“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”― Kurt Vonnegut
I like to think of fly fishing as something beautiful – quiet, even. In my head, it’s all a Norman Maclean novel, but I’m learning that there are realities inherent in the pursuit that challenge my fantasy of life on the river. I struggle with the idea of “fly fishing as a bloodsport,” I’ve spilled enough of my own and that of the fish that I’ve caught to make me seriously question my commitment. And the quiet bit, well, let’s just say that my language on the water has been called “colorful” – on the conservative end of the spectrum. The more that I’m out there, the more I see just how much there is to this game, and how much of it is anything but poetry.
There is certainly an elegance to a fluid cast, a hand tied fly, the blue cheeks of a brown trout – there for anyone to see. But for those of us who go deeper, into the sport and into the water, there is something else floating around.
Learning to cast is one thing – it’s about timing, intuition. It’s a feeling, and at the same time, just plain muscle memory. Knots: an experiment in dexterity. Fly selection: a veritable spree of frustration. And once you get through all of that, there’s the river – lined with trees and bushes hungry for your backcast, wind ready to drive your perfectly aligned set up like a rental. And we haven’t gotten to the fish yet – natives not particularly fond of your seasonal intrusion, just trying to survive while you play this trivial game of subaquatic cat and mouse. They are hungry, lured with deceptive delicacies, bearing a sharp trick. You are not welcome here.
And yet, there you stand – in the middle of it all – a dance with many partners – thorny bushes on the bank, slippery rocks underfoot, the water always trying to lead, and the fish – doing their damndest to avoid the barbed insults you toss at them with a practiced flick of the wrist.
But eventually your situational awareness becomes instinctive – managing your line and reading the water are second nature. Your cast is effortless and your timing perfect, and the dance truly begins. You dance with the fish for sport, but you dance with yourself for survival. This is the place where we are able to examine how we interact with the world, not just here on the river, but everywhere, and begin the excavation of our place in it that we are called to dig into.
“Fishing like that, it will mess your life up,” a friend warned when I asked about going steelheading. And it will, mess your life up, as will anything you do with an open heart and a sense of purpose. The more I fish, the more time I spend in the river, the more I come to simultaneously understand and question my place in this circle and the more I see that it’s a conflict that begs to be examined.
I am often asked what it is that I love so much about fly fishing, and the answer feels both unexpected and cliche. Fly fishing gives me so many of the same lessons as yoga did when I practiced with any semblance of frequency. Yoga, on the surface, is pointless. The physical practice has little bearing on how you live your life. Seriously, what does putting your foot behind your head or standing on one leg have to do with anything?
Nothing. It has nothing to do with anything. A yoga class is just a bunch of adults rolling around on the floor in spandex. It’s completely ridiculous.
Until it’s not. It’s not the putting your foot behind your head that’s the point. The point is how you go about it. The point is remembering, while you’re trying to put your foot behind your head, to engage your core, to press down, to pull up, to keep your throat open, to keep the colorful language in your head, to breathe, to focus on something other than the discomfort. The point is training yourself to be in the midst of motion, both internal and external, and keep your shit together.
The point, and the goal really, is train your body and mind to work together, so that when things get complicated, stressful, painful – you find the center that you cultivated within the safety of the practice and you breathe, ever mindful of the fact that though things may be happening around you, they aren’t happening to you. Amid these circumstances, not as a victim of them, we maintain a sense of self and place independent of whatever situation we find ourselves in.
Fly fishing, for me, is similar. The river and the mat aren’t so different. I mean, what’s the point of catch and release fishing? It’s a beautiful way to be outside, a fascinating interaction with the natural world on so many levels, but just a game, no? And to look at it, a bunch of adults standing in the water, waving sticks around, dressed like waterproof farmers, trying to outsmart rather dim witted creatures with fake bugs just to throw them back, seems a bit ridiculous.
But when you’re out there, when you look around, fishing is a remarkable opportunity to see parts of this place we call home in ways many will never venture forth to see. And when you hook a fish – big or small – there’s a thrill, a sense of victory, but also one of connection – you to rod to line to hook to fish, and further on from there. To the water, the river, the ocean, as far as you care to take it. And there is a life at both ends of your line, a life that you have to trust yourself to know what to do with. A life that may test your convictions and commitment to being your best self.
This is the connection – the life of a fish, your life – and a chance to ask: where do I fit in? And how?
When I stumbled on those questions, yoga gave me a place to seek answers. Time in my head was part of it, certainly, but my responses to what was going on around me physically – my reactions to certain poses, my ability to connect movement with breath – always parallelled what was going on in my life. If things felt unbalanced, I couldn’t stand on one leg, but I had a chance to get comfortable with feeling off kilter. When I found myself torn between options, I explored the possibilities of trying poses I’d never done before – maybe I was capable of more than I gave myself credit for. Maybe I tried something that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
Fly fishing has been similar. It demands my attention to the small things in the same way that standing on my hands does – in remembering to keep my elbow down, to wait on my back cast, time my stop, mind my presentation – there isn’t room for much more in my head. I am at once in and of the moment, conscious of my reactions to the frustrations that inevitably arise – a wind knot and an arm balance aren’t so far apart when it comes to taking the time and finding the patience to break them down. Rushing only makes things more difficult.
Now, when things in my life on dry ground seem sideways, I know that if I can get to the water, I’ll work it out. I can be in the middle of something that is at once peaceful and demanding and, somehow, find the space to sort through it. With my active brain occupied with the obstacles inherent in fishing, I move through a process that I know by heart, and my subconscious mind has a place to focus on whatever it is that is pulling me off center. I move through the motion, paying attention to the nature in which I address each step, and I see, usually quite clearly, where it is that I’m stuck and how I will able able to right the ship.
Fishing isn’t any more about the physical act of catching a fish than yoga is about performing a complicated pose – both just ask that we find a mental peace amid multiple variables, conflicts and frustrations – happening around us, not to us. Our devotion to this practice is what will change how we move through the world, and the more work we’re willing to do, the more complicated we’re willing to let it get just to see what we can take, the more we’ll learn to be softer, fluid, maybe even poetic in the middle of the shit that life inevitably throws at us.
It’s a game, to be sure. But how we play and what kind of players we are, that’s up to us. And it just takes practice to get it right.