Fishstick. Photo by Hansi Johnson.

Being "fishy" vs. being "a stick"

"Hey, Lucky," Scott asks, "I can't get this Chuggernaut to chug. What am I doing wrong?"

My friend Scott Noble has traveled from Spokane, Washington, to Hayward, Wisconsin, with the singular goal of catching a musky on a fly. And now, finally here in the bow of the boat, being guided by Brian "Lucky" Porter, he can't make his popper pop.

In Scott's defense, we've been double-hauling huge flies all day, and our arms are spent. Scott is a solid caster but right now he's fishless and struggling. He hands the rod to Lucky, who sends a cast toward shore and begins a quick, top-water refresher course, while still seated at the oars.

"Watch," says Lucky, after landing the fly two inches from shore. "Just strip tight to it, and then—" Lucky gives the big fly one violent chug, and the water explodes with a monster eat. He strip-sets hard, then hands the pulsing 10-weight back to Scott, who begrudgingly plays and lands the fish.

"My first-ever musky assist," Lucky says, the 37-inch predator writhing in the net.

One cast. One strip. One musky. All we can do is shake our heads in disbelief. Scott and I would each catch a musky that week, but it required considerably more effort than it had taken Lucky. Retelling the musky assist story later that night in the Boulder Lodge bar, someone spouts a familiar phrase, "Lucky's just a fishy dude."

"Fishy" and "a stick." In the bro-ier circles of flyfishing, these are the two highest compliments one can pay a fellow angler. But what do the terms mean? Are they the same, or different? If you could only be one, which would it be? I posed this question to a few friends and industry types, attempting to gain a consensus. My close friends gave the answer you'd expect from close friends: "They're both the same," said Mike Allen, guide and co-owner of Midwest Waters Angling Co. "And you are neither." (We'll call Mike's response "inconclusive.")

Scott Noble, from our opening scene, says, "I'd rather be known as a stick. A fishy guy is just someone who's lucky. A stick is someone with skill, who gets invited to the more advanced waters." Our mutual friend, Ryan Kral, disagrees. "A fishy person will catch fish when others don't; when conditions are against them. A stick is just a good caster."

With my academic study in shambles, I returned to a methodology that got me through college: Ignoring the responses that didn't support my desired outcome, and focusing on the handful that did.

"Fishy, to me, means that you can look at a piece of water and know where the fish should be, and what they should be eating," says Bill Katzenberger, of DuPage Fly Fishing Co. "If you're fishy, you should be able to catch fish in the puddle of a Costco parking lot."

Brian Ramsey, a competitive caster and professional guide, with a career spanning 28 years, adds: "Fishy anglers have an aura about them, some indescribable swagger, with an innate ability to catch fish. And they're usually humble about it."

And so, I offer this hypothesis for peer review: To be Fishy is to possess an otherworldly, almost mystical understanding of our quarry. An ability to locate and catch fish when others cannot. It comes from putting in the time, but also from something deeper, something uncanny. Being a stick refers to a mastery-level expertise with a fly rod. An angler who can consistently make great casts, from any distance, accurately and effortlessly, in all types of situations. Someone who can mend line, set hooks, and play and land fish, with thousands of hours gripping cork.

Therefore, the ultimate goal must be to achieve both Fishy and Stick status. Perhaps even simultaneously, in a Zen-like moment of piscine clarity. The Musky Assist demonstrates this state. From a seated position, with oars across his lap, Lucky Porter hit the bank with a musky popper the size of my forearm, and hooked a fish with one strip. If the goal is to be both fishy and be a stick—a fishstick—then anglers like Lucky are the love children of some unholy one-night dalliance between the Gorton's Fisherman and Mrs. Paul's. Meanwhile, the rest of us shake our heads in disbelief, and try to make our poppers pop.


[Patrick Burke is a full-time writer and creative director at Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago. His writing has appeared in Backpacker and McSweeney's, among others. His biggest claim to fame is writing the "Skittlespox" commercial.]