Is fly fishing spiritual? Jim McLennan doesn’t think so.
In his new book Trout Tracks, a collection of essays published over the past few years, McLennan says that “Fly fishing is fascinating, fun, absorbing, puzzling, satisfying, intriguing, exhilarating (and exasperating), but to me, at least—not spiritual.” McLennan has spent more time fly-fishing than most people, and he’s also spent more time reflecting on fly-fishing in his writing, so his words carry some serious weight.
McLennan was one of the first guides on Calgary’s Bow River in the 70s, before it was “discovered” by American fly fishing magazines. He has spent more than 40 years fishing the Bow and other rivers in Southern Alberta, and he’s taught many a young fly fisher to cast a fly, alongside his wife Lynda (who is also a talented artist with camera, paintbrush, and fly rod). He’s caught innumerable trout of every variety all over Alberta, B.C., Montana, and all the other corners of the world where fish will take a dry fly. His Trout Streams of Alberta is one of the two sacred guides to fly fishing in Alberta (if you are a fly fisher from Wild Rose Country you may know the other classic) and his Blue Ribbon Bow is filled with beautiful meditations on our hybrid of sport and art.
It’s also clear that McLennan doesn’t just know the ins and outs of “what” fly fishing is, including “how” to catch fish and “how” to guide others to do so. He also has quite a bit to say about “why” we fly fish. And in the Aristotelian approach to thinking, our understanding the nature of “what” fly fishing is must be partly a matter of knowing “why” we fly fish.
In his writings, McLennan doesn’t offer us one great “why” that unlocks the secrets of the world of fly fishing and life. Rather, he discerns several reasons why people fly fish, and he discovers them in his memories and experiences rather than in abstractions. His he correct to say that they do not amount to something spiritual?
One obvious reason McLennan recognizes is that we often fly fish to escape or cope with the difficulties we experience in our non-fishing lives. He recalls meeting a homeless man in Calgary who told him “fly fishing saved me.” McLennan says that “religious connotations aside, I think his statement meant that he found purpose and something to do—and something to anticipate doing— which was helpful in his struggle.” And McLennan thinks most fly fishers share something with that homeless man, even if we’re escaping other aspects of lives filled with less hardship. On this point, he echoes some well-known lines from The Angler’s Ballad, by the 17th–century poet Charles Cotton:
Away then, Away,
wee loose sport by delay,
but first leave all our sorrows behind us
if misfortune do come,
wee are all gone from home,
And a fishing she can never find us.
This kind of escape can become escapism, but there is a difference. Escapism is the vice of ignoring the cares of your life for what you do not truly care for. This leads to the desire to ignore whatever your escape is the more you begin to care for it. And there are many young fly fishers, particularly young fly fishermen, who fish this way.
One modern manifestation of this escapism involves the vanity of understanding fly fishing as a consumer lifestyle, as opposed to, you know, a type of fishing. With the explosion of fly fishing videos and social media, where every moment of fishing is captured on phone cameras and posted online, it can be tempting to mistake fly fishing for a kind of gonzo voyeurism. There is no escaping the social woes of your life if you bring the surveillance of the anonymous crowd with you on every trip. There are clearly trade-offs for some of the Instagram stars of fly fishing as they get the nicest gear and paid trips to exotic fishing spots. But they are also forced to constantly document and think about what their audience will make of each cast and strike. It’s not hard to think that some of these social media stars might experience fly fishing the way pornstars experience sex.
But fly fishing escapism isn’t all modern media and its simulacra. There are also more natural types. It seems clear to me that many fly fishermen go through an initial stage of obsessive fly fishing, escaping into a frenzied desire to catch more fish, and then shifting their object to bigger fish.
This natural stage is a kind of escapism that turns fly fishing into another one of life’s struggles. It’s similar to how many lovelorn young men pursue the most women or the most beautiful woman in town. Actually, I was shocked to find that Charles Cotton seemed to combine an obsession with fly fishing with an obsession for whoring. The following lines are from his poetic “epitaph” to a prostitute with the initials M.H:
Pretty she was, and young, and wise,
And in her Calling so precise,
That Industry had made her prove
The sucking School-Mistress of Love :
And Death, ambitious to become
Her Pupil, left his Ghastly home,
And, seeing how we us’d her here,
The raw-bon’d Rascal ravisht her.
To quote Johnny Lee, Cotton was looking for love in all the wrong places. If he fished that way he was not escaping life’s sorrows but recreating them. Escapist ways of doing things escape nothing, but fly fishing’s escape has value if it can avoid or overcome escapism.
McLennan seems aware that the kind of escape offered by fly fishing is not escapist because it is usually joined to other reasons of substance. Some of these reasons are more specific to fly fishing, while some are part and parcel of any worthy sport or art conducted in nature’s kingdom. A more specific reason we fly fish is that it teaches a particular version of the art of noticing, what McLennan refers to as being a “wonderer (not a wanderer though I guess that’s ok too) and a noticer.” When we fly fish, we are presented not only with questions (“how do I catch a fish here?”) and answers (“cast a hair’s ear nymph and dead drift it on the foam seam”), but also with the need to ask our own questions.
McLennan explains this via a story about asking a customer “how’s your fishing been?” while working in a Calgary fly shop. The customer told him the fishing was fantastic because that summer he noticed tons of ladybugs in his yard and along the river and when he tied his own fly imitation, the result was dynamite. McLennan noticed the ladybugs, “but what I didn’t do was wonder if it meant anything to the fish.” A “ladybug” is not a fly associated with fish in the minds of most fly fishermen and entomologists. The customer asked his own question and found his own answer, and although the pleasure of this wondering isn’t quite the same thing as the aporia of philosophy, it shares something in common with it. Like appreciating philosophical questions without knowing their answers, we can simply wonder at the beautiful secrets of rivers and lakes without knowing them.
And like the doubt of philosophical wonder, the wonder of fly fishing can be less than comfortable. One of the best similes for Socrates in any of the Platonic dialogues is made where the eponymous character Meno compares him to an “electric ray” (narkē) who “benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it.” Socrates responds that the simile should only be considered apt in his case if the electric ray not only numbs and stuns others but also itself, for “it is from being in more doubt than anyone else that I cause doubt in others.” All fly fishers, even old hands like McLennan, know the numbed paralysis of not knowing why the fish are playfully gorging on hatching natural flies while ignoring a perfect imitation of tied hook and feather. Most of us do not enjoy this state of wonder the way Socrates does, but we can admit that it is part of what makes thinking and fly fishing such worthy art.
A less fly fishing reason why we fly fish is friendship.
All play has the potential to enrich and flavour friendship, and fly fishing is just one type of human play. Friendship is not limited to the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of anglers, and the way we keep secrets and lie to one another makes it clear that not all fly fishers are friends. Nor is the value of friendship in fly fishing a matter of the shared language of technique and gear or the shared love (or mutually jealous love) for fish, although these are ingredients in the recipe.
Fly fishing does not relate to friendship the same way that say, football or rugby or hockey might. In those team sports, friendships flourish through teamwork and sacrifice. Your success in the game depends on shared ends and coordinated action. Fly fishing can be done in solitude. Fly fishing can be lonely when you fish alone, but it is an art well suited to small groups. If you fish with one friend or several, or your father or brothers or mother or sister, or your sons or daughters, you are engaging in a particular kind of play that moves from moments of separation to moments of fellowship. Each fly fisher will go off to a section of a stream or river and fish, and then you’ll regroup to smoke or eat and chat about fishing and other matters.
McLennan notices that as he gets older, friendship becomes a more prominent part of what he loves about his fishing trips. He also notes that mentorship is a big part of fly fishing. Mentorship and teaching can serve a special kind of friendship between teacher and student. From his writing, it’s clear that he loved the many mentors who shaped his passion and knowledge for fly fishing, and that they loved him. I can’t help but think that fly fishing serves friendship in a particular way, because fly fishing partners are always teaching one another about their art. Even if you’re fishing with a master like one of McLennan’s mentors, say Leigh Perkins, or McLennan himself, sometimes the less experienced angler will notice a hatch of insects that escapes the mentor. Or a randomly selected fly will prove accidentally deadly. Then student can become master when the two huddle together to trade information on their fishing. And fly fishing chats need not concern fly fishing to work this magic.
Fly fishing friendships have a long pedigree. Charles Cotton’s love for fly fishing is made known to us through his friend Izaak Walton’s book The Compleat Angler. Walton probably wasn’t a fly fisherman, but Cotton was. And it was Cotton who added “Part II” to The Compleat Angler, where the dialogue between “Pescator” (Fisherman) and “Venator” (hunter) signals the friendship between these men. Pescator and Venator both effusively profess to know and love Walton.
Pescator says of Walton:
The fore-mentioned gentleman understands as much of fish, and of fishing, as any man living: but I must tell you further that I have the happiness to know his person, and to be intimately acquainted with him, and in him to know the worthiest man, and to enjoy the truest and best friend any man ever had.
So perhaps Cotton wasn’t all escapist.
What do these reasons amount to? I think they show that old McLennan knows a thing or two about why we fish.
But he’s wrong about fly fishing not being spiritual.
The problem isn’t that McLennan doesn’t know what fly fishing is; the problem is likely that he has a narrow view of what the word “spiritual” means. I don’t think escape, wonder, and friendship exhaust the reasons why we fish, and I don’t think they amount to spirituality. I do think that the kind of escape, wonder, and friendship offered by fly fishing can be spiritual and that spirituality depends on the spirit in question.
It’s hard not to see McLennan’s spirituality on display when he tells of having his fishing interrupted one day:
A hundred metres downstream of me were three grizzly bears, busy on the far bank looking into the water, clambering about on the deadfall along the shore. They were fishing too, and completely oblivious to what I was doing.
He offers a gloss on this experience by quoting John Muir’s maxim: “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything else in the universe.”
To be sure, fly fishing isn’t any more inherently spiritual than walking on the banks of a river or bird watching. That’s the point. I think the highest stage of the art of fly fishing involves learning this spiritual lesson. I’m certainly not there yet, but this thought calls to mind one evening where I was walking back to my truck in the dusky light after fishing the Bow River. As I walked along the river two older fly fishermen showed up at my side. I asked “how was the fishing guys?” The younger of the two said he caught several nice brown trout. I nodded with a crazed lust for fish in my eyes. The older one smiled and held up his unstrung fly rod:
I didn’t end up fishing. I just cracked a beer and waded out and watched trout swim around me.
It was the strangest thing I’ve heard in my life. He was clearly some sort of Zen master.
McLennan notes that, unlike his fly-fishing homeless Calgarian, fly fishing couldn’t “save” Paul, the brother of Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It. In the novella and in real life, Paul is Montana’s answer to Charles Cotton, in fly fishing and other matters. The novel abruptly ends with his death. Paul was brutally beaten to death with the butt of a revolver and his body was dumped into an alley. Fly fishing couldn’t save his life or his soul. When Norman and his father, a Presbyterian Minister, discuss Paul’s death for the last time, Norman says:
“If you push me far enough, all I really know is that he was a fine fisherman.”
“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”
And these are some of the most spiritual words I’ve read in my life.