Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fishing, thinking, observing, and the sporting tradition.

Fishing, thinking, observing, and the sporting tradition.

In reviewing some of my fly-fishing writing, I find that much of it has been devoted to observation and thinking; analyzing what we do and our approach to this sport we so love.

I believe that thinking is part of what separates fly anglers from the madding crowds. The river consists of intricate puzzles to be solved, and by intent, we restrict ourselves to tackle which places restraint on our numbers. Observing, analyzing and reflection to me are the greatest part of fly-fishing. Experimenting with a new technique such as nymphing with an un-weighted nymph and no indicator can produce all sorts of discoveries (and frustrations). These discoveries and our ability to solve the puzzles create the foundation blocks of a good angler. The more varied the experiences we tack up, the more we have to weigh when sitting by the river and thinking over a puzzle. It gives us precedent.

Imagine a world in which an angler always fishes the same way in the same place and with the same technique. He or she enjoys some success, but has no other experience to measure or weigh it against. He or she would be incapable of solving puzzles on other waters simply because they have limited their experiences and therefore limited their critical thinking as well. I imagine that most of us would find it boring to do the same thing the same way all of the time, but yet so many of us do just that.

Thinking and problem solving allow a greater access to experiences as well. I would argue that the combination of restraint and thinking has always been countered by new technologies. Bead head flies, shooting heads, sinking lines, etc. are all great innovations, but also allow us to catch fish easier. That ease may in time start to decay our thinking skills as we allow the gear to solve the challenges we face.

A perfect example of this is the BASS circuit. Radar, sonar, water clarity readers which indicate which colors to use, crank-baits with LED lights and rattles… in essence everything humanly or technologically possible to give someone an advantage. Or take the center-pin angler with roe. The person really is taken out of the experience. Once one learns to select bobbers and arrange split-shot, there is just lobbing the rig into the river. It is the essence of simplicity and the antithesis of restraint. Little thinking is required at all any longer.

Our sport is supposed to be the opposite of that. Restraint in tackle and technique also means restraint in numbers. Although fly anglers may classify themselves as non-competitive, we increasingly adapt technologies and techniques to allow us to catch fish where we could not have caught them before. Is this wrong? No, not necessarily, but if we really are non-competitive, why show an increasing lack of restraint?

Fish catching is the measure of our success, and that is tied in with our ego whether we admit it or not. It is just a simple fact. When we begin to think of ourselves as ‘good anglers’, we often equate the maturation process with numbers of fish landed.

Putting away the technological advantages may allow us to get back to that essence of angling: the puzzle and how to solve it. We may have to use our brains instead of that new gadget that is being touted by the guy with the big fish on the magazine cover, but in that return to our essence, and the return of observing, thinking, and problem solving, we may become better anglers in the long run.

However, this is the age of instant gratification, and thinking out a problem and solving it on our own may be as much as an anachronism as a double-taper line. The Internet provided the vehicle through which the rivers could be whored out faster and new improvements in tackle brought to the market quicker. Most people who browse the web have about a thirty second attention span, and I think that may equate with the lack of patience that is required to solve a puzzle on the river with just oneself and a rod and a line. Thus, a lack of thinking results.

We all measure things by degrees. I am a dry-fly fisherman only, I use cane only, I nymph, but NEVER use an indicator, etc. There is no correct way nor any right or wrong in the way we approach the little problem of how to make Mr. Fish take or presentation, but when technology takes the place of thinking, it is a slippery slope to walk. Competition should occur with ourselves and the fish, not other anglers.

Thinking, observing, and the resulting learning are also very joyful processes. Yes, you did read that right, learning can be fun!

I have written that the essence of the sporting tradition lies with restraint. Now I would add that the resulting problem-solving and skills that have to be developed in order for us to bag our game make us the sportsmen and women that we are.

I think, therefore I fish.

Enjoy the whole journey. Miss nothing. Think, savor, and learn.


  1. Sport requires Tradition, Restraint, and Ethics.

    Roderick L Haig-Brown

  2. Ken,
    Thanks for the quote. Good to know some of my thoughts follow in good footsteps.

  3. Hi Erik
    Did you ever read Fishing and Thinking by AA Luce? I wrote a short review last year. If you are interested it can be found at


  4. Tony:
    No, but your calling my attention to it spurred some of the thinking that went into this essay. I will re-read your review, and also see if I can obtain a copy.
    Thanks Again!

  5. Often those who follow the same path find similar treasure and rest in the same places.....

  6. Thank you Erik. Never fail to impress.



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