Every sport has its attractions, which may or may not be easily conveyed to those unfamiliar with it firsthand. Fly-fishing, which developed over centuries of practice, originally as a hunting and gathering skill, has become a highly sophisticated form of sport. Whereas it once was principally about the securing of sustenance, it has morphed into a refined procedure, with a tradition, and a set of formal methods and conventions, that have become almost ritualistic. With its paraphernalia--the rods and reels, lines and leaders, artificial flies, creels, vests, boots and so on--and its prime watering holes, with their shrine-like folklore-fame--it has acquired all the trappings of a faith, a devotion which may border on fanaticism at times.
It's important to remember that the reason people pursue any sport is the nurturing pleasure and excitement it affords, whether or not the rules are slavishly followed. A recreation may be considered a pastime, or something more. Whatever you love you do with a kind of rote allegiance--what may described as passion, even sanctity.
Flyfishing occurs in nature, along waterways, in streams or rivers, or on lakes. Water, and the life that inhabits it, and the country through which it flows, is the setting, and the interaction between the pursuer (the fisherman), and the pursued (the fish), may only be a pretext for an appreciation of the qualities and complexities of the natural world, which are experienced first-hand by fishermen. The rhythms of the seasons, the accompanying flora and aquatic ecology, the richness of streamside life, the sights and sounds and sensations associated with being near, or in, a flowing stream, all contribute to the experience of fishing. We may become so preoccupied with the motions and rituals of performance, that we forget the fun part.
For me, flyfishing has never been purely about the successful seduction of the fish, of hooking and landing it and glorying in the triumph, of winning a contest with other competitors or against the odds. It's never been about how skillful my cast is, or whether I use the "correct" fly, or any of the dogmatic prescriptions that govern the hierarchy of appreciation and duty of the sport. When I fish, I enter a special place, where civilization and its discontents are left behind, and I become in some degree a part of the forces of the natural world, in a way I never am, when getting and spending and being the responsible citizen in a busy world.
Time, like water, flows relentlessly forward. Nature is about change, and flowing water reminds us that our lives are slipping by, that as we step into a river, as the current pushes against our legs, we are being pushed forward, towards our end. We know this as surely as anything, though it may be pleasing to be caught up in the excitement of the hunt.
On a fishing day, we may enter the water in late afternoon, preparing for the evening hatch. Insect hatches are rhythmic, but not entirely predictable. Everything that lives in water has a time-table, but empirical observation can't tell you exactly when a hatch is going to occur, or how the fish are likely to respond. The tantalizing possibility awaits you on the water.
With dry-fly fishing, which is my preference, the lure floats on the surface of the current, meandering over the intersecting flows. The fish, always watchful, are "fishing" (or hunting) too, and hoping for a safe pursuit of the bugs. Usually, with their natural shyness and caution, they will also have some comprehension of what the fishermen are trying to do. It's a contest between their reluctance and shrewdness, and the fisherman's guile and ability. The tension of this interaction is what makes fishing fascinating. There are a dozen factors that influence how the fish will behave, and at least twice that many that fishermen must observe and employ in their pursuit.
The surface of the water is like a membrane between the two worlds--one wet, the other dry--a plane of division, which is sometimes referred to as the "surface film." This is where the game is played. Most of the time, you don't actually see the fish, so the moment of crisis (the rise or "strike" of the fish to the lure) can't be followed. Suddenly there is, from the mysterious under-side of this membrane, an attack, subtly gentle, or vicious. Fish are predators, and their actions are designed to succeed. But you can never really know if or when the fish will respond. You hope, and guess, and try to learn from failure. Why do certain approaches work, while others fail?
Towards evening, the fishing may be good, or it may be slow. As dusk turns to night, what you can see begins to fade. The water is turning black under you, and you can't see your feet. Perceiving your line as the sky darkens becomes more difficult. Your fly may become invisible on the water surface, though you have a good idea where it must be as it floats sideways across from you. You may have had a good day, or you might not have caught anything that day, but whatever the "luck" you don't want to reel in and go back. A little evening hatch may have started, and there are quiet dimples all around you, as the fish rise from the obscurity of their holding places below.
The moon rises, spreading an ethereal glow over the water. It's late, you should be knocking off, but you just keeping making one more cast, then another, and another. You're being stubborn.
This refusal to give up is something all fishermen feel. It may keep you out well past dinner time; your buddies or your friends may be standing on the bank, reminding you that it might be a good idea to let go. Finally, reluctantly, you reel in your line, turn carefully around in the current, and wade gingerly back to the bank.
This time, when the water is pitch black, and the silhouettes of the trees on the opposite bank are vivid against a darkening sky, seems magical to me. Almost dreamy. There have been times when I have hooked a good trout, just as the sky was turning dark, and the fish and I are locked in battle. At these times, you feel at a distinct disadvantage with the fish. You can feel where the fish is going, from the pull and throbbing action of the line through the rod, but it's mysterious, like anything that happens in the dark. Your attention intensifies, mind focused. I have often lost fish in these circumstances, but it doesn't feel like failure--since landing and releasing a fish in the dark is difficult.
I've come to see these times, with night drawing on, as very moving, with the murmur of the water, the beautiful shifting, undulating surface, and the certainty that there are only so many such moments accorded us in this life. Their fragility, transitoriness, and beauty. They are an end in themselves, not a means to another end. We are living in this life, the only one we'll ever have, and that fact makes everything that happens unique, and precious.