The gentle discipline

October 12, 1994|By Frank Winner

I WAS FIRST introduced to fly-fishing in the summer of 1987. It was my second year out of college and I was still rather aimlessly engaged in "finding myself." My college roommate and I, by sheer coincidence, had each moved to the Baltimore area the previous year and, after we had spent the fall and winter celebrating our reunion in the customary fashion, that is by drinking too much, leering hopelessly at women and going home alone, Dave began to pester me about going fishing with him.

In two years of walking over each other's dirty laundry we had never discussed the topic of fly-fishing. Granted the baked clay of central North Carolina where we had gone to school doesn't offer much in the way of trout streams but Dave is such an avid fisherman that one would expect (and often get) a seemingly endless torrent of opinion on the subject. I hadn't given serious thought to the idea of catching fish since about the age of 12 and I honestly couldn't relate to his enthusiasm for it. Besides, we weren't talking about Colorado or Montana. We were talking about Baltimore. Hardly (or so I thought) a fly-fishing Mecca. Still, after a half-dozen earnest invitations, against my better judgment, I agreed to go. I felt like I had been talked into a blind date. You know. Great sport! Lots of fun! You'll thank me for it. Somehow, being told that fly fishing "had a great personality" wasn't very reassuring to me, but, you do things for your best friends that you might not otherwise do. Besides, every once in a while, blind dates work. This one did. I've been an ardent fly fisherman every since.


To many, the idea of fly-fishing conjures images of practices as esoteric and arcane as Freemasonry. To hear experienced fishermen discuss the relative merits of bamboo, graphite, soft hackle, palmered hackle, Adam's midges, weighted nymphs, emergers and spinners, can readily cause a novie's head to spin. Laymen overhearing talk of a #16 March Brown Wulff on a 7x tippet being roll-cast using a 4-weight Orvis to catch a native Brookie on an Eastern Limestoner must feel like they're on a party line with a fax machine. There are dozens of magazines and catalogs, countless specialty stores, and even national organizations, conventions and seminars, dedicated solely to fly-fishing. Despite all this specialization and complication, fly-fishing is really very simple.

Of course, I didn't feel that way my first time out. It seemed to me then that, for me, fly-fishing would only ever be the art of decorating streamside vegetation with coils of monofilament line. I wasn't throwing my line backwards into a tree, I was watching it fall in a hopeless tangle around my knees. I made knots in my leader that no Eagle Scout has ever dreamed of and I came closer to stepping on fish than I did to catching them. "Simple" and "fly-fishing" didn't belong in the same language, let alone the same sentence. Intellectually, I knew fly-fishing to be fishing in which relicas of aquatic life forms, especially insects, (preferably handcrafted from such rare and wonderful natural materials as jungle cock cape and urine-burnt fox fur) are cast on a line from an open reel. I also knew that it relies on the artful manipulation of slack line to present the bait (fly) to the fish (preferably a trout). Now I know that, all the high-tech gadgets and special purpose tools notwithstanding, fly-fishing is the practice of using a long flexible pole to flip a fake bug on a string into the water. How sublime.

There are certainly more efficient means of catching fish. Though doing so verges on apostasy, I must admit that if I had to fish to eat, I'd use live bait. The question then is why fly-fish. Why use a less efficient means to catch fish? The answer is different for each of us but most of our answers boil down to the fact that we don't go fly-fishing to catch fish. Now that may sound a little dishonest to you and, well, that's because it is. Of course we go fishing to catch fish. The point is that, to most serious fly fishermen, the ends (catching a fish) do not justify the means (using a ball of Velveeta). The trick, the art is in training, disciplining, and educating oneself in how to catch fish within the bounds that fly-fishing imposes. It is the practice of the art of fly-fishing that is both the end and the means.

I've referred to fly-fishing as "the art of fly-fishing" but I often think "the discipline of fly-fishing" may be more apt. (If boxing can be "the sweet science", fly-fishing, though the trout may disagree, can be "the gentle discipline.")

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