More years ago than I care to admit, I worked in a fly shop that catered to a pretty mixed bag of characters. On any given day, anyone from Barbour-clad Bogdan reel collectors, to redneck bait chuckers could walk through the door. It was during a time I consider to be the pinnacle of fly fishing snobbery (even more so than today), so you can imagine that there was a bit of a “caste system” among our clientele.
It was still fresh off the heels of that movie and it seemed everyone felt like they could (and, therefore, should) fly fish. Especially those with money. I can’t count the number of times I sold $600 rods and $500 reels to lawyers, doctors, and idle rich who couldn’t make a backcast without slapping the water. I got the feeling many of them were in it just to tell people they “fly fish” at pretentious cocktail parties in order to boast some kind of pseudo “outdoorsy” machismo.
Then, there were the young kids who couldn’t even afford our lowest price rod, but had more passion and enthusiasm about fly fishing than all of those charlatans put together. And, of course, there was everything in between. But one regular in particular stands out…
In order to protect the innocent, let’s call him “Bruce” since a.) that was his real name and b.) he was anything but “innocent”. Bruce was a sniper in Vietnam. I don’t know how many confirmed kills he had but he was a crack shot. He could put a bullet through the left eye of a gopher at 200 yards without even thinking about it (or right eye if he chose). He was the one who taught me how to skeet shoot and his seemingly natural ability to focus without focusing always made me feel like an out-of-place klutz on the skeet range.
Bruce was a pretty rough character. Think stereotypical biker (which he was) with a black leather vest, wallet chain, tattoos, and long, wiry hair. He wore a countenance that would would make the Barbour guys keep a safe distance at the other end of the shop, yet was a nice enough guy (as long as he liked you). I’m pretty sure he had some kind of gang affiliation but didn’t dare ask about it. Despite the fact that I was a total prep, for whatever reason, he took a shining to me and gave me the curious nickname of “Youngblood” (I never did ask him why).
He liked to fish a local spring creek that was notoriously difficult. It was one of those places with such high pressure that you could literally walk right up to a 24″ trout and it wouldn’t even move. It wouldn’t take your fly either. Nor the next 30 different flies you put in from of them. But they’d take Bruce’s flies. For all his “brutishness”, he had mastered the art of delicate persuasion–presenting #28 midges on 8X tippet to large trout that had a seeming professorial knowledge of entomology. And he’d put anyone to shame who looked like they just got off of an Orvis catalog shoot.
Bruce had what I call “stream cred”–fly fishing’s version of street cred. Other anglers looked down on him because he didn’t look the part. But he would out-fish any of them and he knew it. And, in a strange way, I think he secretly enjoyed the dichotomy.
In fact, some of the best fishermen I have known didn’t look the part at all. I think of my friend George, a gray haired, ponytailed hippie sporting waders and jerry-rigged gear from the 80s. Or Kyle, a pothead bassist punk that you wouldn’t let your daughter get within 100 feet of, but out-fished me on every single steelhead trip.
These guys were the antithesis of the shiny models convexly distorted by fish-eye camera lenses in the catalogs and magazines. But they were good. Really good. And their streamcraft would quickly embarrass most anglers donning the latest Costa Del Mars, Patagonia shirts, and $600 waders.
Maybe it’s because rather than buying into the images the magazines were selling, these “rogues” just fished. They didn’t care about always having the latest gear. They didn’t jump on the latest trends to be trendy. They just fished.
The thing about stream cred is that you can’t buy it. It doesn’t matter which brand of tackle you use, it doesn’t matter how many blog posts you’ve written, or how many followers you have on social media. It’s something that’s earned and is invisible to the casual observer. You can’t discern it from what someone looks like, the type of gear they use or from eavesdropping on a bragging session in the local fly shop. It has to be witnessed on the water. Only then will you know if someone’s got it.
I used to think that more and better gear would make me a better angler. But since learning tenkara, I’ve done a 180. And reminiscing about people in my past like Bruce only confirms the idea that it’s really the angler that catches the fish, not the tackle.
I no longer have the luxury of making excuses like “I didn’t have the right fly”, “I forgot my floatant”, or, “the reel jammed”. It’s all me. I fish without alibis. And while I have to admit it was scary at first (like going into battle naked), I think it’s the best way to truly test your strem cred.
You’ve either got it or you don’t. And, there’s only one way to get it.