Guest Blogger: Mike Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing

Failure_PointA colleague who has always had trouble getting his head around my fly fishing fascination (“But…isn’t it easier to buy frozen fish on your way home from work?”), who has struggled mightily, bless his heart, with the whole catch-&-release thing (“But…then what’s the point?”), who comprehends not the obsession for the finicky salmonid (“But…a fish is a fish…what’s wrong with those stocked catfish ponds?”), who has wagged his head and rolled his eyes at my preference for fly tackle (“But…can’t you just use a normal fishing pole?”) was last week listening patiently as I described the larger Deceivers and Clousers I’d been tying.

“But…those don’t look like bugs.”

“They’re bait fish imitations.”

“Oh. Well, but…isn’t the whole point of casting with a thick fly line that you can toss tiny things which have no weight?”  I smiled to realize he’d actually been listening to me these many years. “And so what’s the reason for making those big fish-looking things out of feathers when you can cast a fish imitation the same size that’s made of wood or plastic, and do it with a normal pole?”

I had to admit he made a good point. I started to explain the “other” advantages of fly fishing–the single hook, the action of a feathery thing in the water, the fact that you might switch from a tiny nymph to a big streamer if you want to without changing rods, the, uh, joy of…no, none of it was gonna fly. The guy had a point–there was no compelling reason, at least none as compelling as the reason we use fly line to cast #20 drys.

Still, I couldn’t imagine setting my fly rod down to grab a “normal” rig and a plug, even though doing so would mean I’d no longer need back-cast room. I liked streamers better than plugs. But WHY?

I began to be aware of other seeming contradictions–we’ll happily heave tungsten-headed buggers suspended under plastic-bubble indicators, each orbiting clumsily around the other as they “hinge” their path across the river, but then we’ll scoff at tossing a spinner to the same spot…or heaven forbid, a worm and bobber. Or we’ll use the current instead of casting at all–we’ll plop it in and let it swing as it extends, which can be done with any kind of line. Or we’ll whip fake rubber worms made of chenille, or feathery crawdads that look like a mouthful we could have just as easily whittled out of pine. None of that really requires a line with mass. And we’ll do it all day, never tying on anything else, which means we didn’t really need a fly rod that day at all.

Although I didn’t try to make a convert of my friend, I knew I did all these contradictory things simply because I like doing them. But that didn’t answer his question: What was the primary goal that defined the tackle I use?  It clearly wasn’t what I’d always thought it was–it wasn’t because there was no other way to cast the imitations I wanted to cast.

There was only one conclusion to draw:  Catching fish wasn’t the goal…not precisely, anyway.

Back in school years ago, I used to step into the gym now and then to shoot some hoop. I’d grab a ball, pick a spot, maybe foul line for starters, and begin. Was my intent to make baskets?  I don’t think so…not precisely. If it was, I’d have abandoned the foul line to stand under the rim instead, from where I could make dozens. I’d have gone to the janitor’s closet, grabbed the stepladder, set it under the backboard, climbed to the top rung and flopped hundreds into the basket, catching them right below the net to drop them in again just above.

No, my goal was obviously to make the TOUGH ONES. I’d sink one and take a step backward. If I made that one too, I’d step back further, to the top of the key…then further yet. If I’d had the skill to keep the streak going, no doubt I’d soon have been against the far bleachers…or outside the building, lobbing them through the high window from the parking lot in a desperate attempt to find a shot I could not make. And once I found it, I’d have happily stood there for hours trying to make it.

Okay maybe that’s a little extreme, but the point is that we can’t feel we’ve succeeded until we understand the definition of success–and we can’t know what that is until we find the failure point. When we figure out where failure lives, we stand just inside that edge and see if we can make the shot–see if we can fool the fish.

Fly fishing is the shot we don’t always make. It’s difficult enough that it’s on the “seam” between success and failure. It takes figuring out, every trip to the stream. And for me–as it is for all of us I imagine–that’s the addiction. On days when I get skunked, well, I’ve learned a little more, gotten a little closer. On days when I do well, it’s like the gods themselves have reached down to give me a wink and a fist-bump. I may think I’m there to catch fish, but I’m really there to CATCH FISH THE HARD WAY. I want the fish I cannot catch, the huge old gnarly grandpop hiding under that cedar log, and I want to tempt him out not with something store-bought but with a thing I tied with my own hand. Having him bite a nightcrawler would be like shooting baskets from that stepladder–not satisfying, not close enough to the failure point to taste the sweetness of success. I want no guarantees except the certainty of struggle. I insist on using the Artful Method, dammit–the road less travelled, the hard way–and no tale of “can’t miss” plugs or “lunker every time” spinners or “trophy fish-killer garlic-flavored” rubber worms is going to pry a fly rod from my hand.

Yes, fly gear is adaptable to presenting all manner of natural prey look-alikes, including a world of imitations that could just as easily be made from wood or moulded in a plastics factory. But I think the adaptability is not why we use it. The need to toss weightless flies may have gotten us into this game, but once hooked, we’re staying for other reasons entirely. The edge of the abyss, the thin line that separates calamity from fortune, excites us; we’re nothing but junkies who are here to tempt failure every outing while dreaming of a victory sandwich.

Next time my friend asks me why I toss stuff like fish imitations I’m going to tell him I do it just to aggravate him. He’ll believe that.

1 Comment

  1. Mike,
    Yes failure is an option when you fly fish, but even in failure it is a rewarding pastime. Other than the fact that I love to “Hunt Fish”, I don’t know why I prefer fly fishing to other types. Spent two very cold days prior to Thanksgiving hunting fish in the Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula with little success but lots of learning and fun. My first real winter steelhead trip to the Bogachiel River out of Forks, Washington was an eye opener. Eight hours standing in frigid water, fighting ice in guides, struggling with the un-natural act of Spey casting with 13 foot rods throwing purple contraptions to fish that might be there could be considered somewhat insane. Eight hours of frozen fingers, toes, sore wrists and shoulder and only one steelhead hooked might be indeed considered a failure. However, two coho salmon succumbed to my efforts which mitigated the lack of steelhead. I’ll probably do it again, despite what Einstein said.

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