Why We Fish

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by Bret Bishop

“Wherever we go in the world we find other men speaking the same language, planning the same plans, dreaming the same dreams. And one of the big four―brownie or brookie, cutthroat or rainbow―is the cause of it all.”
-Roderick Haig-Brown

For some, the best way to fly fish is alone. There are times when I wish to be alone on the water. Just me. No one else. This serves as a respite from the throngs of humanity…a chance to refuel.

In fact, one of the most iconic images in fly fishing is the solitary angler, casting a fly, waist deep in a dancing riffle, a reflective pool, or an expansive saltwater flat; the angler is always surrounded by ineffable beauty. The camera’s gaze captures the pith: the line in a flawless loop against the blue sky, the rod fully loaded, the faceless angler focused on the point of presentation. The complete picture perfectly reflects the fisher in harmony with the vastness of the natural environs. These are the moments that many fly fishers romanticize; the essence of which author Robert Traver paradoxically and poignantly refers to as “solitude without loneliness.” Alone in nature the angler is in his or her element. We, the vicarious witness, look sentimentally at the isolated angler, wishing we could climb right into the picture, pick up a rod, tie on a fly, and be there too.

The archetypical image of the lone angler runs deep in fishing’s traditional lore. To illustrate, think of Hemingway’s semiautobiographical character Nick Adams from the “Big Two-Hearted River” or Melville’s Captain Ahab and his White Whale, Moby Dick. Angling in solitude to repair the war torn soul, or to satisfy a solitary, monomaniacal purpose, is part of the mythology of fishing.

Great bonds are forged during the simple act, the doing of the thing, After all, fly fishing is our way of life.

However, as pervasive as the solitary angler archetype is, it is just as likely that the fisher is not alone, but in the company of others. After all, someone had to be there to take the picture, to tell the story. It is easy to get lost in the narrative the lens portrays, and we forget there is always a person behind the camera, or a writer behind the prose, a witness. Even Captain Ahab has a witness. Ishmael returns after all, a sole survivor, to tell us the tale.

But there is more to the experience than simply bearing witness; it is about shared experience. In fact, the best way to fly fish is apace with others. As much as I relish “solitude without loneliness,” I prefer to partake in the solitude of nature with friends and family.

When mentoring my children, I relearn what I once knew. I learn how to put into words what has become automatic, to match actions with concepts, and to make the complex simple. I am reminded to approach fly fishing with a lack of preconceptions and an attitude of openness, a beginner’s mind. It is during these shared fishing adventures with family that I grow as an angler and a father.

When I am fly fishing with anglers of appreciable talent, I savor the subtleties that make great anglers great. At times, we push each other to excel or we collaborate to solve a fishing conundrum or a problem fish. Often I will just sit back and observe an angler’s skill, and take a few pictures. We share more than just flies, techniques, stories, and jokes; we speak the language of fly fishing, a language full of love for the communal relationship we share with the natural world. Ultimately, fly fishing camaraderie transcends language, and like the clan of fly fishers who came before, we get to wade the waters of tradition.

And when I am back on the water in solitude, I am not alone. My experience is enriched by all those I have fished with before.

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