Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Fly fishing cannot endure without the stream–without the fishery. While the techniques have long since branched into lake and surf, too much of the fascination and lore is bound up in moving water and the magic of pristine, free-flowing streams. So a key element to fly fishing’s survival remains the preservation of fragile dynamic habitat…preservation that requires public support. And there’s no better way to strengthen that support than by making participatory angling converts. Naturally, such conversion starts with introduction, explanation, inspiration.

I’ve always believed that unless we intend to waste our time, the key to explaining anything is Imagination. You hear the old four-item coaching list, “explanation, demonstration, imitation and repetition” (and I’d add a fifth, that being “correction”), but at the core of them all is Imagination. This holds true in casual conversation such as when a colleague at the coffee machine asks whether we did any fishing over the weekend, but it’s especially true in teaching. Imagination is the salve we must apply to our words that lets us not only formulate them accurately but tailor them to what we intend the listener to ‘get.’

There’s no impediment to teaching, to learning, more insidious than jargon. That fact is seemingly easy to understand when picturing how we might explain fly fishing to children, and yet I’m continually amazed at how much confusing jargon adults throw at kids–words and phrases they cannot grasp, followed by, “well, never mind, you’ll understand some day.” They’re not too young; we’re just too lazy to apply a little imagination to the descriptive task. We have to hear ourselves through their ears BEFORE our words come out, and then choose a way to explain such that it makes sense when it does.

It holds just as true for adults–that coffee machine lurker, or the neighbor, or a gym buddy, or the baker or mechanic…or a spinning gear fisherman. More often than we might imagine, these people throw the door wide open for us–they give us an ideal opportunity to plant the fly fishing intrigue into their minds and souls–but too often those opportunities get blown. We go to jargon too quickly, either to show them how much of an ‘insider’ we are, or just out of casual habit. The result is invariably that we draw a blank stare instead of an appreciative, wistful gaze.

In my opinion, salesmen and storytellers should be defined not by some monthly tally but by the ideas they spread. They’re the great teachers we encounter throughout lives, and what they ‘sell’ are ideas. They’re those who can paint a thrilling or captivating scene with a perfect phrase, those who imagine, in advance and on the fly, how we’ll hear it; and then they make it come alive.

Jargon is a shortcut, nothing more–a timesaver among those who already have the concepts firmly installed in their minds. But to the uninitiated it clouds thinking and turns interesting topics into shifty shadows, the aroma of arrogance, and noise. It paints erroneous images that confuse instead of illuminate. In the sport of hang gliding I used to hear it all the time:

“Wow, dude, caught a rotor right before the LZ.”

“Some kind of…motor, you say? Before getting…lazy?”

“No, dude, washing machine. Right-hand pattern. Lost the core…just about went over the falls.”

“Back there by the, uh, creek, I guess? You were eating, like, an apple…while flying over the creek?”

“Nah, caught it right here, in 500 up no less! Aank-aank-aaaank stuff. Went to trim before ground effect though. Lucked out on the timing. Nice flare, I’ll take it.”

“Yes…uh…very fashionable harness-thingie you’re wearing, very nice, uh, flair.”

“Ahh never mind. Hard to explain, dude.”

That was a guy who did nothing more than encounter a little turbulence that tipped him slightly nose-down near the landing field, but who managed to pull off a decent landing. But you’d never know it; he couldn’t communicate without the gimmicky insider jargon.

When explaining fly fishing, some anglers seem to fall back on jargon. I even hear it in fly shops. Maybe the salesperson is keen on appearing to be an authority to the buyer, but it’s a fool’s errand, especially if the customer has walked in overtly admitting to being a neophyte. “Always wanted to try this, know nothing at all about it…what’s it all about?” “Well, lemme take you on over here to where we have our premium rods and reels…now that one there has the highest modulus, but boron so it’s not underdamped, half-wells o’course, handles double-taper and weight-forward with equal ease….” I watch these scenes and almost always nearly choke up a lung trying not to laugh. Several times I’ve seen a stare so blank, so confused, yet so unnoticed by the jargon-spouting salesperson, that I’ve found a way to wander over and inject my own comment “from experience” that used plain ol’ English. In those rare cases the customer has always turned to me in relief and asked me their next question, sensing that I was a source of an answer they might actually understand. (The salespeople didn’t seem to mind in those rare cases either, because I was basically doing their job for them.)

There’s plenty more, but here’s a brief glossary of insider jargon along with what can go through the well-intentioned greenhorn’s mind:

— Back cast: A trick move where you face the parking lot instead of the water and toss the line over your shoulder.

— Leader: Some aspiring anglers have no idea what to picture, because no one has yet explained to them that the fly line doesn’t tie directly to the fly. Some picture a 6-inch piece of wire between fly line and fly. To others, when they hear the word ‘leader’ the hired guide comes to mind.

— Balancing line and rod: Spool line onto reel and mount it, set outfit on one finger midway up the cork; does it teeter-totter there nice and level?

— Taper: I don’t know what half of them think when they’re shown a tapered leader, but the other half seem to assume the thickest part ties to the hook eye so that fish teeth won’t chew through it.

— Turn over: A fruity breakfast pastry.

— Dead drift: Cast and then do nothing with the line, no matter what.

— Double Haul: Carrying both your own gear and your buddy’s.

— Tight loops: Pulling on your knots until they’re real small.

— A fish that ‘takes you into the backing’: When you have to walk in reverse up the bank to land it.

— Wetfly: The assumptions range from ‘shiny wet-paint appearance’ to ‘botched cast,’ but one thing remains certain to most of them–all flies are dry flies.

— Snake guide: A brand name, highly prized for some strange reason.

— Tip Guide: Handing the group leader a couple of bucks.

— Down-locking reel seat: An anti-theft device–install the reel once and nobody can take it off.

— Tailout: Happens when a pair of jeans splits.

— Roll cast: Some imagine a normal cast that somehow has an extra curly-cue in the line–again some kind of senseless trick shot; others imagine a cyclone-like roll in the horizontal dimension, like the famed “screwballs” of baseball lore.

— Pinching a Barb: When hearing this phrase, only the bravest are willing to chuckle in front of their wives.

— Mend: Naturally all beginners picture the point where a broken line is tied together.

— Hackle: Seeing hackle already on a fly does not make it clear that it’s a feather. When they realize this word refers to feathers, many are baffled as to how it radiates outward from the hook shank. To them ‘hackle’ is what you do to a bad comedian.

— Hopper: A big rubber frog imitation about the size of your hand.

— Shank: To slice a cast wide into the weeds.

— The whole 1x/3x/5x tippet thing: Many think it’s a manufacturing quality rating; they need to be enlightened that it’s a diameter and that the numeric progression is inverse.

— Shot: Almost all get this, but they imagine pieces of lead the size of a marble and assume that more is better, to really get the cast out there.

— Hook set: “Oh, I bought myself a full set, yes…gold ones, silver ones, all sizes.”

— Progressive taper: A political posture that tends to thin out over time.

— Steelhead: A rugged fishing helmet.

— Stripping: Don’t go there.

— Nymph: Don’t go there while stripping.

— Stripping guide: Don’t hire one.

Okay, I may have stretched the truth on those last three, but not by much. The point is that every question we get asked, every explanation we give, is an opportunity–either to win an intrigued convert or to drive someone so deep into the Jargon Forest they’ll never dare to ask anything again.

While a picture is worth a thousand words, a very few well-chosen words can also evoke a beautiful picture. You wouldn’t want to encounter an aank-aank-aank rotor over the LZ and lose your core, now, would you?


  1. Thanks for a fun read, Michael. You’re right, jargon is a collection of linguistic short-cuts. And while it can confuse beginners, the amount of explanation necessary to provide a plain-English version of a piece of jargon often leaves the recipient just as confused and with his or her eyes glazed over. Some endeavors, fly fishing among them, have a level of complexity associated with them that make the use of jargon nearly unavoidable. Having said that, however, some people do spew excessive amounts of jargon for just the reasons you cite. Fly fishing is at least a little more mainstream than it once was, the average person is at least aware of its existence. Yet not that long ago, even the term “fly fishing” was confusing to some people. Some years back, I ran into several different individuals who saw me fly fishing and engaged me in a brief conversation. All of them first asked, “What are you doing?” When I replied, “Fly Fishing,” one said “I never saw anyone fish like that before.” Another said, “Isn’t it hard to keep them on the hook when you keep whipping it back and forth like that?” and the third said, “Ever catch any?” Maybe, to them, the very words “fly fishing” were jargon.

    1. I believe the trick may be to simplify explanations without resorting to those insider shortcuts. I’ve found that describing the “essence” in terms of a need to cast tiny bug replicas because of the feeding habits of certain fish, and that a method was devised of throwing a line that has weight instead of tossing poundage attached to the hooks, does resonate with lay folk once they picture it. After they grasp that basic foundation, the rest are just details.

      I’m happy to hear you think we’ve gone more “mainstream” Mary, but I can’t help but wonder whether it’s just that you’ve educated your circles over time! You’d be good at it, certainly.

      The reason I wonder that is because a monstrous percentage of the folks I work with are still thoroughly uninitiated and still think that hauling in fish meat by the pound using 30-pound-test line tied to seven or eight cheese-loaded treble hooks filling the critter’s mouth is the only definition of “fishing.” When they see a fly line, they think it’s thick so that even bigger fish meat can be winched up the beach.

      Maybe I just need you to come out here and give them a seminar! Just don’t mention “stripping guides,” as when it comes to most of my colleagues the phrase “sophomoric sense of humor” doesn’t begin to say it. : )

      – Mike

  2. As a long time biology teacher I’d like to compliment you on “Hitting The Nail On The Head”…(or to the novice) “man I hope it’s not on my head”…nicely written.

    1. Thanks Jim. Hearing people needlessly confuse everybody around them, especially out of indifference or ego, can drive one mad. There’s a guy at my work who cannot speak English, only “acronym-speak”:

      “The BST should be DTD’d in the STDM, of course, like a bang-bang, you know, or an ARSQ. It’s obvious.”

      Yeah, buddy, nobody here has a clue what ye just said, but we’re almost as impressed with ye as y’are wid yerself….

      Anyway the jargon thing is always good for a lot of laughs.

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