When I tell my non-fishing friends I am going fishing, they often don’t understand what drives my desire to venture towards the middle of nowhere, tie a hook with a ball of hair on it to the end of a line, and attempt fooling a fish. Admittedly, this is a very myopic way to view fishing. Fishing involves much more than wading into a stream and waving a stick in the air. It encourages education, patience, awareness, environmental stewardship, and commitment. Catching a fish with an artificial fly is an art, growing from endless hours of casting practice, consuming books and articles (with species names in an ancient language) which might allow the reader to decipher the cryptic language of fish habitat – ‘that undercut might hold a donkey’, learning how to tie flies, buying grade A hackle so those handmade flies look perfect, late nights at the bench tying ‘just one more’ fly, and months of planning. These are things that fly fishers can control. After which there is nature – as unpredictable as it is majestic, unleashing deluges, droughts, hurricanes and blizzards; sometimes all over the course of a year. These uncertainties are coupled with environmental changes by our use of the landscape – damming rivers, harvesting forests, farming, and mining. Not to mention our influences on the earth’s climate. Viewed through this lens, fishing suddenly seems like a fool’s pursuit. However, sometimes there is serendipity; the hydrograph sits at just the right level and the weather cooperates providing perfect fishing conditions. It’s then the fly fisher goes to task; exorcising stress with each cast. All thoughts pulsating from life duties, deadlines, obligations and commitments melt, and the fisher is absolutely present in the present. Buddhists meditate for this feeling of bliss, angler’s fish. Then a boil, so subtle in its presentation that it could easily go unnoticed. The fly fisher carefully searches the water for clues as to what this fish is feeding on. All the while rapidly mining his/her knowledge, until a line of thought leads to a book with an illustration of a bug emerging from the water film. Hurriedly, but stealthily, he/she attaches his/her fly of choice and casts to an invisible target. Several casts cover the sight of the boil, then a take; it may be explosive or soft, whichever the adrenaline rush will exert its way through every cell of the body. The angler tries to contain excitement because this hog still isn’t landed; it is now burning into the backing! Now he/she must sustain that meditative focus while battling adrenaline, and preventing thoughts of holding this monster from eroding all concentration. A noise punctures the focus . . . . . SNAP!!!! The rod’s tension is now replaced by a slackness, usually followed by some unsavoury words and shoulders dropping. Disbelief is etched on the angler’s face, slowly replaced with a wry smile. The one that got away! Story telling is one of the most human activities we engage in. People laugh, cry, learn, and bond over stories. These moments are the foundations of future stories, and friendships.
Fish, especially salmonids tend to live in beautiful places - from tiny streams hung in mountains, to bottomless lakes sleeping in valleys. These landscapes portray the artful hand of nature, echoing processes and formations from a time earth had very different inhabitants, different climate patterns, and before humans. The areas that fish inhabit often spur thoughts of the ‘bigger picture’. Fishing thereby teaches the fisher many lessons. The psychological benefits of being in nature have been broadcast for the past few decades; with outdoor writers, environmentalists, biologists, and mental health researchers stating our natural home is in nature, and linking modern day depression and anxiety phenomena to a disconnect with our ancestral home, nature. Is it too far a stretch to suggest anglers may have known of these benefits for hundreds of years? Izaak Walton is a prime example - in his book ‘The Compleat Angler’ he speaks of enjoying resting on the bank as much, and one might assume perhaps even more than, fishing, soaking in the serenity that surrounded him. The feeling one gets from simply standing on a streambank is unquantifiable. Witnessing the world peacefully flow by in a patch work of overhanging trees, skillfully placed boulders, riffles and pools with countless currents and back eddies. Where emerging flies kiss the water’s surface almost as if some know their time is ephemeral, while a therapeutic soundtrack flows in the background. Happiness will always be found when one is an audience member at the nature show.
Spring on the Nashwaak River, New Brunswick, Canada (Photo credit: Antóin M. O’Sullivan)
But, there is more to fishing than solitude. Fishing is not a team sport, yet it fosters comradery and friendship often associated with team sports. Anglers are attracted to each other like opposite ends of a magnet, drawn by similar ideologies and desires, similar needs to go back ‘home’. These friendships blossom under the umbrella of trip planning, fly tying, fishing, and story sharing – some fishing related, others of life experiences. Angling friends tend to be lifelong friends. A lot can be discussed standing by the bed of a truck, either before or after a pursuit, while mindlessly skimming through fly boxes. Personally, I’ve been allowed the greatest insights into the lives of friends, and also spoken of my own demons, while on the water. The serenity seems to induce a tranquil state where social status is removed and problems can be aired without judgement and wisdom gained. The bonds cultivated during fishing outings cannot be overestimated. By way of a personal anecdote, a friend and I went fishing, targeting fussy browns on the Meduxnekeag River in New Brunswick. Typical of browns a feeding frenzy began at dusk, with 10’s of fish nosing the surface, sipping an unidentified bug. We spent our arsenal trying to match the hatch that evening, coming up frustrated and empty handed. A few days later I got a message from my friend – a photo with no caption. He had figured out the brown trout conundrum alone, but shared the experience with me (for those interested the fly was a white midge with a piebald deer hair body and moose hair for the tail). It is in these moments that the true reason of why we fish becomes apparent. The solitude found by my friend on that evening, the previous season’s lessons applied, using hand tied flies to trick the most fussy of trout, and then sharing the experience. Fishing is a way of life that can be shared or passed down from generation to generation, a way of life that becomes an obsession and teaches its students infinite lessons.
So, in truth there is no one precise reason why we fish. Seasoned anglers seek the entire experience. So if someone should ask you why you fish, simply offer them a chance to come along next time and you might have no need to say more.
Antóin M. O’Sullivan