Learning to fly fish yields profound lessons

I can't quite remember the poster in detail, but I can recall the tagline with clarity.


It read: "Everything I need to know about life I learned in Kindergarten." A list followed with suggestions about learning to share, playing nice, sitting up straight, listening when spoken to and asking questions.

Cute, I suppose, but rather meaningless when put to the test. Rather, I would like to propose an alternative; one that might hold a little more water.

I discovered not about life, but how best to live while learning to fly fish.

After my first peek into this new world, I've found that in order to catch a fish on a fly rod and tackle one must relearn virtues long forgotten or subdued by modern society, technology and convenience. By my estimation they are: patience, self-reliance, adeptness, maintenance and joy.

Learning to fly fish is an exercise in patience as one must relearn all there is to know about fishing itself. The frustrated fisherman misses the point entirely. You can't rush it and there are no shortcuts. I experienced this the hard way while learning to cast -- a hasty cast will not present the fly properly. It's best to start anew with each cast confidently, but humbly.

Rarely are there resources for each situation a fly fisherman faces and there is no guaranteed right way to fish a remote lake or small stream. Self-reliance is key. There likely isn't a book, electronic device or manual to guide a fly fisherman once on his or her chosen lake. One must use intuition and gumption to determine how, where, when and with what will yield results this cast, this minute, this hour and this day.

Being adept seems silly to mention, but I now think there's glory to be found in doing one thing with expertise. It starts with the cast, but grows to presentation of the fly, learning to tie all of the required knots, fly selection and eventually tying flies from scratch. Much like the mason who builds a house brick-by-brick, when a fly fisherman is adept in each of these basic tasks he can then master his craft. Details do matter and too often I think in fishing and life people do not respect the man who becomes master of a select few. Instead they applaud those who can do everything superficially and only well enough. But in fly fishing that's akin to building a house of cards destined to topple.

The fly fisherman who isn't prepared likely won't catch fish. Preparation starts with maintenance. An unorganized fly box is a sin, a fishing vest unstocked of tippet, split shot, clippers, pliers and the rest is but a worthless fashion item and the underdressed fisherman is a fool prey to rain, wind or other elements. Proper maintenance leads to quality experience, but much of how the world works now would have us forget that, I think.

When these things culminate -- all of which require work and perseverance -- the fisherman is hopefully rewarded with a chance at joy. After six months of learning, work and expensive gear, I caught my first trout on a fly rod last week. Although I've caught a 35-pound king salmon on the Kenai River and helped land a 320-pound halibut, this four-pound trout was perhaps the most satisfying catch of my life.

I wanted to leap from the canoe, grab Zeus by the beard and give him a big, sloppy kiss.

After some reflection, I realized those same virtues and skills I learned about fly fishing could patch holes in my regular life. Moreover, I believe them to be things unfortunately lost on, or unused by those who haven't learned the sport.

When life is reduced to the basics -- successfully tying a blood knot with the wind howling in your face and the stream rushing through your legs or nailing a cast, fly placed perfectly next to that lily pad -- something happens.

The earth beneath your feet hardens and life's intangibles and unknowables appear distant and mostly meaningless.

Rhetoric becomes hot air.

Tangles become manageable.

Life appears only as the water in front of me and I'm suddenly thirsty.

Brian Smith is a reporter and city editor at the Peninsula Clarion and avid fisherman.


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