Is fly fishing a sport? It is a question that often leads to many heated debates. For many an angler, fly fishing is an activity that they enjoy doing with their friends from time to time. Then there is a group of fly fishers who are extremely passionate about this form of fishing and love everything it brings to the table.
Fishing, outdoors, friends, and a sustainable mindset is what the modern fly angler believes in. Others make their living from fly fishing as guides, hosts, and professional fly tyers. For this lucky bunch of people, it is more of a passion than a job, and the fact that they get paid for it is a bonus in their eyes.
Lastly, there is the competitive group where the word ‘sport’ gets used widely with a lot more free-range. It is within this group of anglers that the competitive edge and tactics lie. The line between feel-free fun and winning isn’t blurred, and these anglers go out to catch fish and as many as they need to win.
So, where does the debate start and end? Thinking about fly fishing (or talking on fly fishing podcasts) for enjoyment and fly fishing as a sport can lead us down very different paths, but these paths aren’t that different at all.
How different is a passionate fly fisherman who puts many hours of practice and learning into becoming better and more skilled than a professional competitive fly fisher who does the same in preparation for their big competition or tournament? In short, nothing!
Spending the same time acquiring the skills and knowledge for fly fishing, the same activity involving physical exertion is carried out. Ok, maybe the speed of changing flies and rigs isn’t focused on as much by the purist as that of the competitive angler, but the remaining effort is equal.
The purists argue that making everything about numbers and size isn’t what the hobby is about. The purist may only have one fly rod, two modern fly reels, and fewer fly patterns when compared to the competitive angler with the most modern fly reels, fly lines, and many artificial flies.
The purist may argue that competitions don’t interest them and that they don’t need to record or show off their catches, and yes, this is partly true, but given a chance, any fly fisher would love to see how they fare against a skilled other. It’s human nature to wonder and want to know how you compare. The irony of the whole debate is that both trains of thought could learn something from each other if they were just a little more open-minded.
The purist would learn how to capitalize on specific areas and conditions, and the competitive angler would learn to slow things down a little and appreciate the surroundings. Take time to smell the flowers. This is, of course, entirely out of the question during a timed beat or competitive session.
Fly anglers vs. sports athletes
American fly fishing involves luring a fish to the hook using artificial casting flies made from feathers and synthetics. If you look at the physical activity of catching fish and the focused mind needed, it’s not far off from other recognized sports.
This once leisure activity that only the upper class would be seen doing now demands a physical health and mindset much as other sports do. Many sports adopt different strategies, much as you would change your fly tackle when catching other fish species or simply changing from a dry fly to wet flies.
In other forms of sport, you need to be part of a team to compete, and when your team competes, the overall standing of the group is affected by each individual’s independent performance. This is no different from when mates go fishing together and count who caught the most fish for the day.
Whether saltwater fly fishing or casting for rainbows, the same mental and physical energy is needed to remain confident that you will catch fish; the same goes for an athlete who, on the day of their game, their mental confidence and ability need to be present to make the best on-field decisions.
Other fly fishers may disagree with this and argue that fly fishing involves tying a fly to imitate aquatic insects, which would fool the local fish into eating. The fly fisher then fights the rainbow trout on a fly reel and long rod. The energy, effort, and thought put into catching that fish when fly fishing isn’t thought of.
So yes, the purist is correct that they don’t do it for a sport, but it can be considered a sport based on the demands of fly fishing aren’t far off from a regular sporting activity.
Ever wonder if there are celebrities that are fond of fly fishing? Check out our post here on fly fishing celebrities.
Skills needed to fly fish
There are numerous skills needed to be successful in fly fishing.
Learning to cast- In fly fishing, there isn’t a weighted bait or lure to cast out. The angler has to cast artificial flies and this is done so by using a weighted fly line. Fly fishing rods are very flexible and transfer the momentum generated from the back and forth movement through the fly line to the fly.
This is what gets you distance and direction. This casting action takes a certain amount of hand and eye coordination as well as timing
Entomology- A certain level of entomology is required to match what is in the water to what fly you need to use. This isn’t crucial to your catching success, but it does help when out on rocky rivers or cold water.
This will also help your fly tying skills allowing you to better tie small baitfish and dry flies to catch fish. Matching the hatch is key to fly fishing success and one of the main study areas for those that pursue a fly fishing sport.
Practicality- This is especially important in the terminal tackle side of fly fishing basics. Using the correct weight rods and reel for your intended purpose. The right leader, tippets, and fly sizes demand a specific skill and level of practical thinking.
In saltwater fishing, especially rod weight, leader, tippet choice can make or break your trip. You don’t want to lose that monster fish or that striped bass of a lifetime because you didn’t make the correct practical decisions.
Physical ability and mental strength- You don’t have to be in the best shape of your life or a mind guru, but it is better to have a certain fitness level to fish safely and effectively.
It also pays to be confident in your approach to fly fishing as there will be days that make you question your every on-water decision. Some days anglers just get beaten down by the nature and you will need to be strong enough to accept that.
The positive effects of fly fishing
The positive effects fly fishing has on us humans in unmeasurable. The pure joy felt when you net a fish you caught on a fly you tied is fantastic. Sharing this experience with friends and family outdoors is what makes fly fishing such a wonderful pastime or sport, depending on how you feel.
Fly fishing can give rise to healthy and outdoor active kids, who learn to respect and cherish nature from a young age. And hopefully, as they grow older, they will pass their knowledge and respect on to others and through the generations, ensuring a healthy and sustainable future for all.
Fly fishing can also do wonders for those suffering from personal issues or lack of confidence. What fly fishing teaches you is to apply what you know to various conditions on the water; this, in turn, can be used in life and the respect of it.
Thinking about the above, it is clear that there are two very different trains of thought, and they won’t be changing any time soon. The best is to accept them both and that they will feed and benefit from each other.
The angler who can harness the knowledge and expertise of enjoying a day fishing on the river or lake and still possibly win a competition is getting the best of both worlds and will undoubtedly become a better angler. But let’s leave the final thought with you.