Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Why.... A philosophical look at Flyfishing
A philosophical look at fly fishing;
Awhile ago, while watching a spin fisherman walk far too quickly down a pretty stretch of my local smallmouth bass river, carelessly throwing 200 foot casts in every direction and hauling in the occasional fish by cartwheeling it back to him at lightning speed, I began a slow and long meditation on why I flyfish. Just what is it about flyfishing that seems to captivate my soul? Why have I given up all other kinds of sport fishing? I had a lot of ideas, most overlapping and difficult to categorize. Some were more feelings than ideas. I feared it would like trying to describe fine music with mere words. Perhaps poetry would be more appropriate, but I feared that I would produce something overly romantic and sentimental. In my thinking I had began to fuss and over-analyze the sport, when at dusk I made a beautiful cast, sending a pretty loop of line across the river and delivering a popper under the branches of a fallen willow, which in turn was engulfed by a beautiful and strong smallmouth bass. It was perfection. “Aha” I exclaimed aloud, “Thank you for reminding me.” Moments like this are epiphanies. Therefore, with all humility, I give you my take on flyfishing.
A good point of departure is to examine what the world envisions when it imagines flyfishing. If one reads any mainstream news or magazine article over the years regarding flyfishing they all have common themes. Flyfishing seems remote and mystic, practiced by older gentlemen wise to the way of fish and river. Gentlemen who we can imagine engrossed in a good book at the hearth-side and enjoying a pipe. They might be a bit misanthropic, preferring the company of a good dog and an eight inch brookie to that of common society. The fly angler often is depicted as a bit tweedy, like a college philosophy professor with addition of rod and creel.
Flyfishing is depicted as different and elevated beyond the other forms of sport fishing. Fly anglers are depicted as serious; serious and traditional.
The sporting Tradition:
So, letting the magazine images and portrayals guide us, let’s go back in time. Flyfishing came to America via Europe, specifically England. Flyfishing was a diversion and sport of the leisure class. Only they could afford the time and effort needed to catch a fish on horsehair lines and small feathered creations. The common working man would never have enough time for pleasantries. Common men fished with bait and nets, while the upper classes were the practitioners of flyfishing; thus we also see the origins of the snobbery effect. The sporting tradition in England demanded that the animal or fish supposedly be given a sporting chance. (Except driven shoots, which although considered sporting were the hunting equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.) Fly anglers dressed in the finest country clothing, took pride in the aesthetics of their equipment, and fished in beautiful places for beautiful fish. Not a lot changed in the American inheritance and adoption of flyfishing. The dryfly was still considered the only way, and although the chalk streams gave way to the Catskills, the trout still lived in beautiful places, and the persons chasing them with the fly rod were still the leisure classes. Anglers dressed in their Sunday best, and flyfishing was still considered an elevated way of sporting against the fishes. Modern flyfishers are not all upper class snobs. We come from diverse backgrounds. We no longer wear ties and collars, and have traded bamboo for graphite, but we are still bound together by a tradition of a fish caught in a sporting way. Given this background, let’s look at some of the inherent qualities and themes in this sporting tradition.
A quiet sport:
Above all, flyfishing is a quiet sport practiced in beautiful natural surroundings. It is a sport practiced alone, where one can hear the murmur of the brook and the wind whistling through the trees. Gone are the sounds of the city and civilization. Gone are the screaming children and barking dogs. Gone are the roaring engines and sirens; gone are the worries and stress. Fly anglers are apt to stop fishing at some point, and simply sit and watch an eagle or a sunset. Most flyfishing is done while wading, without boats. When boats are used, often they are canoes or drift boats and non-motorized or only equipped with a motor sufficient to get them out of trouble. Many fly anglers are so quiet that you would never see them if their reels didn’t click. They silently glide into the water and disappear into the mist. The rhythm of casting is slow and quiet too, as is the way the fly enters the water. Quietness is important to us as it allows us to think. Remember, music is the space between the notes.
Nature and beautiful places:
Trout live in beautiful places, as do other fish we fly anglers pursue. Nature is simplicity and a force. We try to capture essences of nature and the natural world in art and music, the smells and sounds in poetry. Nature and its language and silence are part of each of us. It is where we came from. To practice a quiet sport among such beautiful and diverse surroundings as mountain streams, big freestone rivers, and northern forest brooks is a privilege and our worship at our temple. Nature’s spiritualism is a large part of flyfishing. At the end of the day, we are as likely to lock into memory the moment the sun burned off the mists on the river at dawn, as the fish we caught. This attention to the aesthetic qualities of nature leads us to care about our treasured places, and to become concerned with the forces that threaten them. There are few true fly anglers that are not closet tree-huggers, if not outright members of conservation organizations. We care because we love, and we love because of beauty. We are connected to the natural world by the footprints we leave and the loops we make.
More than any other kind of sport fishing, fly fishing is connected and involved with the act of fishing. Fly anglers have to make delicate casts, read water, and manage line and mending. We strip in line by hand in order to prevent drag or give a streamer motion, we don’t just turn a crank. Because of the inherent difficulty of flyfishing, we have to think. We don’t have sonar or radar detectors to tell us exactly where the fish are, we have to explore with our feet and use our minds to defeat the fish, and bring its jeweled form to hand. To me, involvement is essential to the experience. Trolling bores me, as does watching a bobber. Having to present my fly to the fish, whether that is a dryfly, popper or swung salmon fly, involves me with life’s intricacies, struggles, and patterns. That involvement in turn combined with curiosity opens a door to the natural world, and as we study it, we don’t just become better anglers, we become more aware. In essence, we flyfishermen don’t drink beer while aimlessly chucking lures, but instead may savor a single-malt after having discovered and matched a particularly mysterious hatch, or making the perfect cast. We are involved, and appreciate the ability to make discoveries and learn. We want to be more involved in actually catching the fish. We want to say “I figured it out, made the cast, and caught the fish.” We actually want to be the main participant in the little mental and physical chase between ourselves and the fish, not let technology or someone else do it for us. I always get a kick out of people that “fish” by pulling plugs or charter fishing with deep running dodgers and flies. The customer here is not involved at all, merely being the last link on the chain between the fish and a whole lot of knowledge of the guide or captain. After all the guide has rowed the boat pulling the plugs at just the right speed and in just the right place to take a fish, and the captain has the years of knowledge and sonar to locate fish. They are really fishing, not their customers. The customer merely reels in the fish for the glory shot and fish fry.
Flyfishing at its essence is a simple sport; a single long rod, and single hook used in pursuit of our spiritual quarry. We carry a box of flies that can fit into a pocket, not a large tackle box that weighs forty pounds. Although our rods can be complicated in taper, construction and refined use, they at essence are simply the principle of the willow branch in action; always giving and bending but never letting go, thus letting the fish tire itself out. Our flies are colors of natural furs and feathers and their imitations wrapped on an artists blank canvas of a single hook. Rarely do we need complicated rigging or weight. We need no sonar devices. Just the fly, line, and rod.
I would make the argument that we who flyfish appreciate our quarry more than other sport fishers. It lies in the inherent difficulties and demands of the sport. Most of us pass through several phases of angling. First, we want to merely catch a fish. Then we want to catch the most fish. After that, we want to catch the biggest fish. Finally, we progress in our angling journey to a point where we are satisfied with being able to fish. We come to enjoy the settings we fish in. We are happy with a small fish. We are happy with many fish. We are just happy to fish. We appreciate the privilege of fishing itself. Numbers are not important any more. We no longer have anything to prove.
In flyfishing, we have to stalk our prey. Whether a steelhead in a big roaring river, or a small bejeweled cutthroat in a mountain stream, our sport demands that we work for our quarry. That work and time spent on the river builds appreciation. I have walked off the water after catching a single memorable fish to eat blackberries or simply to soak in the moment. Some fishermen always have to catch fish. It becomes a game of numbers. When we turn a fish into a number, we have lost a piece of our soul. Perhaps anglers looking for numbers are lost in the river. After all, it was Thoreau who wrote "Many men go fishing all of their lives without the knowing that it is not fish they are after."
Flyfishing is a difficult sport. We have to learn to cast, to wade, and to read water. The limitations of our tackle connect us to the water like no other fishing. We have to think and learn; to evolve as fishermen. We take nothing for granted. The angling experience becomes more than just fishing. When we no longer have ‘bad’ days but merely ‘introspective’ days fishing, we have truly become appreciative of the river, the fish, and the angling experience.
In addition to the beauty of the places we pursue our fish, the tackle we use has its own aesthetic qualities. A fly is a beautiful thing. From a well-tied mayfly dry, to a full-dress Atlantic salmon pattern, our flies are tributes to the fish we catch. We spend hours at the bench tying our creations, just to send them on their way into the river with a hope that a connection will be made to a fish. We collect books on flies, and spend winter nights organizing them in boxes. They are small pieces of art. There is little to compare in a plastic lure or metal device. Bait is just bait. I doubt if other anglers spend as much time discussing and treasuring gear as we do our flies.
In addition to the fly, our casting is elegant; a sort of airborne ballet. A loop of flyline gently unrolling over the water to quietly place a fly on the water is something to appreciate in itself. When I practice in the park or the river, people often stop to watch for a bit. Would that happen if I were throwing a crank-bait? I doubt it. Watching a good flycaster can be like watching a gymnast and dancer all rolled into one.
Rods can be appreciated as art as well. A cane rod can be a treasure. With its specialized taper, hand wound guides and clear varnish, it lets us see the essence of a rod in its simplest but prettiest form. Even a well-made graphite rod can be a thing of beauty. Exotic wood inserts and reel seats can match with nickel-silver hardware to create a rod worthy of being photographed.
Many of our reels can be thought of as artistic creations too. Looking at a classic American s-curve handled trout reel with black sides such as a Bogdan or Vom Hoffe one cannot be unmoved. Then there are the old Hardy reels with their own legacies and traditions. Whole books have been dedicated to the art of fly tackle and flies, perhaps more than any other fishing sport.
All fine arts and crafts like these have to be used, and in the use of beautiful tackle in beautiful places, we achieve a sort of aesthetic beauty ourselves.
Quiet, peaceful and alone:
Flyfishing is a sport performed alone. Even if you fish with a friend, you are both doing your separate thing. There is no team, no winner, and no loser. There is no competition except with yourself and your skill. In the end the experience is yours, the memories earned, the fish won fair to hand. Flyfishing can be a meditation; a reflection. Alone we pass through time and the river, ever learning. The mistakes are ours to make alone, and the victories ours alone to celebrate. Quietly we stalk the fish, at peace with the world, and wondering what happened to the worries of yesterday.
A lifetime of learning:
One man’s life is not enough time to learn everything there is to know about flyfishing. Indeed, flyfishing can be thought of as a lifetime journey. It is a sport of reflection and thinking; an intellectual sport. As we progress as anglers, so do we progress as people, growing wise with analogies to life and fishing. If we are ever bored, we can simply change gears. We can learn to cast a two-handed rod, fish in the ocean for stripers, return to the joy of youth by fishing for bluegill, or simply put the rod away, and read a passage of Roderick Haig-Brown. There is so much to do and learn. We have become curious as flyfishers. We ask “Why?”, “What if I do this?”, or “What about that?”, then we spend time on the water answering our own questions.
So, let us go back to that evening on the water when all this contemplation started. The other fisherman moved through the water fast because his equipment allowed him to. He threw his tube-jig three times as far as I could cast because he could. He walked through the best water while casting to empty shallow runs because he never needed to read water. In twenty minutes, he was gone, and I would take another hour to move two hundred yards. Because I moved slowly, thinking and observing, I did fairly well. When fish started to be scarce, I changed tactics and cast to a broad flat strewn with boulders. The popper made a “bloop,” and instantly disappeared in a toilet-flush as a 17 inch smallmouth bass took the fly and proceeded to jump five times in succession. I landed it, released it and reeled up to allow a moment of contemplation and to drink in the whole scene. This was what it was all about. A blue heron flew by overhead, and the sunset-sky turned a fuchsia color. Now I knew...this is why I flyfish.