Long Beach Vancouver Island by Phil Rispin
Long Beach Vancouver Island by Phil Rispin. See NOTE 5 below for how to purchase this photo.

Guest Blogger: Phil Rispin, Fly Fisher & Photographer

This past summer I was interviewed about Fly Fishing by a newspaper reporter from the Red Deer Advocate in Alberta. One of the questions the young man asked me was “Why do I Fly Fish?” I really didn’t have a well thought out answer. In fact, most fishing writers I have read have a real problem coming up with an answer that could be easily verbalized or written down. In his many books John Geirach, one of my favorite irreverent old fly fishing hippies, often makes an observation about whether catching fish is actually the point of the activity. So since this past summer I’ve been navel gazing and wondering how I should answer that question and my mind has wandered down many interesting paths.

By one author’s (note 1) estimate there are over 5000 books written in the English language about fishing. One of these, The Compleat Angler (note 2), was first published in 1653 and is purported to be the second most published book in the English language, second only to the Bible. A large percentage of these books try to answer the question of “Why Fish?” From this one can assume that it has been a difficult question to answer and has challenged the minds of a large number of literary people.

I once had a music teacher who said “You really don’t know what you like, you like what you know”. He of course was referring to music but I’ve found that this applies to a lot of other things in life. I was introduced to fishing, hunting, camping and the appreciation of the outdoors by my parents. This wasn’t a planned deliberate thing really; Dad was a hunter and a fisherman and bringing sons along when they got old enough was normal. Camping was a relatively cheap way to have a vacation and since our family didn’t have a lot of spare cash we camped. I am sure that my mother would have preferred a nice hotel letting someone else do the cooking. Out the back door of our home there were acres of farmland and a creek where I spent many hours exploring with my friend David and our dogs. I knew where every covey of pheasant was, I knew where to find deer, rabbits, coyotes, fox, muskrat, beaver and just about every other furred or feathered animal you might imagine living on the Canadian Prairie. Added to all of this the group of boys I hung around with held in high regard people who were skilled hunters and fishermen. Finally, the men in my life, Dad and his friends were all hunters and fishermen and if they weren’t actually out doing these things they were often around our kitchen table drinking beer, smoking cigarettes (or pipes) and talking about them. As a kid I sort of absorbed all of this and the activity of fishing is associated with all the very good things I experienced as a kid. As my teacher observed I really like what I know.

Liking what I know is a good place to start but why fly fishing? I enjoy hunting, particularly with old muzzle loading rifles, but I am a bit of a fanatic about fly fishing. It didn’t start that way either. I fly fished in one way or another right through University and after a couple of year hiatus when my children were young and we lived in Saskatchewan. I was right back at it when we moved back to Alberta. My level of success was very poor and I didn’t get a lot of “positive feedback” for the activity. It’s amazing really that I kept at it. When my two girls were about 4 and 7 I got a book for Christmas that was very basic but showed me a number of things about the sport of Fly Fishing that up until that time had remained hidden from my consciousness.

I immediately went out and bought two more books, In The Ring Of The Rise (note 3) and Reading Trout Water (note 4). I gobbled these books up, re-reading and high lighting passages with a yellow marker multiplying my knowledge of fly fishing by many times; which of course at that point wasn’t hard to do. At the same time the information, so readily available had I just looked, made me feel like a fool for having missed it in the past. It became apparent to me that fly-fishing was a detail person’s dream come true and I am nothing if not a detail person. So  I am doing something I grew up with and know the activity also appeals to the technical detail side of my nature.

This has been both a pleasure and a bane as I have fallen deeper into the fly-fishing vortex. The more you know the more stuff you believe you need to accomplish what originally looked like a simple task. There are rods of different weights and lengths for different kinds of water and fish. My rod collection is looking more and more like a bag of golf clubs with a different pitch and weight for different situations. Along with the rods, reels, lines, leaders, tippets and flies there is all the clothing and luggage necessary to store and carry this stuff.

After a while buying these things becomes too expensive so you get a fly tying kit to tie your own flies and you start building your own rods. With each new activity there is a library of books to buy, space in the house to put aside, storage to find and of course money to spend. It could be worse I guess. I could be spending the time and money in a bar somewhere drinking beer. At any rate the second fairly strong reason for my enjoyment, or perhaps preoccupation (some would call it a disease) with fly fishing is the detailed and varied nature of the activity.

When you read other writers reasons for wanting to fly fish you will hear or read about issues that border on the spiritual. The writers almost always make a side ways apology for making the comments but the issues they raise are powerful reasons for being part of the fly-fishing community. You will always hear about the beauty of the wild places where trout are found, connection with nature, a place and time to slow down and contemplate, quietness, no phones, no hustle and bustle etc. etc. While these reasons are often passed off as being personal and spiritual in nature they are an important aspect of the sport.

I teach for a living and the kids I teach are almost all computer geeks in that they are very computer savvy and have spent most of their young lives living vicariously through a TV screen or a computer monitor. They regard the things that I do in the out of doors as unusual, possibly even a little dangerous, and certainly a little odd. There are a few of these kids who do similar things too but they are the exception. Most of these young men and women have no understanding of reality or the beauty of God’s creation and they have some trepidation of what they might find in the wild. I, on the other hand, get to a point where I have to run to a wild stream to escape from the more populated world of education. A trout stream is a place to regenerate, reconnect with the real world and get centered. It’s also a place to reach out and touch other life, the fish themselves.

What about the fish? Why isn’t it enough to just hike along these streams? When all I do is hike I feel like a foreigner, simply a temporary visitor. The fly rod is a door or a tool for exploring and understanding what is going on around me in a deeper sense. It forces me to focus on details in a way that mere hiking would not. When I fish I pay attention to stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise be interested in. Fishing allows me to become connected in a way that perhaps my predator ancestors were connected to the world around them. There is an aspect of competition involved here too, me against the stream and the fish that live there, and perhaps against the other fishermen on the stream. I get a great deal of pleasure when I’m catching fish and others are not. Can I solve today’s puzzle about what the trout are eating and where? What kind of presentation is necessary? What size and color of fly? There is pride too, I like to be known as someone who is competent and knows what he is doing. In recent years I have just begun to know what I am doing although I have a long way to go to reach the heights of a Lee Wolf, a Lefty Kreh, or an A.K. Best.

Another, without apology, spiritual reason involves my understanding of reality. I am a Bible believing Christian. As such I understand God’s creation to be both a gift and a responsibility. If I live in and participate only in the artificial world of man, that is the urbanized world, I miss and begin to forget my roots which exist in what God made because I too am part of what God made. If I return to God’s creation on a regular basis my relationship with Him is maintained and strengthened in a way that I would otherwise miss. I realize my own smallness and His greatness; I realize my weakness and my reliance on Him for my existence. I realize His creativity, His beauty and the unbelievable gifts he has given us. Without regular visits to the wilderness and the fish that live there those things get easily buried in the day to day existence that I experience as a teacher, God and His creation and my relationship with Him becomes more abstract and less real in the city. Fly-fishing for me is a vehicle that suits me in maintaining a relationship with my maker.

Finally, and by no means least, fly fishing is just plain fun. The following quote comes from a piece called Testament of A Fisherman by Robert Traver;

I fish because I love to; because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where trout are not found, which are invariably ugly; because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties and associated social posturing I thus escape; because, in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion; because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility and endless patience; because I suspect men are going along this way for the last time, and I for one don’t want to waste the trip; because mercifully there are no telephones on trout waters; because bourbon out of an old tin cup always tastes better out there; because maybe one day I will catch a mermaid; and finally not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant-and not nearly so much fun.

Notes:

1) Fly Fishing Through The Midlife Crisis by: Howell Raines, First Harper Perennial Edition 2006 Page 106

2) The Compleat Angler by: Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, First Published in 1653

3) In the Ring of the Rise by: Vincent C. Marinaro. Published by Lyons and Burford in 1976

4) Reading Trout Water by: Tom Rosenbauer. Published by Nick Lyons Books in 1988

5) You can purchase this and other photos by Phil Rispin here.

2 Comments

  1. Wonderful work of introspection Phil. As you may know I’m prone to exploring the same question, although I sometimes muddle it by adding a little humor to the exercise. But truthfully I find the serious practice of exploring “why” a fascinating piece of fly fishing. I greatly enjoyed your eloquence on the subject.

    – Mike

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