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 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. 


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