Dad called from above.
I think every angler has some gear obsession. It’s part of us. Because fishing is the kind of activity that requires a lot of stuff. Big things and small. Clothing and boots, packs and boxes, lines and tools — and all the things that non-fishers never imagine when they think of a fishing pole. So it’s understandable that we pack our gear bags with stuff we know we need and then add in everything we think we might need. Time on the water is limited, and we want to feel prepared.
But I also argue that fly fishing tends to spawn more of the gear guy syndrome than some other styles of fishing or outdoor pursuits. Maybe not by a wide margin, but yeah, it’s a thing.
My neighbor rolled up the driveway a couple of nights ago, right at dusk. And I walked across the lawn to ask the questions that you ask of anyone who’s returning from a fishing trip:
“How was it?” I said as he climbed out of the car door.
My friend shook his head and waved his hand.
“Man, the whole Orvis catalog was down there. It was too much, Dom.”
I chuckled as my friend opened the trunk, pulled out his wet waders and laid them on the narrow sidewalk. They would remain there overnight, as was his habit.
“That bad, huh?” I shrugged.
“Oh man, you wouldn’t believe it.” He talked quickly. “Everybody had their Rod Vaults, their stickers on the windows and boxes of gear stacked up like a trade show or something. There were Tilley hats, Fishpond packs, Simms everything, Hardy reels, Loomis rods, bright fly lines . . . all of it.”
My friend shook his head and closed the trunk. “And there was a lot of bad casting!”
I laughed again.
“I’m serious,” he said. “And I only saw one bent rod the whole time.”
“Probably snagged up!” I joked.
“Probably true!” my friend replied.
We walked toward his porch together, and I handed him a beer.
“Hey,” he asked. “What’s with all the enormous freaking nets these days? It makes no sense.”
“I’m with ya there,” I agreed.
My goal has always been the same: to carry only what I need. But the last time I weighed my vest, it somehow came in at 5.8 lbs of needed things. That doesn’t count the water, wading staff, net and camera attached to my wading belt.
So do I need 5.8 lbs of tippet, flies and tools? Maybe. But I also need sunflower seeds and a small folding tripod for the camera, among many other items you’d probably shake your head at.
We all have reasons for the gear we choose. And as a kid I found some explanation for the snake bite kit and sewing thread. In truth, I probably just wanted to fill each pocket and snap it shut. But I honestly do have the goal to carry only what I need. Others have the same.
But there’s a faction of fly fishers out there whose goal seems to be different — to carry everything they ever bought. And that’s the extreme version of the gear guy. They buy everything imaginable or remotely usable, and dammit now they’re going to use it.
There’s also a group of fly fishers who go fishing to see and be seen. It’s the look-at-me approach. And that’s not an angler thing — it’s a human being thing. Every walk of life has these people that you learn to put up with.
I think what offended my neighbor — what really got under his skin — was the newness of it all. The fabric had no holes. The hinges had no rust. To hear him tell it, there were no busted zippers or broken boot laces in the bunch that evening.
Right? People should buy the gear they can afford and enjoy it. Mind your own business.
But there’s something inside most of us that wants people to earn it out there too.
I now own better gear than I ever have, there’s no doubt. Being part of the industry gives me access to a quality of things that I never would have spent money on before. And you know what? Top-end stuff is wonderful. But there’s a part of me that really hates the look of new waders too. With no blood stains or ground-in mud, something about the authenticity is lacking.
Nothing signals a rookie more than a clean fisherman.
So, earn it. That’s all.
Best and Worst
At his best, the gear guy is a tireless experimenter, buying the next thing to test and improve upon a system, to learn and find answers to his forever wondering and questioning. His fishing is never stale. There’s always something new on the horizon, and the gear adds energy to that. New fishing gear adds potential possibilities that keep the gear-head motivated.
At his worst, the gear guy relies on equipment too much. And he expects his latest rod purchase to equate to more fish in that (big) net. So he doesn’t work hard enough. Worse yet, he might be distracted by all the gear. With too many options and no real facility with anything, the gear guy is overwhelmed and floundering — even though he might look good doing it.
Fish hard, friends.
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