You are being watched. It is true. As a fly fisher, unless you are in the middle of a desolate wilderness or hard-to-access canyon deep in the most remote part of the outdoors, you are being watched. They cannot help themselves; you command attention. Whether they have never held a rod in their hands before or they are industry guides on their day off, whether they are flatland tourists on summer vacation or local townies on their way to work, whether they are elderly grandmothers or “knee high to a grasshopper,” they will stop what they are doing, if even for a moment, and just observe. Fly fishing is mesmerizing in its mystery and awe-inspiring in its intrinsic majesty. It is a symphony of choreographed movement, a discerning blend of visual and tactile. In short, fly fishing is art.
Like all art, fly fishing begins with a concept, a thought, the thought of a fish to be precise. Well before the first boot enters the river, the fly fisher, the artist, must conceptualize the moment when fish comes to hand. Therefore, he must think like a fish, and this begins with the fly. A fly pattern is an artistic impression of a living organism: a bug or small creature. It is tied with a kaleidoscope of natural and synthetic materials that are wrapped, layered, and bound together to suggest shape and form – fine brown pheasant tail, iridescent peacock herl, silky maribou, wispy schlappen, rainbowed tinsel, spartan wire, delicate pin-feather hackle. Some suggest impressionism, some surrealism, while others are pure realism. Regardless, the whole is equal to far more than the sum of the parts. A fly imitates, deceives, entices, coaxes, entraps, implies connectivity with eventual prey. Imagining a fish eating that fly, the one tied with such care and precision that it might convince a highly-specialized brain it is worthy of consumption, gives birth to the form that precedes the function. And let’s face it, a full fly box makes an artistic statement all its own.
Yet a fly does not deliver itself to the fish. A precise instrument is needed to present this artistic impression. Much like the connection between a bow and a violin, a reed and a saxophone, or a brush and a canvas, the rod must be well-suited to convey the fly with precision and delicacy. Like a finely honed rapier, a quality rod flexes and reflexes in a timely fashion, behaving exactly as the fly fisher wishes. It allows him or her to be in complete control of the fly using gravity and inertia to manipulate the line, through which a symbiotic connection can be made. It allows precise loops to be formed. It makes line mends more controlled and graceful. It plays fish with a sense of soul and purpose. Whether it is a moderate three weight, a sturdy ten weight, or a all-around five weight, the rod works for and with the fly fisher to help introduce fish to fly.
But in the end, it is the cast that transforms the casual observer into a captive audience. There is really nothing else that compares. When the artist, the fly fisher, makes a cast, he or she is performing. Like a conductor at the head of an orchestra, a rhythmic symphony of shapes is coaxed from thin air and takes three-dimensional form. Using knife-like strokes and delicate wrist-flicks, the skilled caster caresses out a melody of broad S’s, curt T’s, and silky C’s. With hauls and double-hauls and reach mends and roll casts, brightly-colored line tracers dance in mid air, defying gravity in a delicate presentation of loops and curves. Every caster has his or her style, tempo, preferred stroke. But all successful fly fishers who express themselves with rod, reel, line, and fly and are worthy of an audience to witness their skills with equal parts admiration and awe. And while a sloppy cast can catch fish, a sloppy caster will never consume the imagination.
There is a distinct difference between a decoration and a work of art. Equally, there is a difference between a fly fisher and an ordinary angler. While an angler can find success, a fly fisher can instill passion. And if you fly fish, remember the next time you are standing out in the middle of a river, you are being watched. You are part of the scenery, part of the exhibit, part of the natural symphony for those in attendance. You are both the artist and the art.