American Culture

HobbyWeek: The hope of a rising trout…

JimFisherman“Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

I am asked frequently why I do not write about fly fishing since it is a sport I love deeply and participate in as zealously as a Zen master does meditation. My stock reply, which I use here at the beginning, is “There is no observation that I could make about fly fishing that hasn’t already been made by a writer whose work I admire more than my own.”

A pantheon of wonderful writers – from Izaak Walton to Thoreau to Hemingway to the incomparable Norman Maclean – have written about fly fishing. Their eloquence should suffice for any souls longing to read “wise saws and modern instances” about “the quiet sport.”

You have been forewarned, therefore. Expect no eloquence here.

What most people see when they look at a fly angler is someone tricked out in gear – lots and lots of gear. Besides the obvious – wading boots, waders, fishing vest, net, fishing hat, fly rod – there are a myriad of small pieces of equipment that the average angler carries. Fly rods require leaders and tippet (thin mono-filament line to which a fly is attached). These lines, attached to the fly line (which may be floating, sinking, level, intermediate, or sinking tip in double taper, weight forward or shooting taper) are delicate and must be repaired or replaced rather often. Besides extra tippet and leaders, a prepared angler carries one or more boxes of flies of various types (dry and wet flies, nymphs, streamers, terrestrials and midges are typical inhabitants of a fly angler’s box – or boxes) in various sizes. Add to these accouterments scissors for snipping excess tippet from newly attached flies, hemostats for removing flies from the lips of caught fish, paraffin wax, usually in more than one form, for helping flies to retain their buoyancy, another concoction to help nymphs and wet flies sink (supplemented by a container of split shot for helping tippet to sink and allowing a fly to “swim,” more or less naturally) and a few other gewgaws peculiar to the sport (and the angler) and the vision of some fool weighted down with a ridiculous amount of “stuff” designed to help him/her catch a fish is complete. (Of course items like sun screen, energy bars, and water bottles are requisite for those who actually spend any appreciable amount of time on the water.)

All this said, to paraphrase an old saw, one can gear up a fly angler, but one can’t make that angler catch fish.

The ability to cast a fly rod and lay a fly on the surface of the water in a way that will make a wary trout seize it as food is a skill that approaches art. I was fortunate enough to have been taught how to cast a fly rod skillfully when I was seven years old – and despite decades of neglect, when I returned to the sport in my early forties my abilities returned within a few months. This probably comes off as braggadocio, but having watched far too many Howard Spragues “whip the water into a froth” as Goober Pyle described the hapless Howard’s casting attempts, I feel a certain appreciation for my ability to present the fly to the fish. As my son once told me in a moment of effusion, “Your casting is visual poetry, Dad.”

Having the gear and being able to cast make one a competent fly angler, but these elements of the sport do not address what really matters about fly fishing.

What really matters is the glitter of sunlight through autumn leaves as a Southern brook trout leaps three feet clear of the pool trying to spit out a fly. Or the hiss of a copperhead ready to strike seen at eye level from 5-6 feet away and trying to decide whether to deal with it or the rising trout 20 feet ahead.  Or curling a cast around a massive boulder, laying the fly on the water just so, and watching a long, long dark shadow rise from beneath that rock to take that fly. Or bringing a glistening rainbow to hand, a deeply chilled hand, as snow falls all around and dusk closes in.

But, as I’ve noted, others have addressed this passion of mine better, so let me allow them to describe the experience:

“Fishing, if I, a fisher, may protest, of pleasures is the sweetest, of sports the best, of exercises the most excellent. Of recreations, the most innocent…” ~ Thomas Bastard

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great floods and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” ~ Norman Maclean

“Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery elements are made for wise men to contemplate and for fools to pass by without consideration. ” ~ Izaak Walton

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

“There is certainly something in fishing that tends to produce a gentleness of spirit, a pure serenity of mind.” ~ Washington Irving

“Some go to church and think about fishing, others go fishing and think about God.” ~ Tony Blake

“The gods do not deduct from man’s allotted span the hours spent in fishing.” ~ Babylonian Proverb

See you on the water….

12 replies »

  1. I love fishing. Haven’t done it much since high school, though, and while I don’t know how to fly fish, I understand the love of being outside, having to catch and release (instead of catch and eat) because there are bears in the area who would trash the camp for the smell of fish, the frustrations of tangled line and watching fish hit the surface chasing everything but what you’re casting. There have been time when I would have had more luck with a club than my fishing rod.

    Thanks, Jim, for reminding me of lots of beautiful memories. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity make new ones too.

  2. copperhead bites are usually not lethal, and five feet’s too far for a strike anyway. go for the fish.

    • Know all that – still, when he’s on a bank at about eye level, the visceral reaction is strong. Actually took a wading staff and swept him off into the creek – shocked the crap out of him, I think. He swam away, I caught and released the trout. It all worked out, and no animals were harmed in the making of that memory…. 🙂

  3. i was joking–“usually not lethal” was the opposite of hyperbole, whatever that is. i’d guess a facial strke would leave you in such horrible shape for the rest of your life you’d wish you were dead. I’ve seen people who’ve been bitten by snakes and often the entire limb is destroyed. i cant imagine what that would do to a nose–even relatively weak copperhead venom

    growing up in waycross, ga (okeefenokee swamp,) doing peace corps in africa, then working in louisiana bayous and in australia and living on farms at several points in my life, i have LOTS of snake stories. one of my favorites is similar to yours. a peace corps woman named faith went into an abandoned latrine, felt something wet on the back of her neck, turned around and saw a small spitting cobra on the ledge behind her, eye level, fully hooded and 18 inches away. i wasnt in the latrine and cant verify the story but i can verify she said it happend.

    copperheads are particularly scary because they’re so invisible. you see them suddenly, like a magic eye thing.

    • Copperheads are a tad worrisome – but when I used to fish back country more, the timber rattlers were the ones who scared me. You hear that damned sound and freeze until you can locate where it’s coming from. And when you’re fishing in dry season, they come down to drink at about “golden hour” – that time a little before dusk when it’s gloaming and it’s really easy to step on one getting out of a stream because of the light – or worse yet, reach up to a high bank and grab one. Never done it, but did grab a water snake once who’d slid out on the bank. Put him down real quick…. Glad it had started to drizzle cause I had my rain jacket on and that’s all he got before I flung him into the stream.

      Had a buddy who served two tours in Nam. Mountain boy who used to catch rattlers, copperheads, etc., for university researchers as a teenager. Had a run-in with a supply sergeant who kept denying his unit’s guys needed supplies because he was selling stuff on the black market. My pal and a couple of guys were out on recon and ran across an Asian cobra. He caught the thing, put it into a gear sack of some kind and took it back to base. Went down to the supply sarge and asked him if he was gonna get his guys the stuff they needed. Sarge said “no can do.” He dumped the snake over the counter – supply sarge, who weighed about 250 at about 5’8″ cleared the counter from near flat-footed. He was ready to be much more forthcoming with supplies from then on – especially after my buddy told him the next one he turned loose would be in the guy’s bivouac….

      One more thing: if I’ve gotta see a poisonous snake at eye level, I’d damned sure rather be looking at a copperhead than at a spitting cobra….gives me the willies thinking about that one….

  4. Yeah, I’ve done the grab the water snake thing working in Louisiana clearing out a bunch of water hyacinths. Lucky I was young and had a tight sphincter in those days. I was throwing them out of a hole, one handful was heavy, looked up and saw a four foot snake flying through the air. Went back to using the shovel and rake.

    I’ve always been told that vipers congregate near water because they’re ambush predators and the animals they hunt have to come down to the water to drink.

    There are several types of spitting cobras. These were small–4 or 5 feet and jet black, except for red under their hoods that looked like a child had dipped her hands in red paint and smeared it under the snake’s chin. They could only spit a few feet, but I can tell you, whenever you saw one you suddenly remembered you had urgent business somewhere else.

    My post for tomorrow is five snake stories. (Sammy–do you remember? Have I ever done a snake post here?)