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.


  1. Once again, nicely done Eric....definitely an insightful piece. A river is like a good friend.

  2. I do hope you are saving these for assembly and publication as a book! That's as eloquent a description of a day on the stream as I've read since the last time I read Haig-Brown.


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