The Unintentional Lie

A week or two ago I wrote about a really great fish that I lost during a few days in the mountains while fly fishing with a colleague. I remarked that it was as long as my arm. And it was. Well, pretty close to it. My arm less, perhaps, my finger tips. And some of my palm. Most of it really. 

Fishermen, like used car salesmen, politicians, insurance salesmen and occasional drunks (or is that covered by ‘fisherman’?), are popularly not considered to be the most truthful of sportsmen. This is an unfortunate fallacy. 

I’m given to sitting still for extended periods, ruminating on the complexities of human nature and for the life of me I can’t believe that an average sample group of anglers would display a bigger propensity for mendacity as, say, a group of statisticians. That is perhaps as bad an example as if I were to use weathermen to make my point, but what I’m saying is that there is no reason for a representative cross section of fishermen to contain more dishonest individuals than any other group of enthusiasts of any kind. 

If fisherman, as a group, were statistically proved to register higher relative to the mean dishonesty index (mdi) of any other random group then it would mean that there exists a propensity for liars to be attracted to angling. Setting aside the discourse on the effects of nature versus nurture on human behavior (Freudian and relationship models notwithstanding) I find no evidence to suggest that fishing attracts liars. Or, put another way, that liars are attracted to fishing. Were we discussing golfers I may be swayed to modify my opinion, but not in this case. 

Certainly, anglers are known to knock back a cold one after a day of plying their trade under hot skies (or a chest warming one after a day of exposure to icy winds and frigid water) and that this may lead even the most sainted proponent of the pursuit to slightly modify his perception of reality. This is understandable and, in the words of a late cricket captain, this falls into the category of ‘the devil made me do it’ indiscretions. It should be common cause that the mortal angler, awash in a wave of human fallability, is no match for the devil and that he who is without sin, etc., etc.

It has to be said that the modern trend toward catch and release practices isn’t helping our lot much. Like the golfer walking through impenetrable bushiness along the outside of the golfing field all the while kicking his ball toward the edge of the mowed grassy bit, catch and release is, well, dodgy. (My mastery of golfing terms is I hope adequate to make my point.)

Our grandfathers posed for riverbank photographs with the carcasses of dead fish all around them. There is something more convincing about hearing of your loved-one’s day on the stream over a smoked salmanoid dinner than hearing about it over a bucket of KFC hurriedly procured on the drive back. No, catch and release frankly smacks of the murder weapon being lobbed into a dumpster behind the motel and does little to shake our unfortunate mantle. 

So back to my fish. I say ‘my fish’ in the same way as I say ‘my lotto’ for the day that I got the first four numbers in a row; much excitement followed by much bugger all. 

It was truly a good fish. 70cm if it was a millimeter. Maybe even bigger. Yet, as I talk about it, I find myself not actually saying how big it was but leaving a suggestion in the listener’s mind that it was bigger than it was. A sort of piscatorial neuro linguistic programming technique if you will. (I have a subscription podcast service available if you’d like to master this technique.)

Let’s unpack why we would try to create the impression of our quarry being more impressive that it’s actual physical dimensions are evidence to. 

There are several contributing factors that we first need to get out of the way and primary on that list is low self esteem. This is easy to identify; you also fish for bass, play golf and cycle (because you like the outfits). This all proves my long-held theory that low self esteem is earned. Lie then, if it makes you feel better. Very few anglers suffer from low self esteem. Fact. No group of people who so demonstratively share the trait of not giving a, err, damn (you thought I was going to say ‘fuck’, didn’t you?) could possibly care about the opinions of others. 

So then, you ask, why do we fisherfolk sometimes create in the listeners mind an image of reality that is not sort of entirely completely totally accurate? Passion. Excitement. Passion and excitement. Passion and excitement fueled by adrenaline. That’s the reason. The unfortunate angler is a plaything at the feet of cruel evolutionary circumstance. 

Back to the fish I caught. Here are the facts (read them fast for dramatic effect). 3 weight rod, 5X tippet. Sun behind mountains. Colder than a whore’s heart. Identified fish rising to unknown emergers. Waded out in flip flops deeper than my dangly bits. Many sharp gasps for air. Occasional swearing. Long cast between reeds. Tippet moves slightly. Tighten up. All bloody hell breaks loose. Fish tries to convince me he’s a sailfish. Grip above shoulder, rod tip beneath surface. Much wailing, anguish and gnashing of teeth over choice of tackle. Screaming reel. Masterful display of technique (I tell you, it was a joy to behold such that future generations will write folk ballads about it) brings fish against all odds to where I should have had a net but in this case only had my left hand. Fish rolls over onto the cast. What’s left of the tippet flies over my shoulder. More swearing and ‘tell me you saw thats’. A bit more swearing. 

I have no need to exaggerate or create in the mind of anyone the impression that the fish was grander then it was. But, seriously, it happens. I’ve turned to science and cold, hard mathematics and I believe that I’ve uncovered the formula to explain why and by how much an angler will exaggerate his experience. Using this formula we we calculate the fisherman’s PTBTT. 

[at this point either read on or wait for it to appear in your favorite scientific journal or the live feed from the forthcoming Nobel awards for exceptional work in the field of the quantifying of human behavior; subsection – piscatorial mendacity]

I’ve already explained the mean dishonesty index or mdi. This is the factor to which a person, based on his natural propensity to bend the truth may exaggerate. A man of the cloth would, one hopes, have an mdi of less than one. A golfer would more be than one (a propensity towards untruth) and a purveyor of women’s night creams would tend to be in the region of three or four on the mdi. 

For the purpose of this exercise and as demonstrated above we will use an mdi of one for an angler; I.e. He is no more or less prone to lie than the average of general society. 

We now need to apply several other factors. The difficulty in stalking factor (dis) is really just a measure of the effort put into getting your fly in the face of the fish. It is either a one, two or a three. One is for a fish hooked while your fly drifted off behind you while you were doing something unconnected to actually pursuing it – lighting a smoke, for instance. Two is for moderate effort – a blind cast while smoking said smoke. Three is for a seriously proper stalk, cast and faultless presentation in tight quarters – like with nchi-chi bushes blocking out the sun, so densely are they growing around and over you and spooky fish in thin water.  Get the picture?

Strength of fight (sof) is an important component of the formula. For instance, the fish that has been hooked a hundred times and which fights like a wet paper bag gets a one. Brisk run, tries to take you through structure, a jump and needs to be put onto the reel would be a five. Maximum is a fish that fights hard, fights dirty, puts you into the backing, makes a muscle lock up, forces you to chase him downstream or around weedbeds, tailwalks, etc gets maximum points; a ten. This scale of one to ten is sliding. You will intuitively know where to score it. 

Then we have what golfers refer to as a handicap.  In this instance it is termed the honesty handicap (hh).  You are a regular churchgoer – score one. Your wife and / or highly competitive fishing buddy saw it – score four. You had been drinking at the time – score 0.5. You’ve been out for seven sessions without so much as a bump – score 0.75. Basically, any circumstance that would keep you honest gets a score of greater than one. Anything (see ‘devil made me do it’, above) gets less than one. You may not have any point allocation under zero. 

So, your Propensity To Bend The Truth (ptbtt) is calculated by the formula:

Ptbtt =[mdi x dis x sof] / hh
To demonstrate this assomebthat:

  • Your mdi is 1 (see above)
  • You stalked the fish, naked, through nettles – dis of 3
  • It turned tail downstream, tailwalking, 8X tippet wrapped around the gill plates and you were left with one wrap of backing around your spool – sof = 9
  • You were sober and a wandering Buddhist monk, Rabbi and the Pope were looking on – hh of 3

Therefore: 

Ptbtt =[mdi x dis x sof] / hh

Ptbtt = [1x3x9]/3

The answer is that you are 9 times more likely to lie about your experience than without theses situational pressures assuming that you’re fairly normal in every other way. 

It’s really just science. 

Zen & the (pseudo) Art of Flyfishing

I’m writing this as a response to a request for content for their website from Daily Zen (@dailyzen), aTwitter account that I follow avidly. Whether it will make the cut remains to be seen. Either way, I need to resolve these ideas whirling around in my mind. 

  

  
I post from time to time pictures and descriptions of my flyfishing trips to local rivers, and less frequently, lakes onto Twitter. They receive a moderate number of comments and the commentary received often refers to the poetry, art and zen of the pursuit. 

I never quite know how to respond to this and I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. All of this thought is very confusing and I’m hoping that by writing this down the adage that ‘writing crystallizes thought’ holds up and that I can get a handle on it. 

Firstly, is it poetry? Let me start by saying that I’m not the world’s most adept flyfisher and that stomping and cursing while removing flies from various items of vegetation, body parts, clothing and other sundry tackle is not very poetic. Neither are headlong falls into cold streams. Spectacular arselong slides even less so. Nothing is less poetic than dumping a cast into the face of a painstakingly stalked fish and watching it run full speed in the general direction of away. 

Sometimes though, when I find a rhythm that matches the stream and the creation that surrounds it, there is a very real sense of poetry. Poetry is rhythmic in its nature and when I’m fishing in time to a primal heartbeat there is a certain poetry in the activity. 

So, I’m fairly content to agree that when all of the variables come together in some sort of a rhythm that it could be described as poetry and, by extension, an art form of some kind. Certainly, watching a consummate fly caster in action brings to a mind rhythmic movement like some form of dance and if poetry and dance are not arts then not much else is either. 

Perhaps then flyfishing done right is poetry and is therefore in that sense an art. For me it’s a far stretch most days, but I’ll submit to the idea. 

Submit to the idea, that is, right up to the point of labeling it art. It’s not art. It’s a science that incorporates an element of art. No, not even an element of art. It incorporates an element of creativity; the imitation of life. But not art. 

Flyfishing is a science and it can be overwhelming at first; or in my case, a good deal of the time. Aquatic entomology is in itself bewildering to most of us mortals. Line and rod design are impervious studies to almost anyone without an advanced engineering degree. But don’t worry, a lot of what you need to know you can learn from a few good books and reasonably short experience. Apparently a more experienced mentor helps. I don’t know about that, I’ve always fished alone. Secretly though I suspect strongly that the fish I chase don’t read the same that books I do and have benefitted little by way of mentoring. 

It’s really just those four phases of learning. Unconscious incompetence, where you don’t know you don’t know (you fish for bass). Conscious incompetance, where you give it a bash but it all seems impossible and you know that you, well, suck. Conscious competence is where it’s coming together and you’re doing it right but it takes a lot of concentration and effort . Unconscious competence is when it looks like poetry or art; you do it without thinking about it. 

Flyfishing is basically a lot of science merged with some wonderful creativity. When you see a really competent proponent out on the water I submit that their fluidity and grace will make it look like an art; this is the way with all of the masters in the history of art. (Damn, I’ve made a smoking bullet hole through my foot.)

I’m going to set aside any discourse on the zen (or lack thereof) aspect of the activity for the time being and try to describe a good day on a stream. Perhaps it will help to make my point. I have very little by way of reference as my good days come one every few seasons. 
As we discussed, a good day finds you in rhythm with the environment. In this modern world this generally means that you have imposed your will on the environment and that it moves to your rhythm. 

A lot more flyfishers lately seem to describe their outings in terms that imply their dominance over the environment. Their equipment, methods, skill, knowledge and force of will deliver to them their objective. They have the answer to landing record bags of trophy fish and never have a blank day. Perhaps this is even true for them. I can argue for their viewpoint for a while but there comes a tipping point where I just find myself dismissing it; rejecting it with contempt. These guys are all arrogant narcissistic bastards (nothing like a generous middle view).

[You may noticed that I haven’t spoken yet about catching a fish. File that thought in the back of your mind.]

You know that it’s a good day when from the second that you arrive at your fishing destination you are awake to the nuances of the environment around you. You probably became increasingly aware of the environment on the drive in. Some days the colours of the season painted onto the trees and grasses can retain your entire attention without you being aware of them. On these days you can sense changes in air pressure. The birdsong and chirps of insects lose the quality of being a background noise and you can identify each creature’s call rather than hearing them as a curtain of almost white noise. 

On a good day you notice everything. On a good day you notice nothing consciously. If your arrival point is out of sight of the stream you form an accurate picture of it by its sound. The subtle changes in the stream from your last visit, the spectral quality of the water, temperature, wind speed and direction, stream velocity and the nature and prevalence of insect life do not have to be studied, quantified, qualified, described or hypothesized over; they are experienced. They are known without having to be discovered. Everything is reduced to bare simplicity. 

On these (for me rare) days almost everything I try works. This is not to suggest that I have to take off my shoes to count the fish I catch after exhausting the limited algebraic range of my fingers. On the contrary, what it means is that what I get out of the activity is not quantified by the number of times I wet my net. It’s also does not imply that I never catch a large number of fish. The fish are incidental to the experience. Ok, perhaps they’re not incidental to it but they are rather a feature of the attraction. 

‘Oh’ you say, ‘what did you go fishing for if not primarily to catch fish?’. That, my friend, is a bigger question than you can imagine and I’m not sure that I have the answer to it. 

The need to go fishing has superseded my need to ensure my next meal. Certainly, I kill fish to eat; but very few and only when I plan to eat them fresh. I don’t fish for food. Perhaps it is the last vestige of some primal, Neanderthal part of me that sends me fishing. I’m not sure about that. What I am sure of is that if this was the primary driver I’d take a cast net and not a fly box. 

On probably 95% of my outings I fish alone. I very rarely photograph anything and I don’t mount trophies to my walls. I don’t own a scale. I don’t take any tool of measurement with me when I fish. I generally describe my fish as being ‘small’, ‘decent’, ‘nice’, ‘good’, ‘very good’ and ‘great’ on a personalized sliding scale. I find myself describing the nature of the fish (that part of it I’m exposed to) more often than its size. ‘Tricky’, ‘strong’, ‘active’, etc I use more than descriptions of size. On days when I do catch several fish I’m pretty poor at remembering how many I caught. I don’t lie about the size or number of fish caught. Ever. Because it doesn’t matter to me. (Much….)

‘Again’ you ask ‘why then do you go fishing?’ and I say to you that’s it’s for the experience not the weigh-in. Screw that ESPN shit. 

What then, I ask myself, makes the day when everything works so special? What is the quality of the experience that elevates it above an ordinary day out? What am I putting in or taking out that raises it above every other day? Am I more poetic? Am I more artful? Of course not. 

I am present. 

Presence. 

Presence is what defines a good day. 

I suffer, if that’s the right word, from something called ‘general anxiety disorder’. Look it up, it’s not fun. I live my life either in the past or in the future. I worry that it happened, I worry that it might happen, I worried that it happened differently to how I thought it would and I worry that it didn’t happen. I fish alone because I’m too anxious to expose my shortfalls to someone else or to ruin their outing. 

But, on a good day, I am present on a trout stream like nowhere else in my existence. I am immersed in the now. My activity assumes a meditative quality. My breathing slows. I see without seeing, I sense without sensing. I glide down a seam with the dry, I swing and rise across the current with the wet and I bounce along the bottom with the nymph. I tighten up into unseen fish before the indicator registers it. I am in the present moment and I am nowhere else. 

On a good day I exist in the now. 

And that, my friend, is zen.