Monday, January 29, 2018

The River as my Teacher

In the classroom

I was beginning a day on the stream teaching a trout master class to another angler when he turned to me and asked “What is the agenda for today?”

I replied with a smile that we ‘Were going to let the river determine the agenda.’

I paused a moment…. What had come out of my mouth? After all, I was the teacher today, or was I? I decided to go with the flow, so to speak, and told the fellow angler, “I am the interpreter…. The fly-fishing translator to help solve the little challenges the river presents to us.”

“The river is the curriculum, and the course will change with every bend.”

 After a successful day presenting casts and techniques to open up the hidden doors I reflected… “We all get stuck in ruts, but if we lack an agenda and just follow the river, it will take us into uncharted halls of higher learning.”

 I learn every day from my teacher… the river. It is my professor of ease and difficulty, of frustration, surprise, and problem solving. The waters are my classroom. I decided to follow my new philosophy on the next solo outing.

 Instead of having an agenda, and rigging up at the car, I placed no fly on the line and simply went down to the side of the stream and sat awhile. What would I learn today? The next few hours would be an open book with the chapters hidden, and the solutions and morals to be discovered. . The problems were there – the solutions are the challenge for me to solve.

 I decided to fish every inch of water, and not pass up a challenge. How would I get my fly into a tangle with overhead cover hiding an undercut bank? I asked the teacher, but he just murmured back at me. I had to find the solution. After getting caught up several times, the solution occurred to me; get out of the water and walk around the obstacle and approach it stealthily from the upstream side. I was awarded with a feisty little brown trout that ate a dry fly presented with a modified roll cast with my body hidden by a bush. Only the tip of the rod ever showed over the water.

 In the next run a new lesson began. This one included a large trout cruising in shallow water slowly circling and eating some sort of bug. Here I had to solve the menu as well as the presentation. I placed on an ant and shot my back-cast into a bush behind me. The lesson was clear: take inventory, and don’t get your nose so far into the book that you lose sight of the big picture of the exercise. I nodded to the teacher and pressed on.

Here was a long riffle with a single big fish rising at the head of it. It required a 50 foot cast with a left reach-mend. I was up for the challenge. I stepped forward and stripped out line and the fish stopped rising. I had placed a foot into the tail of the pool and the small fish holding there had panicked and swum helter-skelter up the run and put down the big fish. I smiled at the lesson and began to move on when I spotted a beautiful orchid growing at streamside. Here was a part of the new lesson I failed to appreciate. Take time to smell the roses. I sat on the bank and closed my eyes. A few minutes passed as I listened to the river and the breeze in the trees, the warblers and a kingfisher calling and singing. Then I heard a ‘Slurp.’ Yes, grasshopper… here was another sublime side-lesson the teacher reminded me of. Taking time to pause resets the trout, and quiets their fear. I made a good cast and missed the strike. At least I had a shot.

The lessons continued into the evening. I learned: why it is important to tie one’s bootlaces properly, not to try to wade through quicksand, when to pass up the little fish for a single shot at a nice trout. When to use a bow-and arrow cast with a weighted streamer in a tangle, when to slow down, to eliminate my shadow, and when to by-pass a problem and come back to it later.

Passing up those challenges and whatever the river serves up to us is like choosing the same math problems that you already know the answers to from a book, and calling it education. Even as a ‘teacher’, I was still learning: learning with every cast and footstep. To close my eyes, to open them, to listen to the river…

Learning by breaking the habits of our common approach, and letting the fish and the river determine what we do… We must mirror the problem with a response or solution, not force our own preferred solution on the equation. Four plus four does not equal six, so why do all of us, me included often try to present a ‘six’ for the solution to diverse problems? We may be fishing a bobber and a nymph, and an opportunity presents itself that may call for a change in the proffered answer...  a dry fly or a change in position and a streamer… Do we change the answer to fit the problem and put on a proper fly for the water… or do we try to force the answer to be ‘six?’ Let the teacher tell you… listen.


My final lesson appeared to me as the sound of distant thunder rumbled… when to go home. The bell had rung… school was over for the day. What would tomorrow’s lessons be?

When we stop learning, we stop breathing. I took a deep breath of the smells of the forest, and smiled. Thank you teacher.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Dear Theo,

Authors note:


I was reading a large volume on the history and artwork of Van Gogh and enjoying his letters to his brother Theo, when the name struck me…. What if Vincent was a fly-fisherman, and he wrote a letter to his brother Theodore Gordon? What if there was a bit of anachronism or time juxtaposition? What if he explored the world of art within fly-fishing… what if he was a bit mad….

There is a lot to be interpreted or contemplated in the themes Vincent touches on in his letter. Enjoy!



Dear Theo,


I hope this letter finds you well. Yes! I am working again! I am in the middle of going a bit mad tying colorful buck tail streamers. New colors! Glorious. I start with a picture in my mind, and then use the blending of the fibers to produce my palette and create a composition as a fly! Why? you are asking as you read this… Well, you know me. Always detouring on the path…. Distracted by beauty.


After all Theo, this spur of creativity is your fault! Remember when we sat on the bank of the Neversink, and after you had hooked and landed that 3 pound trout, you took your rod down and we sat sipping absinth and discussing the entanglements of art and angling?

That set me thinking Theo. Often I no longer sleep now.

Why fly-fishing my brother? You used the word “Grace.” I don’t think that begins to penetrate the issue. Fly-fishing is essentially an art, and artful in its expression. The casts are graceful, the line curves like a model’s curves and sinuous. The flies are pieces of craft, but if you take it like I do, they are an expression of the angler and his or her spirit and approach to the water. That rod of yours, the newer one you tied those dozens of exquisite flies in trade for is art too…. At least you make it so. My strokes are too forceful… too violent.

But I am sitting here in my room obsessively creating these new flies that the world must take notice of after I am gone because I have to. And because I can. I am free here Theo! Free to create without any snarky looks or turned up noses. I am free to make something deserving of the fish we caught that day! They are beautiful. Don’t they deserve the best I can do?

Art, they told me in a class was an expression of God. I would add nature too, for what is man’s best effort in art except a flawed imitation of divine nature? Prometheus unbound? Or a humble tribute? Nature is the canvas on which we paint this sport. Nature underlies it all, and man’s understanding of nature is exhibited by naked fear and expressions of joy.

But Theo, I often wonder in the dark if my creations will ever be appreciated beyond this little asylum of four walls… because art may be dying. Perverted by the materialism I used to rage against at the pulpit.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that day on the river Theo, and in your corner of the world you may not be exposed to the relentless ‘progress’ of the sport, but let me rage a bit… and yes… I did eat something yesterday. Don’t worry.

See… aesthetics in this fine sport somewhere down the line got replaced with pure technology. Beauty was forgotten. People use rods with giant blazons of corporate logos on them in wild colors that are disparate. They put bobbers on their leader and lead split shot and everything is now made out of plastic. “New” equals better now, seemingly without any reserve, precedent, or understanding. Aesthetics have been replaced by raw utility and pushed with an attitude that frightens. Have you heard of the “Inter-net.” There are moving pictures on there! I saw them! There were people with fly-rods or something like fly-rods jumping out of flying machines with parachutes accompanied by a god-awful noise worse than this new dissonance! At one point they ate a monkey and did a dance while holding up trout and doing some sort of ritual involving shoving it at us and making funny faces!


What happened? We should be ashamed.

The trout are painted by God Theo, who are we to perform heresies and tarnish his work?

There is something brutal here. I get the impression, even if I don’t understand it, that the sport has become pure social status and no longer about nature and art.

I saw an advert for a new fly rod promising that it would make me catch more fish. That would like a tube of paint that promised me I can produce a better painting.

I miss the clarity Theo. It all seems so confusing. I don’t recognize it anymore. Subtlety seems to have disappeared. Silence overtaken by non-stop stimulation. I don’t think people catch a trout anymore, instead they conquer it.

I know you worry about me in this little room, so I walked to the stream on Monday and went fishing, and what a clarion day it was, for without the noise in my head of the marketing and materialism and the posing, I drank deep of the purity, the essence of fly-fishing.

See, when I look at a piece of music or art, I don’t just see a bunch of people jumping around to audible tones, or colors and lines on a canvas. I look for a deeper meaning. Something beyond or beneath the surface of the stream or of simple perception. I caught a beautiful trout as the stars began to fill the sky and the setting sun set fire to the world. It was a conflagration of madness and divinity! Then I looked down and saw the dainty fly with rich colors of red and green and yellow. Primary colors Theo! Primary thoughts! Down to the essence. A rod, a reel, a line, a leader, a fish, and what God gave us to appreciate this small thing we do and embellish it with aestheticism and expression, with interpretation bold and subtle. It is simple, but so much more… an abstraction! I sat down and watched the sun set and drank that bottle you sent to me last week. Thank you again! The moment just spoke of art, and alone with nature there was no other to defile it with measurements of efficiencies or commodity. Art was all around me. The trout splashed in agreement as my simple rod with no adornments bent and bowed to a greater artist that we can ever explain. The spots on the trout glowed in brilliance.

The rent is due in a week, but don’t worry, something will come up. I can always trade some of these new flies for some bread and cheese…

Don’t worry… and be well Theo. I feel on the edge of a breakout. That accident with the fly-tying scissors was just an isolated…..