ARTICLE RE: ELEGANT SOLUTION
January 27, 2007
In Battle to Bring in Catch, an
Imaginative Angler Learns to Win by a Neck
By PETER KAMINSKY
Casting a fly properly is among the most beautiful movements in all of
sport. Landing a hooked fish, on the other hand, has all the elegance of
attempting a limbo dance on a roller coaster. Having a friend or guide net your
fish is often the more practical approach.
No less an angling immortal than Izaak Walton often required the aid of a
fishing partner to land a trout. “Come, scholar, come lay down your rod, and
help me to land this as you did the other,” he wrote in “The Compleat Angler.”
The days of this buddy system may be numbered, thanks to a midstream insight
that came to Alan Greenberg, known as Ace, who is chairman of the executive
committee at Bear Stearns and, more important for this story, a lifelong
“Last September, I was fishing on the White River in
northwest Colorado,” he said. “I
was with my brother and my cousins and had hooked a good fish. It would have
been no problem for the guide to wade out into the current to net the fish, but
that doesn’t seem fair to me. If I hook it, I want to land it.”
On that autumn evening, Greenberg fought an 18-inch rainbow trout in strong
current, which is to say, he had picked the right fly, placed it correctly,
struck well and fought with a sure knowledge of the limits of his tackle. The
problem, familiar to most anglers, that he faced at the end of the battle was
that his wingspan was less than the distance covered by the rod and leader.
No matter how wide a fisherman tries to stretch his arms, attempting to
bring a fish in reach is reminiscent of a dog chasing its tail and, for the
most part, equally effective.
Greenberg’s friend, Bob Friedhoffer, a scientist who specializes in
informal science education, recently wrote a paper that explained this
landing-the-fish quandary as a straightforward physics problem: “The pole,
string, fish combination is a pendulum with a chaotically moving bob, attached
to a thin, flexible, third-class lever,” he wrote.
Before you or your $600 titanium-fitted, boron-graphite rod take offense at
being called anything but first class, please note that Friedhoffer is talking
about the physics of levers and not the workmanship in a fishing pole. A
third-class lever, Friedhoffer said, has “the fulcrum at one end, the
resistance at the other and the force applied somewhere between the two.” It
is, he added, “wonderfully adapted for casting a fly — but it is not the most
efficient lever for landing a fish.”
What one wants to accomplish that feat more efficiently is a first-class
lever — one in which the fulcrum comes between the force and the resistance.
Picture a seesaw.
Greenberg, 79, was not thinking in terms of physics as he stood in the
middle of that rushing Colorado
stream subduing a brawny trout. All he knew was there was no easy way to land
it. At that moment, the light bulb of invention went off under his fishing cap.
Instead of reaching in front of him with his rod and free hand, Greenberg acted
on an intuition: He placed the rod behind his neck, using the juncture of his
neck and shoulder as a fulcrum, and he pressed down on the butt of the rod.
Almost effortlessly, the fish came easily to hand.
“My cousin said it really looked stupid, but the guide went crazy for it,”
Greenberg said. “It was so simple. In the classic landing position, the fish
has all the advantage, but with this method, if you stand directly upstream of
the fish, it has to fight both the current and the leverage you apply to the
rod. It’s like magic.”
When I visited Greenberg in his Midtown Manhattan office recently, he
offered to demonstrate. He played the role of the fish, holding on to the line
while I wielded his ancient bamboo rod. I aligned my foot perpendicular to the
imaginary current between us, then placed the rod behind my neck and shoulders
and lifted. The limber, flexible rod became a forceful lever.
Like a kid who needs to show his buddies a new trick shot in basketball, I
hurried over to the Orvis shop on Fifth Avenue
where my friend, Don Winter, works. With his permission, I removed a rod and
reel from the clutches of a nattily attired mannequin. I explained Greenberg’s
idea and then demonstrated it. Winter responded with the same look of pleased
enlightenment that I had felt on first seeing the maneuver.
I am not sure yet that this is a technique that one would want to try on an
albacore; the fish’s attempt at a last lunge for freedom could shatter a rod,
sending splinters flying. But for a trout in a stream, or any largemouth bass I
can imagine, it is a nice weapon to have in your arsenal.
Nearly 40 years ago, the high jumper Dick Fosbury turned conventional track
and field wisdom on its head when he won the Olympic gold medal by going over
the bar backward in what has since been known as the Fosbury Flop. Now, with
Greenberg’s 180-degree rearrangement of traditional angling technique, he may
have started a similar revolution.