Of Fish and Men and Being Awake

Like the eager trout gracefully sipping a mayfly dun, we rise.

We rise to the early alarm at an hour fit only for farmers, paperboys, and milkmen. We are awake. We understand the importance, the necessity, of the early morning wake up call. It is intrinsically linked to our passion – fly fishing.  Each morning, fly fishers in every corner of the world awaken their sons and daughters well before dawn to make their way to sacred spots on rivers and lakes in order to share familial traditions. Fishing buddies drive silently through dark neighborhood streets, the homes still, lifeless, the windows drawn shut like the eyes of the slumbering occupants. Guides and clients scurry to prepare for the day’s adventure, readying equipment and lunch while gulping down their morning “jitter juice,” overbrimming with anticipation of the day ahead. Yes, we are awake, literally, at a time and in a manner that most others will never understand. Fly fishing, if committed to as a way of life, has this effect on us. It has a way of forcing our eyes open, at first to the silence of predawn, but always to the condition of the world.  

This awareness is perpetual, relentless. We are in a never-ending search for detail, minutia, the final piece to an ever-evolving puzzle. We are awake to the river long before we arrive. We monitor streamflow data – a near-daily ritual – in case the water authorities have cranked open some valve in a dam overnight increasing the cubic feet per second, sending the fish into disarray and shutting down their feeding cycle. We are concerned that the rains from yesterday morning have sent a plug of mud surging through the system like a glob of cholesterol in an artery from too many cheeseburgers rendering some water unfishable. We slow down and study every tributary on our way to our destination to gauge the conditions. We monitor online reports from fly shops, Facebook groups, state agencies, and random bloggers – but we are awake to the knowledge that reports are often exaggerations and that fishermen are notorious for hyperbole. And throughout the week, we experience highs and lows, optimism and pessimism, faith and doubt. Our attitudes rise and fall like the flows. But we are awake to that as well.

We are awake to the natural world: the crisp moisture in an autumn morning, the slightest movement of the air, the smallest insects dancing on the water, the potential for danger around each corner, the incoming thunderstorm. We must live with senses heightened to the slightest nuances of nature. When we step off the Screenshot 2015-08-01 07.19.55pavement, and away from our vehicles, we enter a very fragile ecosystem in which we are the tourists. We literally immerse ourselves in “the Wild” – even if we
can still hear the rush of traffic nearby. While it has evolved over the millennia, and man has left his impact with roads and bridges and cars and dams, the rules of the water have remained the same. Fish must eat. They must have oxygen. They must have a sense of security. They must reproduce. This is their instinct, and we must be aware of it at all times.

We must be awake to where fish hold so they can be in balance with these four, basic rules of survival. We obsess over water, study its depth and speed, the structure below, know where fish are spending their time. We must diligently observe bug life, both that which is flying around us and that which is swimming below. We must be aware of water temperatures and the cloud cover above. We must think like a fish in order to catch a fish, and we must be awake to the laws of nature in order to think in a natural way.

And once we begin thinking more naturally, we become awake to our primordial selves and the predatory instinct that has kept us alive. Since day one on Earth, man has been a hunter, a stalker, a top-shelf predator who is rarely as strong or swift as his prey. We developed tools, weapons, conjured up in our over-sized, complex brains, in order to take our quarry and live another day. This instinct was not completely washed away by the invention of the supermarket and McDonald’s drive-thru. But, for most, those senses have been dulled. A fly fisher, like his cousin, the big game hunter, must be awake to those instincts to be successful. He must be a predator.

A fly fisher, like all successful predators, is quiet, stealthy, light of foot with eyes and ears in tune with his environment. He approaches the water slowly, careful his shadow (or the shadow of his rod) doesn’t stretch across the water that likely holds a fish. He waits and watches, studying the river bottom for any movement or lifelike shadow, long before he makes a cast. He approaches from behind, knowing that a fish prefers to face into the current and focus on what the river is delivering to it. He crouches so his profile does not give him away. He makes short casts first, working the water from outside to inside, covering every inch methodically so as not to “ruin” a good run with sloppy form. He must be awake to his surroundings, what is above, behind, what is below the water that might cause a fly to snag or become an impediment once a fish is hooked.

The fly-fisher is also awake to his own inadequacies. He utilizes tools that make his job easier, seeing as how the fish really has home field advantage. His rod is light and responsive and deadly accurate in skilled hands. His reel is perfectly balanced to the rod and has a drag that protects the extremely light tippet that attaches the highly-specialized fly to the business end of the line. His polarized glasses allow him to peer below the surface glare and pick up the nearly-imperceptible silhouette of an animal whose chief defense is camouflage. A slew of gadgets and dozens of different fly patterns meant to imitate dozens of bugs in various life cycle stages fill his pack or vest while his feet and legs are protected from the conditions by Gore-Tex, Vibram, neoprene, and other highly technical materials. And these can all cost thousands of dollars. But he is awake to the fact that these tools give him the best chance of fooling his prey, and as a predator, that is all that matters.

But, most importantly, fly fishers are awake to the concept of “forever.” Those of us who have fly fished for more than thirty years can attest to the fact that our waters, and the fish that inhabit them, are not as healthy as they once were. Generations of pollution, overuse, mining, and gluttony have taken their toll on fish populations. We have seen first hand the large spawning migrations of steelhead and salmon in the Northwest be reduced to paltry facsimiles of what they once were. The introduction of nonnative or invasive species have created unnatural competition with native species for food sources and spawning grounds. And we are awake to the fact that this cannot continue or our beloved fish will be gone forever.

We are awake to a day in our future when one of our grandchildren hooks a brown trout on a stretch of river our100_1653 own grandfathers introduced to us a half-century prior as we stand by, ready to provide a net and a snap a photo. We are awake to the need for wild places to remain not just wild, but prolific, in order for man to remember who he once was and realize who he could be. We are awake to the need for catch and release on particularly molested stretches of water, and when it is appropriate, even necessary, to harvest a few for the dinner table to cull the herd. We know it is our responsibility to be stewards of our fish and their habitat, not just to be gluttonous consumers of one of nature’s truly beautiful and mystical creatures. We are quick when taking photos. We handle fish gently and return them to the water immediately. We crimp our barbs to avoid unnecessary damage. We don’t target fish on spawning beds. We leave the biggest ones to go make more since their genetics have proven so worthy. We are awake to our role in the play of life.

A fly fisher who believes success is measured by the number of pounds or inches of fish he catches is still asleep to this world. When we speak of our adventures, we should speak of the fresh smell of the river at dawn or the pair of bald eagles who graced us with a fly over or the wonderful lunch eaten at streamside with our best friend as we watched risers enjoying their noon meal alongside us. We should respect the challenge of the hunt made manifest in the beauty of the tight loops of our fellow fly fisher’s cast and admire every catch with awe and wonder. We should observe the intricate markings on a six-inch brookie with equal admiration as we have for a five-pound rainbow that gets to have his photo taken. We should live to pass it all on to somebody else.

It is time to awaken; you have slept enough. Rise and shake off those shadowy dreams of reality like Plato’s prisoners in his allegorical cave. It is time to be meticulous, precise, to take the foot off the gas and take account of our world. Why the rush? Where are you off to in such a hurry? You are sleepwalking at warp speed. To be fully aware and in the moment, to commit yourself to something eternal is a gift too precious to cast aside. Too many of us have become anesthetized by modernity. We have taken our existence for granted because our world has been rendered more predictable by the mechanism of society. We conform to societal norms because we are designed, as animals, to adapt quickly. We seek structure to avoid hardship. We design processes to ensure repeated results. We conform in order to find security in not being alone. We consume.

But life, as it pertains to our existence, as well as to our metaphysical purpose as individuals, was never intended to be predictable, precise, or prefabricated. It has always been chaos, always been about overcoming the twists and turns, the turbulence, the all-present change inherent in being alive. Such is the world of the fish. But we can remember. We can find bliss in that ageless chaos by being in tune, by gazing long and deep into what is left of nature and, by examining it, realizing how we should act in our civilized, predicated world. As fly fishers, in committing to this way of life, this dogged search for an immutable connection to our purpose, we sustain ourselves.

We have set an alarm and risen to it.  

We are alive and aware.

We are awake.

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