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Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

It’s no Pulitzer scoop that fly fishing a trout stream can bewitch the mind. But as with dilemmas such as “What constitutes a cult?” and “What comes first, reason or belief?”, the question as to which aspects of a pursuit move it into the realm of “addiction” begs to be asked. For fly fishing relevance, I sometimes ponder this by inspecting other hobbies that tend to obsess, and tallying up the common characteristics.

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When listing sports obsessions, high on anyone’s speculated list would have to be golf; whether it grabs you or not, there’s no denying that millions are enslaved. Back in the mid-1400s the Scottish king had to ban the game for sake of national security–noblemen were shirking archery practice to instead whack little balls into holes in the turf, which didn’t bode well for the country’s prospects in ongoing wars with the English. But criminalization clearly had little effect. It’s likely that golf’s magnetism has a lot to do with the difficulty of the challenge…Churchill once described it as a game of putting “a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.” And like slot machine theory, which maintains that the occasional bit of randomly occurring success keeps the addict coming back for more, a lucky whack of a golf ball that yields a long, straight, rising trajectory ignites the eternal belief that something new was figured out and that things will surely be different from that point on.

Fly fishing has similar characteristics. The challenge is partly born of the self-imposed use of unusual gear, but mostly of the general difficulty of predation in the wild. We are hunters of fish, and hunting is never easy. Without the difficulty I do think we’d lose interest…and that we tend not to fall back to worm-soaking or spinner-dragging proves it. There have been days when I’ve caught fish after large fish…which I thought was the dream, until I found myself setting the rod down after awhile in favor of munching a sandwich. I’d never in a million years have interrupted a noble quest for something as trivial as food if success had been a little more elusive. Fly fishing has been described as a melding of eternal suspense and eternal optimism.

Other adventurous hobbies also seem to fixate their disciples, among them wildwater river kayaking, soaring flight (flying sailplanes, hang gliding etc.), powered aviation, scuba, high alpine mountaineering, and I’m sure countless others with which I’m less familiar. Some of these carry real failure-threatened challenges (for example staying aloft in a glider on a light day), but others tend to result in predictable success–kayakers always expect to make it down to the takeout one way or another, divers generally go to their planned depth (and back), hobbyist mountaineers typically do climb what they aim to climb. So for these pursuits I think it’s something else beyond the risk of failure that feeds the addiction; I perceive it has more to do with the natural experience itself, and the feeling of privilege that comes with earning a glimpse of a deep reef or a high snowfield at dawn, or the depths of a remote canyon, or a jagged mountain range seen as the eagles see it.

And fly fishing has this emotion of privilege too–we’re in the flow, part of the flow. We share the stream with other creatures for whom that stream is the center of life. We witness wonders too small to catch the attentions of the masses yet too thrilling to be ignored. And we take part in the perpetual game of subsurface survival, not as antiseptic researchers but as active players. The feeling of privilege these experiences provide is unmistakably addictive.

Then there are your sky-diving and snowmobiling and downhill skiing and bungee and high speed mountain-biking aficionados–the whoop-it-up crowd. They get their dose of Mother Nature, yes, but to more contemplative folk they seem to blast right through it. The reigning theory is that they’re primarily junkies of adrenalin–so that one would just be a chemical addiction.

By contrast, fly fishing has a much larger component of tranquility. But still…there’s that absolutely electric instant when thick suspense turns into exploding action: the strike. The thrill injects us in a heartbeat with a full dose of juice, and replays again and again in our memory, with the tale growing in the retelling. Its power on our psyche is amplified by the contrast between it and the still, anticipatory moment of uncertainty out of which it sprang. Yes, we too are adrenalin junkies, in our way.

Finally, there’s the commitment–the complete investment of the individual, in all these obsessions…and we’re right in there with the best of them on that element. When you’re “all in,” it’s part of you.

So fly fishing is an addiction–an obsession. But…is it a sickness?

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Don’t ask my wife that question, and if doctors ever prove it is, then I hope my health insurance doesn’t cover treatment. If I must have a vice, or a disease, I’m glad it’s not something as generic as automotive consumerism, or fashion, or something as base as whiskey or carousing or whatever the TV-shaped unfortunates get themselves hooked on by default. I’m glad it’s something good for my soul.

And so I’ll continue to daydream at work, and imagine as sleep overtakes me each evening, stepping into the cold clear liquid, a three-meter magic wand balanced familiarly in my hand, a fly glistening where it clings to guide or reel ready to do its thing. My ears will hear the gurgle of water around my boots, and I’ll feel the tug of the current in my mind like it’s really happening. I’ll imagine checking over my shoulder to find a back-cast corridor. My pulse will quicken just a little, and I’ll smile, and choose a seam of current, and lay out that first cast of a morning.

8 Comments

  1. Well said. Even though this is not the forum for it, let us add grouse hunting to this concept of “obsessions.” There is nothing like working the thick cover on some remote trail in your favorite north woods haunt, watching your dog do its job and waiting for the explosion of whirring wings that, no matter how prepare for it you think you are, causes a leap in heart speed that would kill most non-bird hunters.

    Really enjoyed this article.

    1. Thanks “Gitchi,” glad you enjoyed it. I did a very little hunting long ago and recall that moment you describe, when the prey bolts and exposes its presence. The still is shattered and the “what if” is suddenly at hand.

      No matter how we choose to play in it, Nature is addictive stuff.

      – Mike

    2. Hear, hear Gitchi Gumee ! Or the cackling flush of a pheasant as you and your dog break though the hedgerow into the next overgrown field. It’s long tail swirling in the vortex created by its powerful wings! Much like the rabbit strip tail of a Dalhberg Diver as you pull it to the depths. Or the plop it makes when cast to the shore line and the insane amount of time you wait for the ripples to subside… then the explosion of a bass too big for that pond you’re fishing as you white knuckle the rod and can’t believe your arms are starting to ache.
      Call it what you want, say it to all that will hear, it’s all glorious. Besides, think of all the soft hackles you’ll tie with that grouse. Cheers my fellow “junkies”! ?

      1. Oh that’s right, Joe, you refer to hunting as “harvesting fly-tying materials,” don’t you?

        Sure glad you don’t tie the “blond bug” and live near me….

        – Mike

  2. Very nice, Michael. Years ago I asked a psychologist friend, also an avid fly fisher, why fly fishing was so addictive. She didn’t hesitate a moment before replying, “Intermittent gratification.” You know the reward is coming, you just don’t know when. So you keep repeating the action that will produce that reward. What I’ve never quite understood is why that moment of contact with a fish, the strike, is so rewarding in the first place. The only explanation I’ve been able to come up with is that it has to do with predatory instinct that’s hard-wired into the human brain. Although clearly a lot of people redirect this instinct into other activities–thankfully!

  3. Hi Mary,

    Yes, thankfully our streams are not overrun as much as they could be. Of course if there was a hundred times more interest we might see more attention to opportunity–we might see strings of prime trout streams architected by such names as Arnold Palmered-Hackle or Jack Nymphlaus. But we have what we have.

    You use the phrase, “intermittent gratification.” I’ve never heard that phrase, and it says very succinctly what I was trying to refer to when I brought up “slot machine theory,” the trick in giving just enough “win” at just high enough frequency to keep the investment coming. I believe that too small a size of “win” is less of a problem than it being too infrequent–a slot machine can give a gambler back no more than a nickel or two, to keep that gambler there…but it’s got to happen within x minutes of the last, no more. Our attention span is the thing that most needs to be fed. And then somewhere in the room there’s a loud bell going off every hour or so. In fishing we’ll stay there for hours–days–as long as we get a take every once in awhile. And even if the fish we bring to net are no longer than our thumbs, or we bring nothing to net at all, if every few weeks we hear that somebody netted a nice one, that’s the hourly bell that keeps us dreaming it could be us one day.

    “Intermittent gratification.” I like it. Eternal optimism, given a reminder every now and then.

    You may be right that the excitement of the “take” taps into our predatory instinct–in fact I’m sure of it. Still, I feel another element there too, a more romantic one. The take is the soft knock we think we hear coming from behind a cavern’s stone wall as we lean there to rest. It’s the twinkle of light from the outer galaxy that seems like it could almost be just a little too non-random to be the result of raw, untamed Nature. The take is “contact with the other side.” The surface of a stream is a barrier that separates a world to which we’re adapted from a world foreign to us, from a world in which we don’t live and which we barely understand. And the take is CONTACT! With that contact, a game between two fantastically different creatures begins. It’s thrilling regardless of the predation instinct. (Or…maybe…because of it…I don’t know, and surely never will.)

    – Mike

  4. Hi Mike,
    I enjoyed the read and feel relieved that others are like me and addicted to the sport. I like Mary’s intermittent gratification theory as it fits with a comment made by someone else either in a book or a conversation (I can’t remember) that fly fishing is a lot like gambling. We’ve replace the slot machine arm for a fly rod.

    I would have to add a few things however, most of us like learning and there is an enormous amount to learn in this sport. As I have said before you can only ever become a “know it some” in fly fishing. There is a variety of things to get involved with related to the sport, fly tying and rod building are the most obvious but Photography, Hiking, Travel, Writing, Teaching all to some extent belong to the sport.

    As you said above if it’s a disease I hope they never find a cure.

    Phil

  5. You’re right, Phil, I entirely overlooked the “addiction to learning” aspect. It’s huge; I often dwell mostly on the “learning a little more each visit about what life is like for the critters in the stream” element, when trying to explain my fascination to colleagues at work. It’s a way to try to steer the essence away from “how big a fish did you catch” or “what did the trout you caught taste like” assumptions that the uninitiated always seem to make. But you’re so right, we’re addicted to the depth of what there is to learn.

    May we remain afflicted forever! Even a lobotomy couldn’t “fix” us.

    – Mike

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