Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ten Tips for Fly Fishing and Photography Alike

The more I acclimate to the photography community, and the more people and situations I encounter in my fishing adventures, the more I realize why these two seemingly completely different hobbies have appealed to me.  Though the methods and end results are very different, the mindset, personality, and creativity required of fly anglers/tyers and photographers is surprisingly similar, as is the tradition behind each.  This means that many generalized tips, tactics, and suggestions are equally valuable to both the fly angler and the photographer...and doubly valuable to those of us who combine the two.

What follows are some bits of wisdom I've picked up from folks who've been at it (both the fishing and the snapping) far longer than I have...and in my own adventures, these are the bits of wisdom that have proven true time and again.

Note: For me, fly fishing and fly tying are so inextricably linked, that I consider them both to be under the broad banner of fly fishing...at least for this post.  I may distinguish between the two, but in many cases I'll just say fly fishing, and the tying will be implied.  Kind of like how I usually don't use 'he or she' or 'him or her'...I just pick one and go with it.

Without further ado...

1. There's no substitute for good form.


From your first casting lesson or the first time someone mentions the rule of thirds, developing good form is the foundation upon which any fly angler or photographer builds their talent and skills.  Often, the failure to establish good form early on not only deprives the beginner of basic skills, but also tends to become a perennial source of frustration, as they spend most of their learning in developing pseudo-skills to address the challenges that might have been easily avoided by developing good form in the first place.

The fly fisher that fails to develop a good basic casting technique will figure out, on their own, all sorts of ways to compensate for their tailing loops, dipping rod tip, and lack of crisp movement.  Unfortunately, these are poor substitutes, and while they might do okay on a local pond or small stream, as soon as they get to bigger water where 50+ foot casts are necessary...or run into a stiff breeze, all the 'casting crutches' in the world won't get their fly to the fish.

This is why it's so important for a beginner to take a class, find a mentor, or even read a book early on.

2. It's you, not the kit.


Closely related to the beginner who lacks solid fundamentals, is the beginner, frustrated, who blames his lack of success on the piece of equipment in his hands.  Sure, it's probably cheap entry-level gear...maybe even used and bought (or handed down) second-or-third-hand from a previous owner.  Even if new, it's probably either a no-name unit, or the bottom-rung offering of a more reputable name.  They got it because the man in the shop said it'd do everything they needed it to do, but now they're not so sure.  After all, they've been using it for a few weeks already and have absolutely nothing to show for it.  If only they had the advanced model with all the bells and whistles, they'd be capable of results beyond their wildest dreams...

I've worded the above to be equally applicable to both fly fishing and photography, and it's one of the best things to keep in mind in beginning either pursuit.  The 'bells and whistles' of advanced camera bodies aren't meant to make the photography itself easier, in fact, usually beginners are struggling because they can't handle the bells and whistles they've already got.  And that new fast action, high-modulus, nano-silica resin fly rod, while admittedly sexy, is meant for advanced casters, and you'll probably actually be in a worse situation than you are with your entry level rod.

I actually learned this humbling lesson not in fishing or photography, but music.  Years back I was taking guitar lessons, and after a particularly frustrating session, I voiced my desire to upgrade.  In response, my teacher grabbed my guitar and proceeded to play some absolutely beautiful music.  After a moment, he handed it back and said, simply, "Seems okay to me."  Point proven.

3. Old gear/methods/ideas are still around for a reason.


And that reason is because they work.  Really well.  Very often, if not all the time.  No, really.

See, the reason that some old equipment and ways of thinking are still around is because its the best solution the industry/community has come up with, to date, to address a particular situation.  In other cases, it may not be the best, but it still works, often just as good as anything else, but with less complication, or for cheaper, or whatever.  In the case of methods, tactics, and ideas, it's often because the old stuff has survived the test of time and has been proven true and effective time and time again.

That isn't to say that some curmudgeons out there are just simply set in their ways, using old, inferior, outdated kit because they refuse to embrace any change from what they were brought up on.  But, for the most part, if some particular 'old thing' is still generally accepted or embraced by the community at large, there's a good bet that it's still very effective.

Both fly angling and photography are pursuits that are noted for their nod to tradition...this too is for a reason.

4. New gear/methods/ideas are still being made for a reason.


...and it doesn't contradict the last point.

Photoshop, digital, graphite, and large arbor...all have their place in their respective communities.  The advantages of new technology and method is undeniable, and often an advancement in one sparks an advancement in the other.

While 'old school' is great, show me an old school equivalent of a camera that can take photos at ISO 200 on a sunny day, then go inside a building, and with the press of a few buttons shoot at ISO 800 in the dim interior lighting.  In the days of film, that meant a film change, any which way you slice it.  Likewise, show me a cast, standard arbor, click-drag fly reel that can be bounced off of rocks all day, and have a drag with the cojones to stop an angry 100+ pound tarpon...and be put away wet at the end of the day.  For that matter, a silk fly line that you could do the same thing with.

While new tech and tactics might not be the panacea that some think it is, there's no doubt that fly fishing and photography have progressed rapidly, thanks to technological developments of the past 30 years, and even the last 100 or more.

To summarize both of the previous two points: don't knock it because it's old...don't knock it because it's new.

5. Always be ready.


Perhaps fly anglers, more than any other breed, are accustomed to being ready for anything.  Anyone that's fished for several years has no doubt encountered a few situations in which, with better preparation, they might have had wild success.  In response, the majority of them tend to become walking fly shops, with an imitation for any insect that's ever lived near the area they fish.  I mean...what if the fish are only taking female tricos?  (Actually a pretty plausible situation.)  Or only tan caddis with a broken right-front leg?  (Far less likely, though I wouldn't put the idea past a trout.)

While some take this to extremes, nearly all fly anglers step into the water with well over 100 flies on their person, indicating that the community as a whole sees the value in always being ready.  Beginners take heed.  Just because you don't think you'll need your box of streamers doesn't mean you should leave them in the car.  And always, always have more than one of your proven patterns.
_____________________________________________________________________

You're in the big city, with your press credentials and passes to get into the VIP area of the rock concert you've been hired by some magazine to shoot.  So far, everything's gone according to plan.  Somehow managing to arrive at your hotel earlier than expected, you head down to the lounge for a drink.

As you pore over your shot list, cocktail in hand, you hear a peculiar accent from a voice three seats down the bar.  You look up and instantly recognize Lead Singer, all alone, and in good spirits.  He catches your eye, and you say hi and introduce yourself, and mention that you'll be shooting the show.  He smiles and asks you if you'd like to get a few shots right now.

Did you bring your camera down to the lounge with you?  With a lens suited to indoor, low-light photography?

6. You can't control the conditions, only adapt to them.


The night before your trip to the museum to see the new art exhibit, there was an attempted theft, and now that you're there, noone is being admitted into the gallery.  You were all set to photograph the paintings and sculptures and now the whole section is closed.  What to do?

Well, for starters, you can always try introducing yourself as a "professional freelance photojournalist" to the powers-that-be, in hopes of gaining special access to the exhibit.  If that gets you nowhere, try taking some candids of your no-doubt-disgruntled museum going peers, who are also being turned away from the exhibit they came to see.  If law enforcement or investigators are around, get some pictures of whatever portion of the 'crime scene' you can access.

At very least, you're in a museum.  If you can't find anything interesting there, please put down the camera and step away slowly.
___________________________________________________________________


You planned your trip out west at the peak of the hatch.  You tied up dozens of long, fine leaders to deliver a quarter-inch fly a country mile, and filled several fly boxes with dozens of those quarter inch flies, in every style, shade, and size you could think of.

Three days before your trip, a cold front moves through, dumping inches of rain, turning the river into chocolate milk, and keeping the fish hugging the banks and bottoms tight.  By the time you get there, it's cleared up somewhat, but it's still up and moving, and the remaining wind is blowing any brave flies right off the water.

Good thing you brought your heavy rod and box of 4" streamers...right?

7. The community is full of idiots.

While any group of people united by a common interest is bound to have a few bad apples, nowhere but these two fields have I seen such a high concentration of elitists, blowhards, pedants, gear snobs, and attention whores.  This isn't to say that everyone is such a pain in the ass, though, as there are certainly some really, really great people in both hobbies...they're just harder to come by.  When you find one, get to know them, befriend them, and keep in touch.

Still, take care not to dismiss people as morons too quickly.  With both photography and fly fishing, there is a fairly steep learning curve early on, and those who crest it usually feel (justifiable) pride in their accomplishments.  This pride can show itself differently with different people, and sometimes not at all.  A friend of mine is the best person with a dry fly I've ever seen.  He can throw a bulky dry straight into a wind and deliver it, softly, 40-50 feet upstream, every time, all the time.  Compliment his casting and he's quick to say that his casting is sloppy and full of bad technique.  While this humility is commendable, its generally not the norm.  

There's also a difference between presenting what you know, or your experiences matter-of-factly, and plain arrogance.  Unfortunately, too many people cross that line.

The key bits of advice for any beginner are these: just understand that anyone you meet might, quite possibly be full of it, so consider the source, consider the info, and form your own conclusions...and once you form some of these conclusions, and develop some skills, you'll reach a point where you're no longer a beginner.  When this happens, don't become a tool.

8. (Not) Sharing Is Caring

Paradoxical headline intended.

What I mean here, is that discretion is valuable, and, especially early on, it's better to listen more than you speak.  Many times, a beginner will gather their first bits of experience in a field, and form their own opinions and take their own lessons from it.  This is normal, natural, and commendable, but it's important for them to understand that their version of 'in my experience' is still very much a work in progress.  There's no harm in sharing their opinion, and its true that often, the slightly-more-advanced-begginer's perspective is of the most use to a newer newbie, but this isn't always the case.

Perhaps, as a beginner, you occasionally drop, jostle, or otherwise bang around your camera.  It isn't strictly advertised as shock-proof, but it's always done well for you.  One day, at a local camera shop, someone else is looking to buy a camera for outdoor use and the sales person is recommending an expensive, shock-proof model.  While you might mention to them what you use, and that it's worked for you, it's probably not a good idea to walk up and say, "You don't need to waste your money on that.  This one is a hundred dollars cheaper and built like a tank!  I should know, I have one!"  This discretion also extends to technique.  While you have a method of doing things, there's almost always more than one way to skin a cat, and often times, the lessons you learn along the way help you down the road.  So rather than telling someone exact settings to use for a particular shot, make a few suggestions and let them figure it out.

(Not) Sharing is a particularly sensitive subject for fly fishermen.  While tips and suggestions are freely exchanged with regard to the tying desk, anglers become notoriously tight-lipped regarding the best "secret killer fly pattern" for a given situation, or especially their favorite spots.

While a fishing buddy may invite you along to fish his favorite small mountain stream full of hungry trout, I will guarantee you that if you write a local fishing magazine about all the trout you caught 'on Pine Glade Run, just upstream of Route 16', that it will be the LAST time you get an invitation from that friend...and maybe from any other friend that reads the magazine.  While the debate rages endlessly on how much sharing is too much sharing, you need to really be careful what you say and to whom, as a beginner.  Especially if you fish anywhere other than public lakes.

9. Better lucky than good...

...but, in the long run, you're highly unlikely to be lucky even half the time...so you'd better be pretty good too.

What I mean, here, is that there's simply no way to account for luck.  The newbie shutterbug going with their mentor to an event, and 'the kid' snapping a shot with his point & shoot that goes straight to the front page of the paper.  Poorly composed, grainy, and even slightly blurry, it captures the entire feel of the scene and is incredibly moving.  Of course they didn't try to do this, they were just in the right place at the right time with a camera.  Meanwhile their mentor has a card full of hundreds of tack sharp shots, well framed, from hours of planning, and an intimate knowledge of his multi-thousand-dollar setup.  Two of them end up on a page on his website, and the paper throws another one up in the entertainment section of the paper in which his student's work graces page one.

Likewise, fishing dad takes newbie daughter to some tough, technical water.  He explains how these fish primarily eat tiny midges all day, so she needs to be very precise.  Instead, she decides to use a big bright pink woolly bugger, which tangles in streamside weeds on her first cast, spooking all the fish in the area.  As she pulls it free, it lands with a splash in the water, at which point a humongous brown trout that neither dad nor daughter ever saw, emergest from under the bank and casually takes the fluorescent monstrosity of a fly.  Fish on.

The wisdom here is that while it's true you can't account for luck, you can do things to both put yourself in a position to be lucky, as well as to capitalize on any luck you may encounter.  Always leave a basic fly rod, reel, and some flies in your car.  Carry a compact camera in your pocket.  Know what bugs are likely to be hatching in your area.  Get into position with your camera early. And most of all know how to use your gear.  When everything comes together, you want to be able to use and adjust your equipment flawlessly, without thinking about it.  If you're a photographer, know how to adjust your settings quickly, and even memorize buttons, to make adjustments without looking at your camera.  If you're a fly fisher, know your knots, be able to tie them quickly and securely (and yeah, even without looking).  You should be able to tie a fly to the end of your tippet, in normal temperatures (coldness slows the process), in under 30 seconds.  It sounds dorky and it is a little boring, but practice your knots at home.  If you use a knotted leader, know every knot needed to rebuild one (blood knots, etc).  I prefer 'handshake' connections, and as such, I can tie a perfection loop in a variety of sizes, in just a few moments.

It's little things like this which mean the difference between having one of the best moments of the day, and going home empty handed, after standing helplessly by, while your big opportunity went by.

10. Success is subjective

Perhaps in no other fields is the definition of 'success' so nebulous.  In photography, is success defined as actually taking a picture?  The simple act of pressing the shutter release?  If that's too easy, maybe success is taking a well composed photo?  A well exposed one?  One that sells?  Selling enough to quit your day job?  One that wins a contest?  One that you like enough to frame?

The answer isn't any clearer for the fishermen.  Is success catching a fish?  Ten fish?  On a dry fly?  Catching the biggest fish?  The most?  Compared to whom?  If you ask most fishermen, they'll agree that success "isn't about catching fish", but if not, then why not just go for a walk in the stream?  Also, when was the last time you saw a fisherman getting back to his vehicle late after non-stop action all day, and when asked, he grimaces and says, "You know...there were just too many fish biting and I couldn't really enjoy myself."

Clearly success in both pursuits is both subjective and qualitative, which perhaps is what draws us in the first place.  Success is about making new discoveries and learning along the way, improving your skills.  It's about being prepared to capitalize when luck smiles on you, and about learning from the failures.  It's about enjoying yourself, but also dealing with enough failure to recognize success when it happens.  Success isn't defined, but is evidenced, by your continued participation.  It's truly about the journey more than the destination.  It's about setting goals for yourself and achieving those goals.  

Simply put, success in these pursuits depends entirely upon your satisfaction with your experiences.  So make it what you want it to be, and have fun.

4 comments:

Cofisher said...

Absolutely wonderful post...and this from your local curmudgeon!

Anthony said...

All of this was very well said. Great post

Mark said...

Thanks for the kind words guys.

Anonymous said...

Spot on!

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