Nobody told me, they should have. How could you not tell someone, or at least give them enough information to make a choice. I understand that we all have to make our own way, pick the right path, be patient, etc, etc, yet all these years later I seem to understand less, question more, think constantly about my impending demise, worry about rainfall, global warming, pivot systems, people that don’t give a shit. All these crazy things leaving me so exposed, I feel like I’m naked in the supermarket, surprisingly this has come about because I took up the quiet and supposed gentle sport of fly fishing.
I still remember Mel Krieger waving his arms enthusiastically in his DVD Beginnings telling us all that there would be a whole life in front of us to learn, fish and dream. It always seems a little unfair that he left out the bit where fly fishing draws you in then puts you through the mental ringer, gently grinding away all the nonsense and peripheral waste that so far had seemed ok. You continue to drift slowly forward, all the time losing and gaining, gear comes and goes, flies are in then out then in again, new rods, bamboo rods, bags, vests, hats, fish, no fish, plenty of fish, no fish, all the time desire is at your shoulder, whispering redolent discourse into your vulnerable soul.
All these feelings and thoughts are replaced by a stillness, a returning warmth when we step into a favourite river or stream, the crunching gravel, the gentle push against your waders as gradually the river takes hold and all those empty emotions are swept away with the timeless current. We drink these feelings in greedily, all the while attempting to replenish our depleted essence, the fish are witness to it all, yet it leaves them unmoved. Instinct and hunger offer no time to contemplate, and the foolish or thoughtless are quickly gone. Some days I don’t want to deal with this, yet it’s part of the package, nature beckons us on and as we become more engaged we also become more aware. We feel ourselves moving away from the everyday and things that have worried us in the past just no longer matter. Thomas McGuane wrote in his beautiful book The Longest Silence a chapter on Walton. Beside rivers, we seldom fill our minds with “fears of many things that will never be. Here, honest, civil, quiet men are free from dread.”
The bookshop owner had rung me, a family had dropped them off, a life long customer now gone. I stood staring at the two cardboard boxes, It was like looking into his most private world, some covered, some torn and battered, yet all loved. There was the usual suspects, streamside entomology, the Scholes’ classics, some old school chalk stream reflections, Sloane, French, they were all there, a life of fishing, one mans journey from beginner to no longer beginner. Fishing without literature is like a bike without a chain, the only time you get anywhere is when you’re going downhill. The books seem to evolve at the same rate as our skill, constant companions, subtle guidance, a fair amount of crap and lots of good solid whispers. I don’t know when it changes, but at some point we step off the path and just stop to look around. The color of the sky seems deeper, the birds less mournful at our approach, and some days the fish seem eager to engulf our humble fly. This is also when we seem to step away from the guide books and the “how to” paperbacks, subconciously seeking a higher level, a deeper connection. This guy had done that, I could just make out the cover at the bottom of the pile, Thomas McGuane, always McGuane. At first it felt like a violation, then somehow it came as kind of okay. A lifetime of fishing and reading and the only thing left is a stack of old books in an unknown bookshop, no one to pass them onto, lost to the wind, yet fisherman had been going through the boxes all day, choosing for their level, seeking inspiration, searching for those sacred words, better this than the rotting away, supporting the leg of a broken coffee table.
We remain confused, yet less so, we talk of riffles, runs, eddys and braids, hackles, hooks, gink and drifts, belly boats, drift boats, stink boats, a whole language base dedicated to the pursuit of a beautiful fish. The journey continues, for some little will change, for others their world will be forever reformed, a kind of devotion taking hold, like the fish we seek, these desires are simple, elegant and completely at the mercy of nature herself, time, dedication and more time being the only unfailing requirements. We no longer approach the water with a rushing glance, there’s almost a silence in our mind as carefully we run our eyes over the broken surface, patience has it’s rewards when a gentle dimple sends out it’s tiny ebbing rings, instinct pushes you to your knees as you unknowingly forget to breathe, all those hours of casting in the park, the pile of books you have consumed, all the gear changes and the entomology lessons are compressed into this single moment.
Is this the point when we finally let go? The very beginning of a true life of fishing, wonderful authors like Haig-Brown and Wulff long ago dismissed the selfish nature and needs of modern society and just fished, their descriptions and tactics were based on the cycles of the natural world, how well you cast, how many Latin names you knew just didn’t matter, they were all about the fish, how he lived, what he ate and how changing circumstances affected his feeding habits. Not much more, not much less, simply a life spent doing something they loved. As with most of life’s journeys we head off with wonderful intentions, searching for our own Holy Grail, we spend years on this path and at the end we are left standing on a riverbank with less gear, a simpler view, confidence that is held in our hands and a renewed love for the outdoors. A strange journey for some, but for you and I a life changing odyssey.
The worldwide fly-fishing community is now very connected, through social media, fishing websites any number of great DVDs, magazines and so many other time consuming ways to get self involved. Images of massive fish, tough guides, and lots of high fives fill the screen leaving us with slack jawed disbelief. Yet what most of us are seeking is solitude, silence enough to hear our own inner-voice, a chance to be on rivers that seem like old friends, the solitary call of a drifting hawk, frogs along the edges getting frisky, small birds chattering angrily at each other, all the sounds that remind us that this is home. This is not an easy journey, there are no short cuts, some are gifted and they rise quickly, but for most of us time will be the only companion, always there, unstoppable, unforgiving, yet patiently accompanying us until the end. Our catch rate improves, confidence rises as we work to become something other than a beginner, all this is mostly unseen, unexplainable but to a chosen few. And on those rare days when we bow down, our essence replenished, our mind overflowing with what are now deemed just memories, be thankful that no one ever told you.