Lord of the Flies

“Fly-fishing is a way of being in good places very quietly, with a pleasant purpose you can pursue with intentness and graceful tools.”

Those of us who love angling well enough to feel, as the angler Tolstoy put it, proud of being able to care for such a stupid occupation are not necessarily much like one another. Not only are there infinite numbers of kinds of fish in the world, inhabiting many different types of water, but the techniques used to snag them with a bent piece of metal on the end of a string are quite various as well. Thus when someone tells you, as someone seems often to do, “I like fishing,” you may know a little more about him or her than you did before, but not really very much.

By preference, one who fishes with hook and line may be a Hemingswayesque troller of huge marlin baits across the bosom of the wine-dark Gulf Stream, a trotliner after catfish in the depths of the somnolent Brazos, a puristical whipper of tiny artificial flies toward trout in mountain brooks, a cane-pole philosopher who elects to sit on a beer cooler beside still waters and regard a red and white float as it bobs, the trendy owner of a swivel-seated bass boat in which he and thousands of bucks’ worth of high-tech gear gun about on Corps of Engineers reservoirs, or any number of other things. Because, though there must be some people around to whom the pursuit of just about any species of fish, by whatever method and in whatever setting, is an undifferentiated delight, most of us brethren of the angle, if brethren we really are, come in time to think of two or three or four sorts of fishing as really worth our while, and even these we rand severely as to the satisfaction they afford us.

What kinds of opportunities one finds are part of the matter too. Expensive struggles with mighty billfish from the deck of a blue-water cruiser, for instance, are not for the disadvantaged or the land-locked. Nor do the choosy trout of cool rushing northern waters loom large in the angling of those of us who live on the Texas prairies, not unless we save up all our fishing urge and energy and cash for occasional trouting vacations in the high country, as some do. As a matter of fact, if I myself could get northwest more often or could stand not fishing at all during the intervals between, I can imagine waiting around like that also.

This is because trout are prime fly-rod fish, and along with many thousands of other individuals, I am an addicted fly-fisherman, though not expert or even notably pure in my adherence to the practice. That is to say, if definition is needed, I esteem most highly that form of angling in which a lure is propelled toward a fishy spot not by its own heft, as in bait-casting and spinning, but as the small and nearly weightless business end of an arrangement consisting of a long flexible rod, a length of relatively heavy slick-finished line that is rolled through the air like the forward section of a bullwhip, and a thin-tipped leader of translucent material (once silkworm gut but now nearly always nylon monofilament) whose near-invisibility is intended to make the fly seem a separate edible creature floating along the water or drifting or darting beneath its surface. The fly reel, a simple affair ordinarily, is used only for storage of line not in use and for playing large fish that make runs, whereas in bait-casting and spinning the reel is the central piece of tackle, a complex precision mechanism that feeds out line to a weighted lure hurtling stonelike toward its goal, and practically plays fish on its own. If these differences seem picayune to you, I assure you they don’t look that way to impassioned practitioners.

At any rate, trout — real freshwater trout of several species, along with some of their anadromous cousins the salmon - are the supreme fly-rod quarry. Even trophy specimens get much of their sustenance from small insects, crustaceans, and minnows, which can be simulated with creations of feather and hair and fur and tinsel, light enough to be laid out with a delicate rod and a tapered line and a gossamer leader across the cold flowing waters where trout most typically thrive. They are selective also for the most part, trout, and relatively hard to dupe, so that when you manage to dupe one the accomplishment appears more solid than with other fish, at least to us fly-rod types.

This fishing has attracted thoughtful minds for centuries. A fairly voluminous literature, of which I’ve read only a small part, tracing from Dame Juliana Berners and Izaak Walton down through such Victorian lyricists as Lord Grey of Fallodon and into the verbose present, lends to it a traditional, exact, tackle-puttering, current-studying, entomological ritualism that for bookish fold like me adds much to the quiet delight of taking trout or not taking them, for that matter: the studious ritual becomes in part its own excuse for being, the scenery is usually superb, the wading and casting forestall monotony, and most of the other fly-fishermen you run across are kindred souls, if only in the drift and tint of their enthusiasm. IT is a way of being in good places very quietly, with a pleasant purpose that you can pursue with intentness and graceful tools or can abandon from time to time to sit and look around at sky and water and birds and hills.

Yes, I agree that the ritual in extreme form can be ridiculous, and for many years I’ve resisted becoming obsessed with it and have sometimes succeeded, especially when I wasn’t living anywhere near trout. But all ritual is ridiculous at times, and most of us mortals seem to be condemned to seek our own forms of it. As to why some of us should choose this particular fussy form known as fly-fishing, I can give no logical answer, which is not astonishing since few things that human beings endow with ritual weight

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