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….