Exit Through the Gift Shop - Bruce Ketchum


The more fly fishers learn about the sport of fly fishing the easier they fall prey to creative advertising and competitive social pressure to make unnecessary fly rod and accessory purchases. Fly rod companies promote the idea that the rod makes the fly fisher and all one needs to be a success is to have the right fly rod with the heftiest price tag. Is that what makes the fly fisher, the fly rod? 

I have a friend who is a successful chiropractor who cracks my back from time to time. He could afford any fly rod he might want. But he uses very effectively, what fly rod industry types would call entry-level fly rods. I’ve never fished with him, but I’ve seen numerous photos on his cell phone of the fish he has caught and I feel certain his fishing skill with entry-level fly rods would far surpass that of many with thousands of dollars invested in fly rods. He demonstrates it is the skill with the fly rod, not the fly rod, that makes the successful fly fisher. 

When I was a kid growing up in a Midwest small town during the 1960s there was an old man down the street who was the only fly fisherman I had ever met back then. He had two split bamboo fly rods; one he used for bluegill and crappie and the other one for largemouth bass. Neither of his fly rods was expensive. They were good, solid-quality fly rods that a working man in his day could afford. Born at the beginning of the 20th century, the times in which he lived were so radically different than today, he probably felt very fortunate to even own a fly rod. In his day, fly fishing was an art and it had an almost spiritual element to it. It had little to do with the fly rods, reels, or other paraphernalia and everything to do with the skill and the ability of the fly fisherman to hone that skill to the point of being able to do anything needed with the equipment he had. The very idea that a fly rod could make him a good fly fisherman, I’m certain would have been an insult to his skill as a fly fisherman and his worth as a man. 

Today, the fly fishing industry has convinced anglers that successful fishing is about specialization and the requirement to have the perfect rod for every condition and purpose. We have rods for nymphing, dries, streamers, rivers, lakes, and saltwater, not to mention two-hand rods in every conceivable configuration to cover all situations. This is artfully referred to as ‘rods in your quiver,’ which is a clever way of indicating to the consumer that they should expect to have many fly rods. If they don’t have several fly rods, well, they’re just not fly fishers in good standing; they’re not serious about the sport. In that scenario, what has happened to fly fishing? It has been reduced to dollars and cents - the bottom line for the fly fishing industry. 

I’ve spent a lot of time on the Metolius River at the base of the Cascade Mountains in Central Oregon. In addition to being a world-class trout stream, it’s also very assessable and can be a spectacle for the latest devotes to the sport dressed to the nines in the latest gear, brandishing the most expensive fly rods and reels packaged in the latest top-notch rod racks, attached to sixty thousand dollar pickup trucks. Fly fishing fashion photographers would be right to walk the banks of the Metolius on a summer day.  One wonders if these anglers have ever put in the time to reach any level of competence.  Judging by the pristine appearance of their waders and equipment there wasn’t a single indication that these people knew how to fish or had ever fished. I’ve also seen fishermen pounding down the path, two expensive fly rods in hand, rigged for dry and nymph fishing, deadly serious in demeanor as though out on military maneuvers. I suppose when you are carrying over two thousand dollars worth of fly fishing equipment, fly fishing is a damn serious matter. Is this what fly fishing has become? Can people buy their way into fly fishing? 

The trail to all of this begins with the first fly rod purchase. Due to creative advertising and friendly reviews, first-time fly fishers get excited about an expensive fly rod before it has ever been cast. Once that excitement is established, when the rod is cast at the shop, the buyer can only sense the things that confirm the desire to buy that particular rod. Later, they may find that they made a mistake, but by then, it’s too late to change anything.  

Even experienced fly fishers sometimes demonstrate a lack of willpower or clear thinking and become victims of new technology, great looks, and effective advertising.  One cannot supplement experience with purchases that promise shortcuts.  Instead of putting in the work into becoming good fly casters, they’re looking for the magic wand of fly rods to do the job better for them. Fly rod advertising keeps that mindset alive and well, which often leads to a collection of fly rods that gather dust in the closet. 

Three older fly fishers I’ve talked with told me they didn’t know how many fly rods they owned; they had so many they had no idea the number. One guessed thirty-something, another guessed more than twice that number and the third couldn’t guess the number at all. Could anyone use thirty to seventy fly rods or more, no matter how many decades had passed? 

I’ve talked with young fly fishers who own many fly rods already. Usually, they started by purchasing cheaper fly rods, then a bit more costly fly rods, and finally the expensive fly rods. Now, they have thousands of dollars invested in multiple fly rods in the same weights and lengths. However, they are so enamored with buying that they fully intend to buy more, regardless of cost.  

Some fly fishers specialize in the species they pursue and the techniques they like to apply, which should simplify things, but there’s always a seductive new fly rod beckoning to them from the rack in the fly shop. They become torn between loyalty to tried and true fly rods and the attraction of a new one. It’s a tug-of-war that could go either way. 

For most fly fishing purposes, one would be hard-pressed to find a poorly manufactured fly rod or reel these days. Beware of industry terminology identifying rods as ‘entry-level’, ‘mid-priced’, or ‘premium’. ‘Entry-level’ is meant to convince the buyer that someday when they get serious, they’ll break out the credit card and spend more money. ‘Mid-priced’ terminology is meant to prime the consumer to throw down some serious cash in the future. ‘Premium’ means you’ll be spending close to a thousand dollars or even more for a long piece of plastic with a cork handle on one end. ‘Premium’? There are a lot of words I might use for spending that kind of money for something like that; words I could apply to myself as a matter of fact, but ‘premium’ wouldn’t be one of them.

Is fly fishing about thousand-dollar fly rods? Is it about having a large number of fly rods in your quiver? Is it about the latest expensive waders, boots, backpacks, and other paraphernalia? I don’t think so. Fly fishing is best represented by a couple of teenagers I met while hiking along a river one day. They had old fly rods and reels I couldn’t begin to identify and tennis shoes for waders. On my return down the trail past where they were fishing, I watched one of them bring to hand a beautiful, large, rainbow.  Yelling with excitement, they were two of the happiest human beings I’d seen in a long time.


Photos courtesy of  The Patient Angler Fly Shop. Serving Central Oregon for 38 years. Fly shop, worldwide fly fishing info, gear, rentals, fly tying materials, guided trips and more (patientangler.com).


  • This is a fantastic article! Well done!

    Jim Smith
  • This article says it all!!

    Scott W Nelson
  • This article says it all.
    The cornerstones of fly fishing success are fly casting and aquatic entomology. Not all the bells and whistles $$$.

    Scott W. Nelson
  • I have a $40.00 “beginners” 7 1/2 ft 3 wt that has caught over 2000 fish in the last 22 years.. I do use quality high strength 6x and 7x tippet., that little pole does the rest. I bought it because I was sure I was going to break a pole fishing small streams and didn’t want the heart break of destroying a “high end” pole. Now I will be sad when I break this one.

    Paul Chudek
  • This is the kind of memories I personally hang on to and are moved by. Thank you Mr. Ketchum.

    Michael Baehr

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