I grew up fishing gear. Though I’m a diehard fly fisherman now, my first fish, and most of my early fish, was caught vertical jigging in the San Juan Islands. It involved lowering a heavy lead jig down to the bottom, reeling it up a few feet, raising the rod tip, and letting the jig drop freely every few seconds. Vertical jigging it, in other words. This is a deadly effective way to catch rockfish, lingcod, greenling, cabezon and other northwest fish, as well as numerous bottom-hugging species all over the world. This type of fishing couldn’t be more simplistic.
Vertical jigging was my first introduction to fishing, and as such it was my first introduction to conventional fishing. A few years later I had my first introduction to fly fishing on the streams of Vancouver Island. The quarry was sea run cutthroat trout, and with a few tries, while losing a few flies, I was able to get my fly under logs and root wads and watch the thrilling flash, feel the electrifying grab of trout that seemed huge at the time. Fly fishing seemed more challenging, more exciting, more worthwhile than the conventional fishing I had been exposed to.
As I grew up, I continued to gravitate towards fly fishing, and by eighth grade it was my primary passion in life. My mom was kind enough to drive me to local lakes from time to time, where my hand-me-down gear caught me the occasional small trout. But my success was limited. Fly fishing seemed mysterious and exciting. I had to learn more.
Fly fishing has a well-earned reputation for being expensive. Premium rods these days go for a thousand dollars or more. Three hundred dollars is considered fairly cheap for a reel. Granted, there’s plenty of much cheaper gear out there, but once you add up leaders, tippet, flies, tools, accessories, waders, boots and packs, it’s very difficult to get out of a fly shop without having spent several hundred dollars. By contrast, you can get a perfectly functional conventional fishing rod and reel at many gas stations for a hundred dollars or less—and that reel may even be pre-spooled with line. Add a few lures and some nail clippers and you’re ready to fish.
But it’s not that simple. As a budding conventional angler gets deeper into the sport, terminal tackle—the bait, hooks, lures, weights, swivels etc, start to add up. Here, fly tiers have an advantage; although many fly tiers go a bit crazy with the materials, it’s possible to tie a few key patterns yourself and save hugely on flies. By contrast, most conventional lures can’t be made at home (one exception being Trailer Jigs undressed jigs), and most cost between three and ten dollars or more. Filling up a few boxes with those types of lures will quickly bring you into the hundreds of dollars. And breaking off that kind of precious hardware really hurts.
As far as where it is possible to fish, conventional fishing has a huge advantage. With heavier gear, conventional fishermen can access deep running fish like walleye and lake trout much more easily than fly fishers. They can access salmon in deep tanks and pools. They can also cast much farther, sending plugs and jigs over a hundred feet out. This capability to cast long distances allows conventional fishermen to fish from shore, nice and dry.
Fly fishers, however, can do one thing gear fishermen can’t: fish really slowly. Since their flies tend to be light, they can fish a light line and let their offerings almost hover in the water column. This technique is super effective on trout in lakes, as well as many other species at times.
With regard to the gear that “gear” fishermen throw, it has the potential to be much more realistic than our painstakingly tied flies. You only have to stroll through the booths at fishing shows like ICAST to witness perfectly painted, articulated swim baits and crabs that look like they will climb off the display and pinch you.
Fly fishing has a reputation for being super complex. The gear, the casting, the intimidating mass of flies necessary all dissuade many would-be fly fishers from trying the sport. As stated above, conventional fishing provides a refreshingly simple alternative.
It’s the casting, more than anything, that scares people away from (as well as attracts them to) fly fishing. Back and forth, ten o’clock and two o’clock (so they say), watch your back cast, accelerate to an abrupt stop. To gain proficiency in fly fishing you first have to go through a painfully awkward phase. It just seems harder than conventional fishing.
But that’s not to say conventional fishing is easy. Just try casting a lure within sight range of a tailing redfish without spooking it. Or throwing a plastic shrimp under a patch of mangroves. I would argue that casting conventional lures well is almost as hard as fly casting. I, for one, am pretty terrible at it, both in terms of distance and accuracy.
Conventional fishing tackle, as you get deeper into it, becomes more and more complex as well. There’s a dizzying amount of tackle that you might choose from as you peruse the aisles of your local tackle shop. Jigs, spinners, spoons, soft plastics, spinner baits, plugs, swim baits, chatter baits, Texas rigs, Carolina rigs and more all have their place. How is someone supposed to choose? The sport is as confusing as you choose to make it, but still probably not as complex as the caddis, midges, mayflies, stoneflies, damsel and dragonflies, leeches, and numerous other food sources that people imitate in fly fishing.
So now onto the real question you might be asking: which works better, conventional or fly?
Any steelhead or salmon fisherman would tell you that, for its ability to keep a lure in the strike zone, conventional fishing is the answer, if you’re after numbers of fish alone. A bobber with a jig below it has accounted for an astronomical number of salmon and steelhead. Plugs, fished downstream of a boat just slower than the current, are probably not far behind. I would estimate that for steelhead, gear out fishes fly by six to one, at least (that is, a swung fly— nymphing is almost as productive as gear).
Where fly fishing really comes into its own is when fish are eating small insects. By far the most common occurrence of this is with trout. When trout are feeding on small, or even tiny insects, (or really any insect), they often feed on that insect to the exclusion of other food sources, no matter how calorically dense they may be. It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around why a fish would take a practically microscopic mayfly or midge over a nice juicy leech, but that’s just the world we live in. In these situations, fly fishing has a distinct advantage. Conventional fishermen can't cast lures small enough to catch the trout because they require weight to make a cast.
What this means is that for a good portion of the year, gear fishermen have a hard time catching trout. I’ve seen this myself, fishing lakes in eastern Washington when the trout are keyed on chironomids. I’ve outfished gear fishermen as much as twenty to one, even though they were fishing all manner of scented and delectable Power Bait and worms.
The real advantage to conventional fishing is the ability to penetrate the water column quickly. To get deep, a fly fisherman has to fish a high density sinking fly line, which even in the most extreme doesn’t come close to penetrating the water like a jig. Heavy flies help, but they’re very awkward to cast. While you can count down for a minute or more as your flies sink on a sinking line, it’s a time consuming and inefficient game. In reality, in my opinion, the depth limit for truly productive fly fishing is about thirty feet, and that’s pushing it.
So which technique works better? That depends on the fish you’re after, and the water they’re in. I think conventional fishing is more versatile. For salmon and steelhead, as well as most saltwater species, it’s a no brainer: conventional fishing has the edge. Anytime you need your lure to penetrate to any significant depth, conventional fishing is by far more efficient. Overall, we can call it a tie. But just remember: there’s no law that says you can’t do both.