The Essence of Fly Fishing
When I first made the transition from Commercial Banker to Fly Shop owner, I was having dinner with an Amish friend. He said, “Rod, why don’t you just put a worm on a hook and catch fish?’ At that moment I found out how in-articulate I was! I stuttered and tried to organize my thoughts. I never did convey the message I was trying to communicate.
After taking my fly fishing and fly tying course, one of my students handed me the following essay. I think Dr. Mittleman nailed it. He has given his kind permission for me to use his essay.
Doctor Mittleman is edited my book. I thank him for his time, I envy his articulacy.
The fly fishing writer, John Gierach, writes that all fly fishermen believe that fly fishing teaches us something important about life, but none of them know what it is. I’m a fly fisherman and I don’t know what it is either. Not all fly fishermen are reflective people. But I’ll wager that every one of them agrees with Gierach. Fly fishing is about more than catching fish. If you just want to catch fish, you’re better off putting a worm on a hook and casting it out at random. Eventually something will bite. Fly fishing is many orders of magnitude more demanding, more frustrating, more maddening and more beautiful. It may not look it, but fly fishermen, like ballet dancers, have to work. There are months and years of training and skill behind those artful, graceful casts, those huge loops of line that land a fly smaller than a nail clipping from your little finger a foot before the mouth of a hungry trout twenty feet away on the far side of a stream. And no matter how hungry and excited the trout get, they never become indiscriminate. They’re finely attuned to the differences between natural prey and the artifices meant to imitate it. If your fly strikes them as the least bit unnatural, they turn away with an insouciant flip of the tail, no doubt a gesture of mockery or contempt in the language of fish. It gets worse. Trout are not only experts at distinguishing between real prey and the little tufts of feathers and hair that are meant to deceive them, but they’re often picky about what real prey they will eat. Sometimes they feed selectively, only consuming those insects that are hatching in that particular stream at that particular time of day. In July, for example, at about nine o’clock in the morning, huge swarms of tiny mayflies, which have emerged from the riverbed in the dark of night, congregate over the streams to mate and die. You see them shimmering in the sun, spinning up and down. After they mate, they collapse, exhausted, into the stream, where the trout rise for them, lazily swallowing them as they drift on the current. If you don’t tie on a fly that minutely emulates these tiny bugs, you don’t stand a chance. An hour or two later, these bugs are gone until the same time tomorrow and you have to figure out what comes next, what else might work. A good fly fisherman must be a practical entomologist, studying the bugs under the rocks or in the vegetation of the stream, in the film on the surface, and in the air above over the course of all four seasons. Even in winter, insects are hatching and trout are feeding. The fly fisherman must understand the lifecycles of insects, how they look and where they live as larvae, pupae, nymphs, emergers, duns, spinners, as well as how they die. He must mimic their size, coloration, and behavior in the often feckless quest to fool the wily trout. As if all of this were not intimidating enough, the serious fly fisherman ties his own flies. His workshop is as arcane as any alchemist’s. Capes of roosters in lustrous browns and blacks, flamboyant peacock feathers, angora rabbit wool, pelts of muskrat and deer, wings of mallards, copper and gold wire, threads of emerald, crimson, and white—tied imaginatively around absurdly small hooks, all of these conspire to pretend and deceive. There are hundreds of flies, each with a name and a tradition. While new ones are invented, often after trial and error experimentation on the stream, fly fishermen guard their traditions. Novelty enters as a fine-tuned variation on a trusted pattern. The sheer weight of skill, knowledge, and tradition is appealing for some and appalling to others. Fly fishing is a solitary pursuit. You need room to cast. The flies are weightless, so the long tapered lines themselves provide the weight. You build momentum by false casting forward and back, or side to side, until you have enough line in the air. Skirting the tree cover that always threatens to snag it; you finally guide the line into the spot on the stream where you see trout shelter or rise. Often you only have a few seconds before the current moves your fly in an unnatural way. As soon as the fly pulls across the current rather than drift with it, the jig is up. The trout will know that it’s not a real insect. You have to cast again. It looks meditative, making those long, looping casts. And it is. The body enjoys the smooth, graceful movement. But you can’t long afford the pleasures of inwardness; there is too much to watch, too many decisions to make, too many problems to solve. A fly fisherman reads a stream like a scholar studies a book, taking in the surface and the depths at the same time. In the solitary, there is solace. But fly fishing is also a team sport. Your partner is the fish. He too must be willing. You entreat him with your art, which you strive to perfect. And when he strikes, is it skill? Is it luck? Is it both? It is both. Skill takes you to the edge of mystery. You never really know what, if anything, will happen. And if what you hope will happen does, you never really know why it did. Luck intrudes into your expectations, plans, and preparations sometimes almost confirming what you think you know, at other times taunting you with how little control you have over your world. Skill sets forth with confidence and ardor. Luck reminds the fisherman that he must also stand and wait. There is room for hope and prayer. Fly fishing is a borderland between the known and the unknown. It sets before you a far country where the great mystery becomes compact. And you want to venture further and go on. There’s intrigue there and delight, and the sleek shimmering rainbows of the trout beneath the golden surface of the stream. How can you resist? Alan Mittleman Point to remember Fly fishing is a borderland between the known and the unknown