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).


  • Touche ! Good on Ya It is amazing to me that these days that folks have reinvented quite nicely Keeping up with the Jone’s

    Dan Soule
  • Enjoyed your article!! I too remember the days of simplicity and my cheap glass flyrod!! Thanks again for reminding us that we need to get back to the basics that its not the cost but the enjoyment and to take the time in the stressful days we have and enjoy where we first started!Mark S.

    Mark Schasel
  • Enjoyed your article!! I too remember the days of simplicity and my cheap glass flyrod!! Thanks again for reminding us that we need to get back to the basics that its not the cost but the enjoyment and to take the time in the stressful days we have and enjoy where we first started!Mark S.

    Mark Schasel
  • I feel like I just murdered a couple minutes of my life I’ll never get back reading an article by a guy who still uses dial up to connect to the internet, has a landline, thinks min wage is $1.08, and walked to school uphill both ways in the snow. I agree the fly rod doesn’t make the angler and absolutely a level of competency’s needed to be successful at catching fish, but specifically purposed and higher end rods could level up your abilities. I know I sound like I drank the Kool Aid, but I personally can see the difference in loops, accuracy, and distance while casting my buddy’s Sage X compared to my Echo. Love my Echo, but we can’t say a higher end rod won’t make you better and is ruining the essence or spirituality of fly fishing. Newer tech is typically better. Automobiles, phones, computers, and yes, fishing rods. They may be a crutch or a way to overcompensate for some, but it’s not the problem. I’m not saying this is always the reason with selecting rods, but have you considered maybe those guys on the river with the fancy premium rods were the ones that best fit their natural casting stroke and fit their budget? Not all rods perform the same for each individual, you should know that. I have no problem seeing people out on the river with multiple rods, so why knock them for having a couple sticks? How is that less enjoyable for them that they’re upping their chances of catching fish with stuff that they feel works better for their specific needs? Who cares what others decide to spend their money on? Why can’t the novice or intermediate fisherman have nice stuff? At what point do you become worthy of owning a premium rod? Are they outfishing you with their euro setup and that’s what has you spun up? I get you’re trying to make a point of the commercialism of the sport similar what many think of Christmas, but it’s always been that way. It’s always been the newest greatest must have waders, boots, rods, reels, creels, nets, etc. The difference is the marketing’s more effective with the internet than just seeing an ad in the back of whatever magazine, newspaper, or Sears catalog. Maybe the bigger problem with fly fishing might have to do with the old guard being snobby, judgmental, elites that are stuck in the past and haven’t adapted to the change in time?

  • Nice to read a truthful article about fly rods, I owned ( 2) Chinese split bamboo rods made in the late 50 . My hart was broken when they were stolen at King Salmon Lodge in Alaska where I worked…. A doctor from Anchorage by the name of Mike Cusack owned the lodge he’s now passed. I fished the Salmon River little salmon, nushagak, eigagig upper and lower ugashic lakes and tributaries all around that area. Some of that spelling may be off because I don’t remember them it was many years ago I’m 80 years old now still fishing I have a home on Lake Champlain in Upper New York State one of the better Fisheries in the United States for landlocked salmon Lake Trout Brook and Brown Trout, Rainbows look that one up Lake Champlain. Also 3 world class rivers and streams. Hell of a fishery!!!!


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