Flyfishing. Just mention the word and, as if by magic, all sorts of images appear. Beautiful loops of colored line passing above pristine green waters; anglers hip deep in a mountain stream while clouds of caddis flutter in the foliage of adjoining bushes; or a thick shouldered rainbow held half out of the water while a smiling fisherman reaches down to unpin a stimulator from its lower jaw. These are just a few of the things that come to mind when I hear that word. Of course, it’s more than that, and rightfully so.
Now, don’t get me wrong with what I’m about to say. I’m probably one of the last people in the world who would ever endorse the ‘Orvis’ type mentality that seems to say ‘fly fishing is akin to some sort of spiritual plane… which can only be achieved after one has spent their entire life savings’. But, I have to admit, I kind of subscribe to
the first part of this sentiment. If spirituality is something that enriches the soul, teaches someone something about themselves and how they fit into the world around them, as well as hopefully making them a better person, then fly fishing is a form of spiritual cleansing. Of course, don’t all forms of fishing do this? To some degree I’d have to say yes! Then, why is fly fishing different?
I believe, a gentleman I met at a sport show in Portland best stated the answer to that question. He described flyfishing as a sort of progression. In the beginning most of us just want to catch a fish. After we’ve succeeded at that task, we move on to a phase where we want to catch a lot of fish. Now, god knows, I’ve been there, and this is kind of a tough one to get past. I know for me this phase lasted well over twenty years. Whether I, or anyone else, ever get completely out of this phase is open to debate, but somewhere along the line we seem to add another phase, or the next phase just blends into the previous. This phase is typified by the desire to catch the biggest fish. This is another one that is really tough to get past. And, if the truth were known, I’m not sure I’ll ever get completely out of this phase. Finally, if one lives long enough and is fortunate enough, one enters the phase of fishing. Just in case you didn’t notice, all other phases had more to do with catching than fishing.
It’s fishing that works on a person’s spirituality… not catching. It’s during the phase of fishing that one experiences the subtle nuances of life and, it’s in the phase of fishing, that nature is able to work on ones soul. While fishing, the difference between a trout gulping down a stonefly, sipping a mayfly, or chasing a caddis up from the bottom is not lost. Likewise, the difference between how a tree swallow works short 50 foot stretches of river on a feeding flight while a cliff swallow prefers to work longer runs does not escape the fisherman.
I’ve heard it said many times… and often state it myself… that someone really doesn’t care so much whether they catch fish, it’s merely being out there that matters. I guess this is the final phase, the phase of fishing. Here, we enjoy the companionship of friends as much as the hookup; the beauty of eagles soaring overhead as much as the sound of line screaming off a reel; the sight of a tiny mink attacking a much larger marmot as much as bringing a tail dancing rainbow to net; and the overwhelming beauty of where trout live almost as much as having our picture taken with ‘a big one’. While fishing, we revel in the immensity of creation, while searching out the subtle difference between where a trout lives in the spring compared with summer. We derive more joy from spending an hour trying to get a decent drift across a 14-inch brown that’s lying in impossible water than having our photo taken with a 25-inch fatty that took the hook too easily. Pleasure is received from helping another learn some aspect of fishing almost as much as experiencing it your self.
Of course, you must now ask yourself, ‘Don’t all forms of fishing allow a person to enjoy the things you’re talking about’? Here is where fly fishing differs from most other forms of fishing. Fly fishing demands one pay attention to the details of nature. It is these details that separate fly fishing from all other forms of the sport. Subtle differences are the way of nature, and, to be successful as fly fisherman, we must learn to appreciate these differences and, in some small measure, attempt to understand them.
It is here where I believe fly fishing takes on a form of spirituality. If spirituality is a journey, then fly fishing must be spiritual. For, it is definitely a journey. And, everyone has a right to take their spiritual journey in the manner they see fit. Be it in a library studying the teachings of a philosopher, on a mountain top in Tibet learning from a master, or on the sides of a stream in Montana learning from nature, the choice is an individual one. For me, I think I prefer to attend the church of the Bitterroot, Clark Fork, or Blackfoot. With luck, someday I will become a fisherman, and not a fish catcher. But, if there truly is a God in heaven, he’ll allow me an occasional hookup.