Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Zen and the art of fishing the essence.

Zen and the art of fishing the essence.

Or, building good fish karma, and harmony on the water.

It has probably happened to all of us in our progression as anglers. We enter the river with something to prove, or an agenda to catch the most fish or the biggest fish, and we fail in our expectations. We fish hard and with a purpose, but the elusive goal eludes us. It is or was our goal, our purpose, and our agenda, not the river’s.

Then it happens one day; we finally stop trying so hard, and we wake up and look around us. We notice an eagle soaring above the river canyon, find an interesting piece of driftwood to stare at, sample blackberries on the side of the river, or drift off into a philosophical or nature-based zone of peace.

Then it happens. The hottest fish in the river hits our fly and tries to tail-walk back to the ocean. It happens because we were not trying. We were fishing with enjoyment, and with the proper attitude of respect and relaxation. In short, we had reached a sort of zen harmony with our surroundings. Instead of our own agenda, we followed the river’s. When it rained, we laughed and splashed, when it became hot and sunny, we took off our jacket and basked in the glory. When the water came up, we swung our fly with the same confidence. We didn’t fuss with patterns, we fished with trust that reward would be forthcoming, and the kiss of chrome would bless our offering, far out in the river. We were at peace.

These thoughts came to me after an exchange of emails with my friend William over another angler that I am acquainted with, that fished (at least physically) the same river I recently fished. While I went down to the river with happiness, feeling a great privilege to worship in my way in this spiritual river, and laughed at myself when I managed to break off a snake-guide and put it through my thumb, and marveled at the beauty of the river, this other angler seemed to be fishing a different river. His was a river of frustration. He hooked fish, but as he put it, they were all “duds.” He seemed to have an agenda as, or wished to be viewed as an “expert.” Funny. We seemed to be fishing a different river. One of the fish I hooked was the hottest fish I have ever seen. It jumped constantly at high speed, and peeled off line so fast that my reel shrieked like a banshee. I could not control this fish, and after expertly, and wildly relieving me of ¾ of my backing on a 4” perfect reel, the fish made a leap, spit the fly and was gone. I was not disappointed, but instead elated. I will never forget that wonderful experience. The other angler, who is fulfilling for us the role of an object lesson, would probably have been sore that it came unpinned. I also hit a couple of red-hot wild hens that smoked the reel, and even got the relatively rare glory photo.

Several years ago, in a discussion about big runaway fish, William told me that the ‘Devil Fish’ existed, but that you (me) would have to believe that it can happen and then not try to make it happen, and then it would indeed grace my fly offering by eating it, and provide that great sporting moment and aerial ballet. Funny, but that is exactly what happened last year. I just stopped worrying about everything in my approach, and just fished in harmony, and was rewarded. Build it and they will come? Trust in it, but empty your soul of desire? Buddhism on the river?

Then, as an object lesson, the fishing partner I was with pulled five fish from behind me on the last day, and my zen composure melted down. Guess what? Yup. I got skunked until the last moment of dark in a downpour. I tried too hard. My casting went to absolute pieces. I was frustrated with myself and nearly in tears. When I had passed through this stage to one of calm shivering and acceptance of my surroundings, I re-entered harmony, and hooked a nice fish.

So, it seems to actually matter what our frame of mind is on the water. Some anglers have positive fish karma. It may have to do with just fishing smoothly instead of fiddling, but it does seem that anglers such as Dec Hogan, Mike Kinney, and Bill McMillan also seem to personify an appreciation and love of nature and balance on the river. Certainly skill matters. How one presents one’s fly to the fish in complex and diverse situations matters more than anything, but haven’t we all known someone who could fish really well, cast a nice clean line, but was a neurotic, crabby, disagreeable personality on the river? One of the most notorious anglers of my knowledge has such bad karma that nobody will even buy a rod from him. He spends his time fiddling and complaining on the water and off, when he is not drunk, and rarely hooks anything. He is out of harmony with everything, and it shows.

These days when I fish, even if I struggle with casting a single spey with my back against the wall, up to my waist in water with a downstream wind, and trying hit 100’, I try to do so with a positive attitude, and finding the true essence of the experience: the moon through the pines, the mists lifting from the canyon, the sounds of moving water. There is more to fishing than fish. It is kind of like that cute girl you wanted to get to know. When you looked at her, she looked away. When you showed off, she walked away. It was only when you stopped trying and just became yourself, that she came up and sat beside you. When you stop trying, and appreciate the beauty of the river, it can happen.

Indeed, it will happen, but only once one calms down and cultivates quiet on the river. It will happen only when one abandons Internet chatter, and slips into the bushes. It will happen if one has no agenda, but calmly ebbs and flows with the natural currents. It will happen only if one sets out to love the river and her fish, not conquer her.

I can still see that fish tail-walking…