By Tom Sadler
What does it take to be a good fishing buddy?
Fly fishing is not a team sport like baseball or soccer, nor is it an individual competition where the outcome is a score as in golf. It’s a skills challenge in which you match wits against the fish and elements. At its best, fly fishing is a contemplative endeavor that does not depend on catching fish to be successful. I fish alone mostly, but there is something inherently enjoyable about having a fishing buddy along for the ride. Of course, as a guide, the client is part of the equation in the trip. A self-inflicted fishing buddy, if you will.
So, what makes a good fishing buddy? In short, someone you wouldn’t hesitate to call up and say, “Let’s go fish,” or say, “Yes” when they call you.
My dad was my first real fishing buddy. It didn’t matter when he called, I was a hard yes, every time. We had some harsh words when I was growing up, but never while we were fishing. As a result, we had a great relationship that got rock solid during my college years and stayed that way until he died. Our time fishing together was the heart of the eulogy I gave at his funeral. He enjoyed fishing and was good at it. He passed that affection for the sport, the fish, and their environs down to me. We developed an appreciation for the totality of the experience. The time on the water was a just small part. The time surrounding the actual fishing was where the bonding happened.
That time around the actual fishing is crucial to deciding if you have a good fishing buddy. As noted fly-fishing story-teller John Gierach wrote, “Creeps and idiots cannot conceal themselves for long on a fishing trip.” There’s a whole lot of difference between fishing and fishing trips. On the water, you can leave the creeps and idiots to their own devices, get on with your own fishing and write a mental note about “never again.” But a fishing trip can really be painful if your companion or companions are creeps and idiots. It quickly becomes a tiresome, loathsome business of frayed nerves and wasted money.
A few years back, three of my close friends and I planned a fishing trip to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. None of us had fished the park, but we had great expectations and a map with some choice water well marked. Though we had well-established friendships, we were not all fishing buddies, just three guys who knew each other well. Maybe I’m the only one who worried about whether the group would gel. I never asked the others. But we planned to fish for three days with travel days bookending the trip, so there was decent travel and time commitment involved. We even ordered fishing shirts to commemorate the occasion.
It went so well we did more trips together. After that first trip, we essentially swore an oath; no one joins us unless we all agree on it. We had a saying, “if you ask to come to the ‘Invitational’ you won’t be invited.” Not that we didn’t trust each other’s judgment, it was just that we didn’t want any surprises in the form of creeps or idiots and wanted a veto for the sake of preserving the tranquility and companionship the first trip delivered.
One more fishing trip comes to mind when I think about fishing buddies. My girlfriend and I decided to travel out west to fish together. The trip was going to be a solid test of our relationship given the rigors of traveling together. To her credit, she agreed to make fishing the central purpose of the trip. Long story short, we got married about a year later, had the wedding ceremony at Three Dollar Bridge on the Madison River, and fished on our honeymoon.
These three experiences, coupled with my 30-plus years as a guide, laid the foundation for how I judge good fishing buddies and give me a vantage point from which to offer some specific thoughts.
Trust and Companionship
Have you ever heard of the “two beers and a puppy” test? You can find it in Ross McCammon’s book, Works Well With Others, it’s a two-question test to gauge relationships. Here’s how it works for making an assessment about potential fishing buddies:
Ask yourself, “Would I want to have two beers with this person?” Then ask, “Would I trust them to look after my puppy over the weekend?”
How does the person do?
Beers, no puppy? Puppy, no beers? No beers and no puppy? Even if you hate beer and puppies, you can substitute other items like wine, whisky, cats, birds. It still works.
The first question is a solid assessment of companionship. Would you hang out with them if you didn’t have fishing as a catalyst?
The second is a question of trust. Would you trust them to take the trip seriously, be prepared and not wreck your stuff if you lent it to them?
Simple, straightforward, and utterly effective.
When you have a group, cliques can form. It’s rarely pretty. On a fishing trip, you want everyone pulling as a team and looking out for each other. On the trip with my three fishing buddies in Tennessee, work and responsibilities were team responsibilities. No one said, “You take care of that,” or ”You pay for that.” As a team, we volunteered to take responsibilities, no one had to be coerced into it. It was, “Let me take care of that” or, “Let me help with that.”
That level of teamwork and commitment to the team’s success lets the members focus on enjoying the trip and not get bogged down in personality dynamics. No one wants to go on a trip and feel burdened with an unfair share of the load. Even as a guide, when the sport is offering to assist, I notice and appreciate it. If everyone is doing more than their fair share, offering to help or take on a responsibility, then everyone is sharing the entire experience and each are way more likely to be having a good time.
That cohesion is often determined by how they fared on the beers and puppy test. If they aren’t yes on both, then it’s a question of whether it will be a fun and rewarding trip.
One is None, Two is One
Because I like the solitude of fishing alone, it’s important not to ruin a trip because I forgot, lost, or ran out of something. I keep a printed checklist in my go box so I’m not relying on my memory. A maxim I learned in the Navy says, “One is none and two is one.” If you looked at my kit, you would see a good bit of redundancy. There’s extra tippet, a spare leader, extra flotant, a spare pair of hemostats; things like that. Stuff that reduces some of the little fishing hassles and, in some cases, is essential.
I’m happy to lend stuff to friends if they are at the “trust them to look after my puppy level.” But if they willfully neglect planning and are constantly borrowing stuff they should have, it becomes annoying very quickly. A good fishing buddy is prepared, understands having backup gear is part of the game, and does not rely on his fishing buddies to have what he needs. I’m a fishing buddy, not their mother.
How Do They Treat the Help?
This may be as important as the beer and puppy test. There’s a quote attributed to Muhammad Ali that goes, “I don’t trust anyone who’s nice to me but rude to the waiter. Because they would treat me the same way if I were in that position.”
That “rude to the help” attitude is unacceptable. And trust me, I’ve seen it as a guide, and it ruins the day. I avoid people with that vibe like the plague. I sure as hell will not fish with them.
How well can they fish?
Did you notice I didn’t ask if they were any good at fishing? Yeah, that doesn’t matter. If they check the first two boxes, the fishing is easy to help them with. As a guide, I love fishing buddies eager to learn.
When all is said and done, good fishing buddies fit. They are like a well-worn jacket, broken-in boots, or a favorite fly rod; you look forward to time together. Sure, you can make do with stuff that doesn’t quite fit, but that comfortable feeling makes fishing with a buddy the joy that it is.
About the Author
Tom Sadler is a conservation advocate, fly fishing guide and journalist whose work on behalf of the outdoors takes him to the halls of Congress, the pages of magazines and trout streams across the country. A lifelong fly fisherman, he escapes to the mountain streams of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in search of eastern brook trout as often as he can.