When I try to get this point across, I always come back to this story:
It was a warm afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains on my home river: the New. The water wasn’t yet warm enough for wet wading, but it was one of the nicest days of the season up to that point. My first day on the river without a coat or hoodie, I felt unencumbered by extra bulk, light bouncing from the riffles on the water and spreading onto the rocky bluff that hulks over the riverbend.
I had my favorite dry fly rod with me, which was at that time a new-to-me possession: a Winston Tom Morgan Favorite 8’ 4wt made in Twin Bridges, Montana, in 1996. Big hatches on that stretch of river are more on the seldom side, but I’d been unable to resist sliding the two-piece rod together, tying on an Elk Hair Caddis, and seeing what might be looking up.
A small group of deer–all does–leisurely crossed the river about 30 yards upstream, bending to the stream to drink, their coats a pale gold in the sun. As usual, they paid me little mind–certainly much less than the awe I felt for them and for that moment. Soon, they’d ambled into the rhododendrons on the bank, up the hillside, and off to the next meadow.
The fishing on this day was decent–a handful of feisty browns and rainbows, none any larger than 10 or 11 inches–but far short of an all-time great fishing day in terms of size or quantity. The beauty of the river–its whisperings under cutbanks, redwings slipping from their folds in the tall grasses–far surpassed the fishing itself, which it almost always does for me.
Eventually, with the sun swinging towards the hills and my last semi-cold beer just about gone, I made my way up from the bank, found my footpath through the bramble, and began the half-mile walk along the dirt road back to the cabin.
As I approached the bridge over the river, a neighbor turned around the far bend in the road, his pickup truck kicking up a plume of dust like a rooster tail. I waited on the side of the road as he crossed the narrow bridge, and he rolled his passenger window down as the truck came to a stop.
We made short small talk about fishing, if I’d caught anything, the usual stuff, before he asked, “Did you feel the earthquake?” Sure that I’d misheard him, I asked, “What was that?”
“The earthquake–did you feel it?”
I had not. I had no idea what he was talking about.
Earthquakes in North Carolina are notable because they are few and far between. Because the Blue Ridge Mountains are so old and not as fractured as their western counterparts, earthquakes travel farther, rippling out long distances from the epicenter like a stone thrown in still water. I remember working on homework many years ago and feeling the house begin to rumble–only slight and briefly–and wasn’t quite sure what was happening. Sure enough, an earthquake in Virginia had rumbled its way hundreds of miles south through the contiguous rock and clay.
Maybe it was the fact that standing in a river means standing in motion, or maybe the quake shook through as I was traversing tilting and wobbling rocks on the riverbed, but I remember this day fondly for its ability to teach and re-teach me what I love most about fly fishing: the propensity to lose ourselves in it and in the many moments of beauty it presents us, so much so that I did not feel the earth shudder beneath me.
To be engrossed in something so antithetical to much of how the world is now constructed–fly fishing is quiet; it takes time; it teaches patience, even to the hasty; it is deliberate and delicate; precise and meandering; it is graceful and uniquely repetitive; it requires a singular focus; it unites families and friends by centering us together on its particular beauty; and it beckons us to come back equally on days when we lose count of how many fish we’ve caught and on days when we are skunked.
As a writer, I’m more familiar than I care to be with the difficulty of expressing with exactitude a thought, feeling, or idea, and although frustrating, it’s what continually draws me to write. And so it is this story that I feel best expresses my why, my feelings about fishing, my ideas about its place in my life, better than I could ever just plainly describe. It’s for these reasons that, for me (and, I know, many others), fishing is never about the fish.
For those of us who have fallen victim to or in love with fly fishing long ago, this is certainly no revelation. And perhaps there will be some who say, “It’s never about the fish? That’s something somebody who has never caught [insert exotic species here] would say.” That may be true, but I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is that far beyond netting a fish or feeling its head shake on the end of the tippet or being startled when a brown suddenly and aggressively strikes your dry fly, there are the things that truly make fly fishing the thing so many of us yearn for and feel cleansed by: the long, hollow calls of geese following the riffles downstream, the constant dance we find ourselves in with the river–picking apart the many veins of a seam, our minds undulating between drift and mend–the way the river becomes an off-ramp from the freeway of time and leads you to a place where everything else vanishes, even the trembling in the bedrock beneath your feet.