Armchair and Briar Pipe Fishing

Two of the biggest book swells in the Post War period were Eastern fishing culture events. They did have a big effect out West too. Vincent Marinaro published A Modern Dry Fly Code in 1950. Ernie Schwiebert published Matching the Hatch five years later. Like the Baby Boomer years that swell is still rolling on. But perhaps waning a bit now at the end of a spectacularly long run.

A few years after my introduction to dry fly fishing as a twelve year old on the West Fork of the bitterroot in Montana my dad became dean of graduate school at Princeton. Almost right away he discovered he had an architecture student, in the graduate school, named Ernie Schwiebert. It didn't take long. I was a freshman in high school. Colin, my dad, became a member of the Henryville Club on the Broadheads in Pennsylvania. We both went fishing with Ernie. Me not as many times as my dad but I did get to fish with Ernie on several occasions. I have a signed second edition copy of Matching the Hatch addressed to me with "Sandy. An embryonic devotee of the long rod and the fragile fly."

To say I became an Ernie Schwiebert fan would be an understatement. Mr Schwiebert really was a good fisherman fly tier and casting master. Earnie was a fun guy too with a slightly kinky sense of humor. One night after dinner at the Henryville Club Ernie and I stayed up 'til almost midnight smoking cigarettes and tying flies. Ernie didn't use a bobbin. He cut the right length of thread to make a fly and just left it hanging there in between steps.

I wanted to be like this man. He wrote books and tied flies and he'd caught huge fish all over the world. But in the years that followed I found his book increasingly hard to actually use. Matching the hatch includes dozens of traditional Catskill mayfly dressings. But from my point of view they were all the same fly with minor size and color variations. Some were olive. Some were gray. Some had claret ribbing. They were beautiful flies but for me they didn't look much like a real mayfly.

Worse yet those classic sparsely dressed Catskill dry flies were not much fun to use on the fast moving and dangerous to wade Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone in Wyoming, where my dad and I and three school teachers from Powell Wyoming built a log cabin. My dad and I could float those flies on the Lamar occasionally, back in early Sixties when we encountered a mid-Summer late morning mayfly hatch. But most of the time they didn't seem to work any better on those Cutthroats than our Goofus Bugs. They were a lot harder to keep afloat too. I was a bit perplexed. What we liked best in those days was high altitude meadow fishing with grasshoppers anyway. We did have a lot learn yet.

A Modern Dry Fly Code had a big effect on me too. I loved the idea you could read about fishing in New Jersey and think about it all as if it was a complicated puzzle. And then drive out West and catch lots of fish. But it never really worked out that way. Marinaro's criss-cross hackles were hard to tie and not at all durable. After catching one or two fish the hackle fibers weren't criss-crossed anymore. Durability gradually became a big theme for me. When I read Marinaro's In The Ring Of The Rise, when Marinaro claimed it was important to criss-cross the front two forward-facing leg fibers on an aquatic diptera (vaguely a housefly) imitation, I knew I needed to change directions a bit.

Trout Streams by Paul Needham (Cornel 1940) had a big effect on me then too. In fact that one still does. Even now. The big Needham take-away was learning trout--statistically anyway--seldom eat adult mayflies or adult caddis. Their diet is--as a percentage of the total diet--almost entirely nymphs.

A few years after reading Schwiebert and Marinaro Doug Swisher and Carl Richards published Selective Trout, in 1971. But when Selective Trout first came out I was living in a tipi at 8200 feet in the Sangre De Christos in Southern Colorado, driving a 1948 two and a half ton flatbed truck and building another log cabin. This one for me and my new family. I built that cabin with a chainsaw a sledge hammer and a box of spikes. And with that truck. It was a fun time but it was also the only five year stretch in my life I didn't fish. I did have some pretty good elk hunting there but I didn't fish. Not much anyway. I didn't get to read the Swisher/Richards book until almost ten years later--after we left Colorado and moved up to Montana.

A few years later yet, as soon as I started fishing the Henry's Fork, Henry's Lake Outlet and the Spring Creeks in both the Gallatin and Paradise (Yellowstone) Valleys, I started to have a resurgence of respect for armchair fishing analysis--in particular for the Swisher/Richards flies. I do like those flies. All you had to do was look at them to know you were on to something good. The Swisher/Richards flies weren't much good for the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone either. But they weren't meant to be. They were meant for waters more like the Henry's Fork, the Missouri or Armstrong Spring Creek, which I was just then starting to learn about. The Swisher/Richards flies perched on the water a lot more like a real mayfly than their traditional Catskill counterparts. I liked them a lot.

If I jump ahead another ten years after that, when I became a spring creek guide working DePuy Spring Creek, Nelson's Spring Creek and Armstrong Spring Creek the Swisher/Richards flies made a lot of good tip money for me too. They still make me smile.

Theodore Gordon's view from the armchair

There are so many of us who only get a few days on the water during the season and must enjoy most of our sport by proxy. For many years I had at least two months with the trout, but this season my opportunities have been few and far between. The evening after the arrival of the fishing Gazette is marked with a white stone, and I feel supremely grateful to those who write of their sport, particularly when the scene of action is pictured and one gets a glimpse of some skilled work with dry fly.

Now that I'm 74 and still recovering (doing well at this point) from three years of Long Covid, I'm having fun fishing again now, mostly from the armchair. I'm enjoying it a lot.