I preach the value of learning for a living, but I am not always comfortable as a novice. The first time I fished the Owyhee River with my friend Kaitlin about four years ago, I was skunked. I was a typical beginner—I’d fly fished a few times before, but never really learned the craft.
I was practicing a basic cast with a hand-me-down rod and eight-year-old fly line, somehow drawn to this pointless activity of catch-and-release fly fishing. I couldn’t, like Kaitlin, shoot the line a straight 25 feet across the river, let the pale morning dun imitation land like goose down on the water, and drift wake-free over the noses of sipping brown trout. Never mind that she had years of experience fly fishing and working for a fishing lodge in Alaska, I felt stupid that I couldn’t cast well enough to trick these trout. Then, I felt stupid that I felt stupid.
I heard the tell-tale sound of the line tearing up off the water. “Fish on!” Kaitlin yelled.
Dammit, I thought. This is her fourth fish, and I’m an idiot for not being able to hook one. I’m not 20 feet from where she’s standing, using the same fly, casting to the same area. Instead of offering to help her net it, I sulked, gritted my teeth, and fought back tears. We had only been fishing for three hours, the sun was setting, and I had run out of feigned excitement.
“Cool,” I said, not even willing to look at what was likely another fat, beautiful, brown trout. My mind was eight years old.
The sides of my neck were tight, and my throat felt pressed in—feelings I now recognize as envy, fear, and anxiety. I despise envy, and yet I feel anxious when I can’t stop it. I try to breathe, but it feels more like blowing fire out of my nostrils. Why was I mad at this woman I’d only known a few weeks, and who clearly enjoyed my company?
I knew and didn’t know how much river time it would take to fish with Kaitlin’s expertise, and lacked the patience for it. I felt deflated and depressed. The thought-spiral continued.
I was staring down at the sage-tinted water, rod tip dragging in the current, watching spent mayflies float by, when Kaitlin waded over to show me the fish. I wanted to feel excited for her, because I’d be an asshole if I wasn’t. However, I was sick of feeling what I should feel rather than what I truly felt, so instead, I risked being honest.
“That’s a beautiful fish. I love those red spots. And I want to feel excited, but I just feel like a jerk because I’m jealous, and then I feel immature because jealousy is ridiculous, and then I feel irritated generally because I can’t snap out of this Jacob’s Ladder of obnoxious feelings and just enjoy even standing in this beautiful place.”
Kaitlin laughed, commiserating. “You know, I don’t care if you’re not excited about this fish, but I do care you’re this bummed. I promise, these are PhD trout. They aren’t easy to catch. It’s taken me time to learn this river. You’ll get it. You’re just starting.”
“Yeah. I just feel embarrassed at how bad I suck, and at being this upset, but my brain is telling me how dumb I must be to be unable to trick a fish. So, it’s that, or these are some smart-ass fish. This is supposed to be relaxing, and it’s not working. I care too much.”
“That’s possible! Just keep fishing.”
But fly fishing as instant zen is just feel-good novella bullshit. It takes anger and probably a few broken rods before any peaceful false-casting-on-the-Blackfoot cinema happens, if it does. The only reason to false-cast is to dry off a fly so it floats again. After all, keeping a fly on or in the water increases the chances of catching a fish. (I like to think the directors of A River Runs Through It knew this, but instead knew that keeping Brad Pitt on the screen increased the chances of a profitable film).
It turned out that caring “too much” over time worked in my favor because the drive to figure out the constantly-shifting variables in fly fishing helped me chill out. My brain is a noisy, anxious place, and a puzzle like catching a trout shifts it into hyper-focus. I often fish for hours on end, and I’ll be taking off my boots and realize I haven’t been dwelling or obsessing about anything but fish, currents, rocks, insects, temperature, angles, shadows, weight, and maybe whether or not I will have to confront some dude creeping in on my space.
Reading transports me, teaching provides hyper-focus, but fly-fishing is unique. Like teaching, I will never master it, and the more I learn, the more that fact makes me grateful, not irritated. Usually.
I kept fishing, mostly alone, because there were enough pleasant aspects to keep me returning. I enjoyed the solitude. I’m stubborn.
I noticed I felt happiest in my beloved Subaru heading to the river. I liked the time with my dog. There was just enough hope that I might see a fish up close that I kept going back, kept trying, kept learning, kept reading, kept practicing, occasionally went with friends.
Fishing became a necessary thing, like church never was, but was supposed to be. Church was supposed to make me feel better, and sometimes it did, but often it didn’t, and that was always due to something I wasn’t doing enough of, or well enough, because God was not to be questioned, but fly fishing, according to Norman Mclean, “is not fly fishing if you are not looking for answers to questions.”
I noticed fishing and wading in a river always improved my mood, fish or no fish. Frustration or not. Knots or not. Tree snags or not. There’s this “it’s not about the catching” truism floating around places like Pinterest and fly shops. Damn straight it’s about the catching. But it’s really about the hope of catching. I read once that we are happiest in the moment right before we are given a reward. This is why my many long-distance releases are still satisfying (and have the bonus of less stress on the fish).
I went to the Owyhee River with my friend Andy in January. I’ve been back countless times since that first afternoon with Kaitlin. Andy is a guide and skilled angler. The fish were rising consistently, which is a rare treat in winter, but were being picky as usual. He caught four nice fish before I finally hooked into a feisty rainbow.
Andy had laughed at me for tying on a size 10 high-vis Griffith’s Gnat and dropping an emerger from it, which is a strategy more typical for July than January. But a fish took the dropper and ran straight for me. I reeled in line and kept the rod tip up to keep the line taut. The fish ran behind me and bolted back to the deeper water as the bent rod spun over my head and I turned in a circle. Andy laughed. “First catch?”
While he caught at least 10 fish to my two, I was only jokingly jealous of him. My brain didn’t bully me. I didn’t feel embarrassed that my cast wasn’t always straight. I didn’t make excuses for being sloppy. I didn’t sulk.
I just fished and let my brain rest on the water.