It’s fairly common, in our modern era of extreme sports and entertainment on demand, to view any form of angling as a quaint affectation, a pastime that has passed its time. I suppose that if I had had the option at the still tender age of ten to immerse myself in the frenetic, push-button madness of video games, I would have chosen those immediate and certain pleasures over placidly drowning a worm at the local reservoir in hopes that a trout might happen upon it within the next hour or two. And my life would have been vastly poorer for it.
Angling certainly provides a respite from the stress-inducing demands of modern society. Perhaps more importantly though, it brings us out into the broader home in which we live: that of a marvelously, gloriously entwined natural world. Yes, fishing is something of an idle sport. It’s a kind of mind ramble, too, I confess. But because it requires us to interact with and try to comprehend that which is not of us, fishing is a teacher, too. If an angler is at all observant, he or she begins to understand the effect of, say, water temperature and sunlight on the behavior of fish, including their willingness to take the bait. The observant angler will note, too, those times when fish ignore all forms of sunken temptations and instead feed “on top” as aquatic insects swim from their hiding places to seek the air and mate—or upon mating, return to the water’s surface to drop their eggs and die soon thereafter. To catch fish at times like these with hook and line rather than net and dynamite, you’re going to have to angle with an imitation of a bug or other form of prey.
An imitation insect, fish, amphibian or rodent, whether crafted in the traditional manner from feather and fur, or from synthetics such as Dacron and closed-cell rubber, typically weighs very little. This presents a challenge: How the devil do you get it in front of the fish, which might be rising twenty, forty, sixty feet from where you’re standing?
Unlike a bait- or lure-fishing rig, which uses either a lead weight or the weight of a lure to attain distance and pull line from the reel, the rod of a fly fisher uses the weight of the line itself to move the bait through the air and place it where desired. This is how fly fishing distinguishes itself from other forms of angling. And this is where the fun begins.
To the initial chagrin of most men, casting a fly line is unlike throwing a ball. The fly rod acts as a lever, multiplying the force you apply to it, but this multiplication demands coordination with the springlike action of the rod as it bends with the load and then drives the line through the air. Mere muscle strength is irrelevant. As with a golf or tennis swing, properly casting a fly line is a skill that takes time to learn. One of the pleasures of fly fishing is the real sense of accomplishment in finally “getting it.” Another is more sensual: the pleasure of the rhythm that comes from snapping the rod back and forth as you develop the cast.
A fly fisher “reads” the water to understand where fish may be stationed and how they are feeding, then chooses a fly and places it, with a well-made cast, at the spot where a fish will strike briskly at the offering. Or so you hope. Every cast of a fly is an act of optimism, but the pragmatic angler is also something of a skeptic, given to experimentation when the wily fish, whose brain is often smaller than a peanut, refuses to recognize the precision of his cast, the verisimilitude of his imitation, the depth of expertise that he has spent many hours acquiring.
Not surprisingly, the sport of fly fishing constantly evolves as its practitioners attempt to resolve the challenges they face. And it’s been evolving for quite a while. The first known written account of an activity that resembles fly fishing comes from the 2nd century CE, when Aelian noted that Macedonians would apply feathers and red wool to a hook so that “the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to get a dainty mouthful.” Nowadays, a fly fisher can pretty much buy or tie an imitation of every life-cycle stage of any insect that has ever seen the interior of a fish’s mouth.
The angling-historian Paul Schullery has speculated that fly fishing is an “intuitively sensible practice [that] might have started (and winked out, and started again) in many places over the centuries.” Its appearance in America during the colonial period of the 17th and 18th centuries clearly derived from the practice of fly fishing in Great Britain as both a recreation and a way to gather food. We not only share a common language with Mother England, we share basic forms of fly tackle, tactics and ethics, as do fly fishers in New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, Kashmir—anywhere, really, where the British could plant the flag and catch trout.
One of the intriguing aspects of the sport in America has been the relatively recent shift away from its ages-old purpose of providing sustenance. When I was a child, every fish of legal size that I caught went into my creel and, eventually, into my mother’s frying pan. Today, it’s probably only a minority of American fly fishers that fish “for the table.” Many instead release their catch relatively unharmed, thus helping ensure enjoyment of the sport into the future. That we hook fish and then release them, however, is viewed by some non-anglers as a form of cruelty, or even perversion. “You are torturing these creatures for your pleasure!” they righteously exclaim. Perhaps, but not likely. Research to date indicates that fish do not experience pain in the same manner, hence with the same moral implications, as mammals.
But why angle at all, given the hazy ethic of catch-and-release and the fact that we carnivores can purchase fish of high quality at the local supermarket? One of the strongest reasons, as I have already suggested, is that the field sports of hunting and angling connect us directly and deeply with nature. There is likely no better way to feel this connection than through the role of predator, a role that fully engages our senses and intellect, a role that, when fly fishing, allows us to touch and then release the unhuman “other.” It’s hardly a surprise that fly fishers are at the leading edge of the conservation movement here in the United States, active in preserving fisheries and riparian habitats and in fighting for clean water. More than most, fly fishers understand the value of wildness, having held it in their hands (which, by the way, is why many American fly fishers prefer their quarry to be wild fish rather than hatchery-raised “planters”).
It’s the natural experience, then, that draws us to fly fishing. It’s also an activity that puts a premium on observation and problem solving, leading, with the angler’s slow and measured pace of cast and drift, cast and drift, to a contemplative frame of mind. Fly fishers have not been shy about putting their musings on paper. Of all sports, fly fishing boasts an unrivalled body of literature that, at its best, reveals epiphanies about our place in nature. If you’re curious as to its quality, pick up a copy of Thomas McGuane’s The Longest Silence (1999), quite possibly the most significant collection of essays about angling published within the past several decades. Here’s a small sample, from the essay “Some Remarks”:
If fly fishermen have an edge in this elaboration of soul we resent hearing called a sport but are too timid to call an art, it is in our willingness to deepen the experience at nearly any personal cost. That is the reason we tie flies, not to save money through bulk purchase of hooks and feathers. That is why some of us cannot live without that breath of varnish from the rod tube when we would rig up for another holy day.
Because the sport evolves and is based on received knowledge, much of the literature of fly fishing deals with subjects that are euphemistically called “how-tos.” How to cast. How to tie flies. How to build fly rods. How to identify aquatic insects. How to fish trout streams, bass ponds and surf zones. Books and magazines have long served as the primary ways for imparting this knowledge and building upon it, but over the past ten years, the electronic media, mainly in the form of blogs and bulletin boards, have become increasingly popular. Expertise is no longer the purview of those select few anointed by editors who may or may not have a clue as to what fly fishing is all about. Now, if you come up with a good idea, you can post it on a board and quickly gain recognition from your peers. Blogs also allow anglers with opinions and insights to reach audiences to which they would otherwise have no access. Those audiences are increasingly international and multilingual. (In recent years I’ve learned how to say “fish”, “fishing” and “fly fishing” in several languages.) The Internet has certainly sped the exchange of advice and ideas across international borders, which will likely help universalize innovations in the sport and, perhaps more interestingly, help universalize angling and sportfishery-conservation ethics.
It’s impossible to view this democratization of communication and expertise as a bad thing, especially given the passion of the people involved and the likelihood that you will indeed come across useful advice and maybe even be entertained. But it’s hard to stay on top of it all if you have the usual workaday responsibilities. Books and magazines remain important for collating, vetting and presenting information in an easily accessible format (along with works of a more philosophical nature). The electronic media are simply adding to the ways by which fly fishers communicate, but they place heightened emphasis upon pictures, short videos and written pieces of fewer than 500 words. What this trend means, for a culture that has a strong literary heritage spanning centuries, is not yet clear. I do worry a little about it—when I’m not out on the river.
These changes in media might also be changing fly-fishing culture. Fly fishing has long been a sport typically practiced in solitude. The rise of online forums has created communities of affinity, and it’s not uncommon to see posts online requesting fishing partners, or noting that the “bite is on” at a particular spot, thereby creating a community of propinquity, whether desired or not.
American popular culture has also influenced the evolution of fly fishing. Sixteen years ago, Robert Redford’s popular film A River Runs Through It (based on Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella) launched the sport into the realm of fad. Seemingly overnight, the number of people wanting to cast a fly skyrocketed. Fly shops popped up all over the map. Features about the sport appeared on television and in newspapers and general-interest magazines. Fly fishing became the backdrop for advertisements marketing everything from cars, to life insurance, to the latest New York fashions. Old-timers grumbled that their favorite streams were filled with tyros waving $500 rods who didn’t know a Baetis from a Woolly Bugger.
On the plus side (depending on your perspective), the growth in fly fishing’s popularity led to an infusion of investment capital. The resulting increase in competition sped the rate of innovation. Fly lines can now be cast farther and float higher than ever. Fly reels now exist with drags that can put the hurt on huge fish such as marlin. All sorts of useful gadgets have proliferated to clutter up your fishing vest. And some Samaritan even figured out how to put leak-proof zippers on waders.
It’s safe to say that the boom has run its course, and that the people who now enter the sport are doing so not because it’s “the thing to do”, but because they want to experience the pleasures that fly fishing brings. The essential truth, moreover, is that you don’t need the latest gear to enjoy success. What’s critical is the skill with which you ply the tackle, and that skill comes only with practice and patience.
I can tell you this: The fish are still there, silent and remote in their aqueous environs, seemingly as eternal as the earth’s orbit around the sun. The puzzle abides, a soft question mark floats above the rippling waters as we look out to a distant shore. Cast the fly. Touch the mystery.