“It was a pretty scene – the kind of thing that sticks in your mind as a slice of what fishing is all about, one of those times when esthetics outweighs success” John Gierach, The View From Rat Lake
I am often surprised to see posts representing a day out on the water, in which only anglers and fish are captured with the camera. Perhaps it is because I am inclined to be a bit of a loner, but my albums are swollen with landscapes. I guess you could say that for me, aesthetics outweighs success most of the time.
While the British and the Americans spell “Aesthetics” differently, it is the definitions of the word that resonate with me:
- The branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc
- The study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.
Think on that.
“It’s true that all successful strategies are based on a plausible supposition, but in my experience gamblers and fishermen with a “system” exhibit unshakable confidence , but don’t actually do any better than the rest of us”
John Gierach, “Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers”
Gierach himself has always puzzled me with his assertion that one should go fishing as the low pressure rolls in, but then he does explain that this means to go fishing when the bad weather moves in. In our part of the world the low pressure is what precedes the bad weather, and it is characterised by strong northerly winds and warm, balmy conditions. For me those are the very worst fishing conditions, but then I have been proved wrong on that before too.
Then when the wind turns from the south, the pressure is busy rising, and miserable drizzle is on the way, or perhaps already here, bam…Brown trout weather.
Unless the wind swings from the east a bit.
And then there’s the moon phase, which I show only a mild interest in, but which colleagues plan their business meetings around.
Cold water equals orange flies.
And if you want to throw random unpredictable determinants in there: ones that are barely worth trying to chart or anticipate, then throw in South African fly hatches. Oh for a “labour day caddis hatch”. Our caddis don’t seem to give a damn about when we are on holiday.
But having said all of the above, I think you have to have a system. Any system. Pick one. It will, as Gierach points out, give you confidence. And in contradiction of his statement, I believe that with that confidence , you will do better then the rest of us.
No. Wait. The rest of us have systems too.
OK. His comment holds true.
Reading my way through the tomes that cascade from my over-full bookshelf, is something I take great pleasure in doing. There is something satisfying in reading a message that resonates, written in so beautiful, and poetic a style that it causes you to lower the book and nod or mumble something. I mumble and nod a lot. It is a way of wallowing in a thought well presented, a way of immersing yourself in a moment shared eruditely in print.
My family have stopped responding with questions to all my mumbling and nodding. So I will share some with you:
“How often fishing leads a man to find beauty otherwise never seen! I am rich in having a treasure store of such places” Zane Grey, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado
“The man who hurries through a Trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him” George La Branche The Dry Fly on Fast Water.
“The secret of successful fishing is to expect it….Hope should be in the fisherman’s heart , expectancy in his hand , and his motto should be “you can never tell” “ Robert Hartman, About fishing
“Now that I care less, I fish better” Andrew Brown, Fishing in Utopia
“Fisherman who care too much about the size and numbers of fish they catch are insufferable on good days and as harried as overworked executives on slow ones. On the other hand, it is possible to be a happy angler who doesn’t catch many fish; its just that no one will ever say you’re good at it” John Gierach, Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers.
“Perhaps the power of fly-fishing (and the comparisons it invites) lies not in its confrontation with meaning, but its escape from it.” Maximillian Werner , Black River Dreams
“Flyfishing has many attributes , but none more pleasing than its ability to find and liberate the young boy that still hides within me and to let that boy live again without embarrassment or regret, sorrow or anguish” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time.
“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside” Nick Lyons, Seasonable Angler.
Let me stop there, lest you fall asleep during this diatribe, but I think you get the idea: An immersed fisherman who doesn’t read, achieves immersion in shallower water.
You may nod and mumble now…
I don’t always fish alone, and I often enjoy company. But some days are hermit days, full of thought and reflection, in which one becomes just a little misanthropic.
“Since fly fishing is a solitary sport, its hard not to think of other fishermen- collectively, if not individually – as the enemy” John Gierach: A Fly Rod Of Your Own.
“In trout fishing, and especially in mountain trout fishing, one angler and trout borders on the idyllic,or some version thereof. Two anglers and trout is a crowd, claustrophobic and unbearable.” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time”
On obsessing about conservation while fishing, Gierach once wrote:
“I can’t say I spent a lot of time brooding about this: the fishing was too good for that, and I also understood that if you chase perfection too far down the rabbit hole, you can end up growing your beard down to your belt buckle and carrying a sign that reads “The End Is Near”. “
(A fly Rod of your Own: John Gierach)
I am trying to avoid the beard and the sign, but I do relish this one place, which to me represents a degree of conservation perfection attained. It is very dear to me.
“So what I am suggesting here is a complete approach to our waters where the competitive, lip-ripping edge is left back in the fast lane of societal superficialities and the joyful spirit of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and involvement with nature are the main goals”. Jerry Kustich
I get a sense that my fly-fishing is a more messy affair than it is for the guys I bump into around these parts.
Take Squidlips from Smoketown for example: He drives his blue Nissan up to the Bushmans on an appointed Saturday, and a day later there are a dozen glossy pictures on social media , most of which are of oversized browns. In fact there are few pictures of anything else. Slick.
I, on the other hand went fishing for a day a few week-ends back and did little better than get caught in a storm. In fact I got caught in two storms on the same day, the latter of which convinced me to go home.
On the way home the road was as dry as can be, and I threw up dust all the way back down the valley. On my return I learned that squidlips had had a red-letter day in the adjacent valley. I had managed a 10 inch Rainbow, in total.
And the week-end before my wife and I carried a stile up a river valley and installed it in the hot sunshine beside a low river, amongst the brambles.
On our return we found that the coating on the upright had been wet and our clothes were trashed. I threw that pair of board shorts away after even petrol failed to remove the treacle. It was too hot to fish, and the river was hideously low. On the same day squidlips got a stonker of a fish on a stillwater not more than a few kilometers distant from our expedition.
On a midweek foray up the same valley, I didn’t even take a fly-rod. I just went to look at the condition of the river, and as it turned out, I walked a good five kilometers up the river, and returned the same way, getting home at eight that night.
On another foray to shoot clay pigeons, I did so badly that I very narrowly missed being awarded the “bent barrel” award. Apparently Squidlips is a crack shot.
A few weeks ago, I accompanied two mates onto a stretch of river to do some fishing and filming. The river was low, and it was hot. I spotted two fish, one of which I photographed, and both of which I spooked. After that I spent most of the time walking and checking on the river and taking photos of my pal fishing.
At sometime in between, PD and I stayed over at a cottage right on the shore of a dam, and fished the Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The wind howled, and the water was dirty, and PD landed one fish, while I blanked. We spent a lot of time drinking tea off the camp stove and chatting, out of the wind.
Then on the way to fishing I picked up some coffee beans that just would not produce any crème on my espresso. I tried a finer ground, a harder tamp, and more coffee, all to no avail. All I got was a strong, bitter, over-extracted coffee. I swear I could hear the motor on my grinder straining! Even the camp stove coffee that I made beside my vehicle at the river’s edge, had a thin acidity that made my lips curl. Squidlips buys a generic, ready-made cappucino from the local garage, just before he hits the freeway on the way to fishing. He reckons its perfect every time.
But here’s the thing: I took the time to chat to the guy who sold me the coffee beans. He acknowledged a bad batch of beans and replaced the bag with a smile and no need for a receipt. He knows me from my regular stops there ….I tend to drop in either on the way to catching no fish, or on the way back.
And to add to that, this month, I learned the local name of a mountain above a favourite trout water, which on all the maps, bears no label. And I walked miles up a beautiful remote river valley, re-orientating myself as to where the tributaries come in, and exploring the strength of their flow, and dangling my fingers in each one to see which is colder for future reference.
And at clay-pigeon shooting I re-acquainted with old friends and managed to confirm who owns a particular piece of river frontage. And on the way back from my walk in the hills I spotted a man who I needed to contact about some bramble clearing work, and we spoke at length in the dusk in the countryside. Then this week I made some progress towards raising further funds for some restoration work on tributaries which Squidlips does not know exist (on account of them being too small to hold fish).
Squidlips phoned me midweek to ask about a particular piece of water. I tried to give him directions, but it was impossible, because he knew none of the features of the countryside to which I referred. He travels that valley all the time, but all he knows is the distances and road numbers, while I know the names of the hills, the owners of the farms, and the the mountain names (but no distances or road numbers)
Sometimes I beat myself up about my countryside distractions, that lead to limited fishing, coupled with duffer performance on the rare pure fly-fishing trips that do eventually come to pass. But then I think about the clinical life of Squidlips, and I think that he can have his blue Nissan, and Smoketown and his grip and grin pictures. Gierach once famously referred to his type as “city folk, with no poetry in their souls”.
I vote for messy.
“……..in the old days anyone with a bucket or a milk can could get a load of fingerling trout and put then wherever he wanted to, and that the first plantings done by the Division of Wildlife itself weren’t much more scientific than that. The result on the one hand was that a lot of already depleted native cutthroat fisheries were destroyed altogether by the introduction of brown, rainbow and brook trout. On the other hand, some thriving fisheries were established where before there had been no fish at all. You can apply revisionist criticism to all that if you want to – asking, Why didn’t those dumb schmucks a hundred years ago know what we know now? – but the fact is, it was mostly done with a good heart and, in some cases, the kind of monumental effort you only see from people convinced they’re doing Good Work.”
John Gierach writing in the book “In Praise of Wild Trout” , edited by Nick Lyons 1998.
It was a very disappointed thief who broke down my patio door in the middle of the night with an axe, in search of a flat screen TV.
All he got was an angry Great Dane and a sea of books. I only wish we had managed to give him some fast flying lead too….the bastard!
But let me put the angry thoughts of retribution aside for a moment and focus on his disappointment, and my delight: Books.
I hadn’t realised it, but books, and more specifically flyfishing books, have been in my blood for a long time. I remembered this favourite from my school days:
And I remembered my delight at being mentioned in one of Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles, when I was just a schoolboy, that later became part of his first book: “My way with a Trout”.
I remember taking fly-fishing books out of the school library …the same titles, repeatedly: “Where the bright waters meet”, by Harry Plunkett-Green, and titles by Skues and Sawyer.
And looking at my own collection now, I realise that it has swelled somewhat over the years.
And I think how I relish the titles by Middleton and Duncan, and Grzelewski and Rosenbauer and Engle, and Gierach, and French, and Traver, and Leeson, and where do I stop……. I have read them all, many several times.
“Where do you get the time!” proclaimed a friend the other day. He wasn’t expecting an answer, but I gave him one anyway: “I don’t own a TV” I said. And I realise now that while the man in the dark of night who threatened to shoot our dog spoke impeccable English, it can’t have been Graeme, because he knows I don’t own a flatscreen. (One step closer to catching the thief, you might say.)
My wife and I were out to breakfast one day, and I had parked the car out front of the restaurant. I was about to lock the car when Petro pointed out that I had left something of value in full view. I re-opened the door and hid whatever it was under the floor mat. Then she opened her door and together we hid a few more items….you know, used handkerchiefs, toothpicks, that sort of thing. The sort of thing that people break car windows for. Then our eyes moved simultaneously to the back seat where I had a stack of secondhand fly-fishing books that I had just collected from the post office. We looked at them and then at one another and fell into laughter.
Later over coffee we discussed which country we might emigrate to, if ever we did that, and we decided that we would choose a country where one’s fly-fishing books were at risk of being stolen.
I have an old friend who, when he is sitting comfortably in our lounge, and a truly classic piece of music comes on the stereo, closes his eyes as he listens.
I think he sways a little too.
He certainly zones out.
He escapes the confines of our simple human surroundings, switches off the world around him, and allows his mind to soar to lofty and beautiful places in which the depth of his appreciation knows no bounds. He transcends those in the room who nod in his direction and snigger, and he rises to a place above us all.
I may have sniggered along with the others at one time. I don’t know. But I no longer do.
I too now know that lofty place. I think we all need such a place, given that to go there is all we can do in this broken and often painful world.
That place is one in which the things you choose to immerse your consciousness in, take over from all else. It is a place where the love your soul has for images, and words, and music, and beauty holds sway. It is a place that defies description, and which is unique to you alone. It is a place that acknowledges and reveres your fondest memories, and houses your own aesthetic blueprint.
My such place encompasses mountains, landscapes, weather, trout (and the waters they live in), set against a watermark of stories, and songs; all in the context of very personal memories.
I am taken to that lofty place by images. Not just any images mind you, but collections of images played out in the context of personal connections, complete with birdsong, and the sounds of a rushing mountain stream.
Those images, and everything that goes along with them, are I suppose well represented by what I post on this journal.
Here is a fairly random and possibly representative sample of those: Image Library.
I identify with John Gierach when he says “The modern depictions of fly fishing in print and video are accurate as far as they go, but they usually run heavy on gratuitous fish catching and light on the long silences that characterize the sport”. I don’t suppose it is a coincidence that McGuane writes about “The longest silence”
My silences on the water, while they are just that: Silences; can be represented by favourite music.
- The sounds of silence: Disturbed …..no, not Simon & Garfunkel, although I love that version…but you’ve gotta listen to this!
And while their names don’t fit the topic quite as poetically, take a listen to these ones too.
- Sacrifice: Sinead O’Connor
- American Pie: Madonna Its just a pity she doesn’t sing the whole thing
- Favourite mistake: Cheryl Crow
- Thumbing my way: Pearl Jam
- The Boxer: Mumford & Sons
- You and me: Lifehouse
And beautiful stories are the echoes of my own stories:
Reading list….books in which, when I got to the end I felt I had “ just finished sucking the last precious drop off the last page of a beautiful book.” (to quote Robin Douglas)
My list of such books: It is difficult to single out just a few books of all those I heave read, but here is my attempt to do that:
- On the spine of time: Middleton
- The River Why: Duncan
- Chalkstream Chronicle: Patterson
- Hunting Trout: Sutcliffe
- The Habit of Rivers:Leeson
- Where the Trout are as long as your leg: Gierach (I know, they are all brilliant)
You are a flyfisher. You are reading this blog. I think you will get it. No one else will. Close your eyes. They will snigger.
To hell with them.