The Happy Idiot
Lately I've been thinking about what makes a good fly-fisher, possibly the last fair question of the twentieth century that might actually have an answer. I mean that in a purely technical sense, as in someone who's pretty good at catching fish on a fly rod. The other stuff -- the humor, graciousness, inner peace or whatever -- is important and may even turn out to be the whole point, but I'm not sure you can learn that part. I'm beginning to think it either comes by itself with time, or not.
On the other hand, I think you can learn to be a good fisherman (at least I hope so), and it's probably easier to get all philosophical about it when you actually catch some fish now and then.
The best way to pick up the nuts and bolts of something like fly-fishing has always been face to face with someone who already knows -- whether it's a teacher, a friend or a kindly stranger -- and there can be a lot to learn. Twenty or thirty years ago, when it was becoming fashionable for fishermen to use the Latin names for bugs, outdoor writers joked about getting a doctoral degree in fly-fishing. Now, with introductory to advanced classes, seminars, demonstrations, books and videos on everything from casting to fly tying, certification of casting instructors and such, you can damn near do that, although how much study you need before you're qualified to hook and land a fish is still an open question.
In fact, there are times when fly-fishing seems to be suffering from the same malady that afflicts the rest of society: too many so-called facts and not enough real experience, but I have to say the quality of information on fly-fishing is better than most. Sure, there's the normal showmanship, bullshit or whatever else you want to call it, but if you do precisely what a magazine article tells you to do in the exact conditions described, you'll probably catch some fish. On the other hand, you could also catch fish by doing something completely different. Maybe even bigger ones, or more of them.
Not long ago one of those prime-time TV news shows followed the performance of two stock portfolios, one picked by a heavyweight investment counselor, the other picked by a monkey. Naturally, the monkey won. (The investment guy took it well. He said, "Can I have the monkey's phone number?") Fly-fishing can be like that, too. You'll probably do well going by the book, but there's also a kind of random goofiness in operation that rewards the happy idiot.
It would be handy to put together the kind of profile the FBI assembles on mad bombers -- "your typical good fly-fisher is a single, middle-aged male of moderate to low intelligence, sullen, withdrawn, probably lives with his mother" -- but actually, all the really good fly-fishers I know are unique.
If one is a real match-the-hatch style technician who counts the tails on mayflies and fishes flawless, entomologically correct imitations, another will catch just as many trout drifting a Royal Wulff through the same hatch. For everyone who fishes hard from an hour before dawn until midnight, someone else will land just as many fish but still somehow manage to spend half the day sleeping under a tree.
It is true that most good fly-fishers can go through the motions reasonably well. They can cast, wade, find and stalk fish, select fly patterns, tie strong knots and all that, but if one is the kind of person who'd naturally become a great caster, then that's how he comes at it. If not, maybe he becomes an adventurous wader to make up for it, slogging to within fifteen feet of the spot someone else will cast all the way across the river to reach. It's rare for even the best fishermen to be experts at everything, but one way or another, they all get the fly to the fish.
And things change over time, too. I'll probably never be a truly great fly caster, but I'm better than I used to be. I do work at it and there have been a few fish I've caught only because I managed to make a great throw. But then I've only gotten to be a progressively better caster as my trick knee has gotten trickier (it's been known to pop out of joint when pushed sideways by a strong current). I guess I'm just taking up slack, although I prefer to think of it as systematically replacing the brute force of youth with adult finesse.
Then again, even though I do cast a little better, I can still get around in the water well enough, too. Years of extreme wading taught me how to pick easier routes through bad currents, and I've actually developed a meditation technique that lets me lower my center of gravity when I'm in the water. So maybe you can do a little better than just break even. With luck, it can be like quitting drinking without entirely losing the sense of fun you learned while you were smashed.
I've also noticed that a lot of good fishermen have the uncanny ability to immediately turn any conversation to angling with a fly rod, on the theory that the essence of anything is in how it's either like or unlike fishing, and they often do it so deftly they don't even stretch the point.
My friend Pat Leonard is in the music business and he's pretty successful at it. (Many good fly-fishers also seem to be very good at something else, too. I'm not sure why, although I have some half-baked ideas.) Anyway, it's become kind of a joke with us to crack any subject by pretending to search for just the right analogy and then finally saying. "Well, it's sort of like fishing, isn't it?"
The other day Pat was talking about the agonies of writing music, I said, "So it's sort of like fishing, then," and he said, "Well, yeah, except on a bad day your piano doesn't swim under a rock and stay there until you go away."
Pat's real successful, as I said, but after too many years spent as a trout bum, I can't help thinking of him as a fisherman who works part-time as a famous record producer to support his habit. Then again, he's enough of a fisherman that he might agree with me.
I also have to say that the best fishermen I know are fanatics -- although most have been that way for so long that a kind of eerie calm has settled over them, so it's not always obvious -- and they also spend a hell of a lot of time fishing. Some can do that because they have a lot of money. Others don't have much money because they spend a hell of a lot of time fishing. It's like getting the fly to the fish: one way or another, they get it done.
That's probably the most important part of getting really good at this. Tom McGuane once wrote, "Angling is extremely time consuming. That's sort of the whole point," and it's occurred to me a few times, when I've gotten into some local political battle or idly wondered how I'd be paying the mortgage in the next ten or twenty years, that God must have invented fly-fishing to keep old hippies from getting rich or ruling the world.
But then some of us who have it bad for fishing either don't hanker that much for money and power or don't care to do what it takes to get them. All we really want is bigger trout, better rods and a happy sex life.
I guess the one thing all great fly-fishers have in common is, they seem to have figured something out that's eluded the rest of us. Spend much time around one of these guys and you begin to suspect that whatever it takes to catch fish, it's not quite what you thought it was. But the hidden truth behind that is, it took them years on the water to arrive at it. It's not just fishing, either. Ask anyone you know who's very good at anything if there's a shortcut to spending half a lifetime learning the ropes and letting something indefinable slowly sink in.
Of course the hidden truth behind that is, just putting in the time is no guarantee. You also have to have passion and curiosity and then learn how to satisfy both, but at the same time not take it too seriously. I've been known to get downright mystical about fly-fishing, and I really do believe that you're as likely to find the meaning of life in catching fish as anywhere else, but I've also learned that spiritual quests can be disappointing, as when you go off to search for your spirit animal, only to find that it's a bunny rabbit.
It's probably better to just do the thing because it seems worth doing for its own sake, and if something more comes of it along the way, fine. Some of the best fishermen I know really want to catch fish, can be disappointed when things go badly and have an ego, a competitive streak, and all the other regulation human failings, but most days they seem to fish the way a dog follows its master: with nothing much in mind except to see what's gonna happen next.
Over the years I've been lucky enough to have fished with a precious handful of great fly-fishers: people who could catch at least some fish when no one else could get a strike, or who caught more and bigger fish when everyone else was getting their share, who did that on a pretty regular basis, who seemed to do it almost effortlessly and who usually didn't brag or strut or otherwise beat you over the head with their success.
It seems like I've spent a lot of time trying to copy what better fly-fishers were doing, and it's surprising how often that hasn't worked. You know the drill: Your partner is just hammering fish. He generously gives you the secret fly pattern, he tells you what size tippet he's using and what kind of drift he's trying for, maybe he even trades spots with you. He continues to hammer fish. You still can't buy a strike, and his kindness only makes you feel more dimwitted than you felt before.
So what the hell has he got that you don't? Whatever it is, it's just too elusive. You can't steal it, and he can't give it away. The more you watch him, the more he seems to just be letting it happen instead of making it happen (the smug bastard), but when you try to just let it happen, it doesn't. If you come right out and ask him what he's doing, he'll either say he doesn't know himself, or he'll tell you something too simple and obvious to be of any use. (Spencer Tracy once said the secret to acting is "Learn the lines and don't bump into the furniture.")
Still, I think I've learned from these guys. Now and then it's been something you could include in a list of A Hundred Tips for Lunker Trout -- some good advice on casting, a fly pattern, a better knot -- but mostly it's just the feeling that you have to come at this in your own way.
I know I'm a long way from greatness, but I am beginning to come at it in my own way. I can go through the basic motions pretty well, don't rely quite as religiously on specific fly patterns as I once did, have worked out ways of compensating for some of my most egregious weaknesses and have come to count heavily on timing because it's a hell of a lot easier to catch fish when the fish are biting.
I also pay close attention to small details, not because any one thing is likely to be the Big Answer but because I think if you methodically string lots of little things together and then stand back and look at the whole picture, the light will eventually begin to dawn.
But I know there's more to it -- or maybe less -- if only because that sounds like good advice. If I really had it, I'd be able to say something that was completely useless in a kind of Zen-like way.
But at least I share two articles of faith with the great fishermen: I believe that the solution to any problem -- work, love, money, whatever -- is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be. And I'm also certain that on the day I become a truly sublime fly-fisher, all my failings will be overshadowed and all my demons will swim under rocks and stay there until I go away.
Copyright © 1999 by John Gierach