By Ryan Barnes
Anglers love nothing more than the sensation of setting the hook; feeling the resistance of a fish at the end of the line heralding the fight that leads to a fish in the net. To the non-angler, it may sound like a rather dubious accomplishment. But to the angler, who spent years trying to master the art of fly fishing, it is about so much more than just catching a slime-covered trout or a homely-looking whitefish. Fly fishing is burned into the angler's soul; it’s a part of who they are.
Anglers spend day and night thinking about hooksets, flies to tie, and streams to fish. Days on the river aren’t just time spent throwing lures. They are days filled with patience, exhilaration, triumph, and defeat. For many people fly fishing is a spiritual experience, where body and mind go to escape.
This is the Gospel of Angling.
When I first became a fly-fishing guide, the owner of the outfit told me, “You need to learn how to become a scientist and a spiritual shaman all at the same time.” Many clients traveled from all around looking to escape everyday life. Maybe it was to get away from work; maybe it was to get away from their home lives. It may simply have been just to try something new. Whatever the case, they found themselves with graphite rods, in high mountain trout streams. Whether intentionally or not, they came to the river to find peace and quiet. I learned over time that most people who came to fish didn’t care much about the actual tally of fish caught at the end of the day. They wanted to experience something. They wanted to see the rise of a trout to a size 22 soft hackle dry fly. They wanted to feel the fight of a summertime brown.
The anglers wanted to experience fly fishing; the fishermen wanted to catch fish.
Catching fish and experiencing fly fishing are different things. Those who wish to only catch fish are the ones who wade into the water, tie on whichever fly they were told was "hot" by the 18-year-old working behind the counter at the local fly shop, and simply hope they hook into as many fish possible. Then they're upset when they don't catch the amount of fish they deemed acceptable. They catch fish, but they don't experience anything. Conversely, you still catch trout while experiencing fly fishing, but your soul becomes more enveloped in every cast you throw. With each knot you tie, and every bug you imitate, the spirit, mind, and body all begin to align with the universe around you. The number of fish you catch doesn't seem to matter. Being out in the water, enjoying the present moment is what speaks to your soul.
I once fished with two gentlemen from Texas. We stood in the water for hours. We tried different flies, sought different depths, and changed patterns and presentations. All of it was futile, the trout weren’t buying what we were selling. We walked back to the truck, and I felt a little defeated. The two Texans were leaning on me to catch fish, and I didn’t live up to my end of the deal.
As we stripped off our waders and tucked away our gear, one of them stared at the river and said, “That was a great day.” I laughed, assuming he was being sarcastic. Our day had been outright miserable from the standpoint of putting fish in the net. He looked at me, sensing from my laugh that I misunderstood his sincerity. “I’m serious. You don’t have scenery like this where I’m from. Being here is good for the soul.” He didn’t have a care in the world that we hadn’t caught a fish, or that we didn’t have any “grip n’ grin” photos to share. He simply cherished the fact that we were casting flies in some of the most exceptional scenery that the West can provide.
On a day much different from my experience with the two Texas anglers, I was guiding a large group of clients from New England. A group of eight fishermen followed me and a few helping hands as we directed them where to go and how to cast. Immediately the fish were biting. I was power-wading through the water as fast as the wet rocks and fast current would let me to land my client's fish, while I was yelling at another to “strip” or “set” or “let the thing run!” The fishing was fast, action-packed, and it quickly became a competition to see who was catching the most fish. I remember one of the clients asking me after he had just landed his twelfth or thirteenth trout, if he could move to a spot with better fishing. My blood boiled.
These weren’t anglers. These were fishermen.
As the evening wrapped up, one gentleman was upset that he only caught fifteen fish while the others had tallied numbers into the twenties and asked why I didn’t give him a better chance to catch more. I laughed one of those breathy, “You’ve got to be kidding me” type laughs, the one you use when you find yourself too shocked to speak. He had a day that anglers dream about! The trout crushed every fly he threw in the water. Every hatch presented a fun new chance to target new fish. Yet he was upset because he hadn’t caught more fish than his friends. This was a fisherman, not an angler; someone who walked into the church house, looked at the gorgeous stained glass and ornate woodwork, heard the sermons, and then complained because it wasn’t a rock concert.
Eddie Robinson, an icon in western fly fishing told me, “I really don’t care if I catch fish, I just want to learn how to catch fish.” There’s satisfaction in throwing a well-placed cast or learning how to tie a particular fly. I remember when I first learned how to do a single-haul cast. I didn’t catch anything, but the pride I felt when that line hit the water? I was beaming. Even more so when I learned how to do a double haul.
Mentors told me when I was learning how to fly fish that everything was like a dance. Each step must be practiced; you must know what you will do next. You have to feel what’s going on around you. The dancer must know every step and move of their choreographed performance. The angler must know every step of their dance as well; casting the flies, mending the lines, and fighting the fish.
The Gospel of Angling is the history of men and women devoting their lives to art. With any gospel, comes pride. Anglers could give the Puritans a run for their money when it comes to defending their beliefs from those with a different point of view. I often find myself looking with scorn at other methods of catching fish, even other methods of fly fishing. We take pride in catching fish using only a single fly on a leader; now people dare have the audacity to use three? Anglers are indeed a prideful bunch; it’s that same pride, though, that allows anglers to step out into the water, or launch out with a drift boat, breath in the morning air, and forget about everything else. We’re in our natural habitat. We’re in our church pews. Our fly boxes are our Bibles and the flies are verses of scripture. They’re sacred, and we spend hours studying them, hence why anglers become so spiritual about the act of catching fish on the fly rod.
Anglers all around the globe look forward to the next cast and take pride in their last. We take mental pictures of fish in the net, the scenery around us, and the feel of the rod bent double. All while the river sings hymns to the congregation of anglers wading in the water, watching for that indicator to twitch, or that fish to sip the fly sitting on top of the water. It’s a simple gospel. But it’s there. It’s rooted in all of us and all it takes is one cast, one rise, and one fish to convert. The Gospel of Angling isn’t for the fisherman, it’s for the person who casts their rod, waiting for the great experiences that lay ahead.
About the Author
Ryan Barnes is a passionate outdoorsman, who loves the arts of wingshooting and angling and the joy of turning that art into words. Since he was a boy he’s looked for any excuse to find himself outdoors with friends and family. Now, he looks for any excuse to find the finer details in those outdoor escapes and capture them in the written word.