Lighten Up


Jul 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
What's bewitching, even hypnotic, about fly-fishing is the cast. That motion—the line unfurling out behind, and then shooting forward at the triggering flick of the wrist and forearm—has ancient overtones. People have been casting like that forever. They've thrown hempen nets, whirled and flung braided horsehair lines with stones for sinkers and ivory for hooks. Casting a fly line more closely resembles the cast we remember in our bones than catapulting a heavy piece of hardware with a spinning rod does. You can't fly-fish if you can't cast, but learning isn't hard. A few hours of practice and a few days on the water are usually enough to remind your muscles of what they already know, and afterward the skill is yours for good. Then, each year when the trees leaf out and the days lengthen and the mayflies begin to hover, your arm and shoulder will itch to cast, to aspire to send a loop of fly line into the air above a river again and again.

Like the urge for religion, that simple longing to cast a fly line has become encrusted with bureaucracies. A person can get lost in fly-fishing's specifications of rod lengths and line weights and drag ratios and tippet strengths and artificial flies—more flies, it seems, than in the insect kingdom. I don't knock the bureaucracyof fly-fishing; with 17 or so fly rods of various kinds in my closet, I'm not really in the position to. But you can't let the multiplicity of it all overwhelm you or occupy too much of your mind. For a long time, before I went on any trip that might put me in the vicinity of catchable fish, I used to swoonat the thought of going through my huge amount of stuff to pick out exactly what I needed, and generally ended up bringing nothing at all. Now I just take a basic four-piece pack rod, a reel, and a small assortment of flies that can work almost anywhere. In the last year, some of my best fishing was with my pack rod. The bureaucracy of fly-fishing is supposed to serve you, not the other way around; the point, in the end, is not the gear.

A hazard of any bureaucracyis the paranoia and secrecy it sometimes breeds. This can be especially true in the fly-fishing world. Many anglers deeply distrust each other, and on the subject of good places to fish will not say a word. Such stinginess drives me crazy. A little prudence I can understand, but at least give a person a hint, something to go on. Worst of all, in my opinion, is the angling writer who describes wonderful fishing he's had, and then at the end of the article coyly declines to tell you where the hell it was! Why would I buy the magazine in the first place, just to hear about a great time this guy had? I want to know where! I think a good fishery can survive a lot of people knowing about it, and in the besieged modern outdoors, perhaps the more people who love it, the better chance it has.

There is plenty of good water out there still. Handsome fish—more than we really deserve—continue to exist and even thrive. Just a few days ago I took a walk in the densely populated New Jersey suburb where I now live, and I noticed a good-sized brook running through some backyards. I had to ask four passersby the brook's name before I found one who knew it: the Third River. Scanning it from a bridge on a cross street, I observed a flattened orange traffic cone in a little waterfall, and a pair of white nylon warm-up trousers. But just downstream of the bridge, in a little pool beside a cement retaining wall, I saw, miraculously, fish! Three or four little ones and a nine-incher I took to be a trout were holding there in the current, scant yards away from the New Jersey traffic. If there are fish in the Third River, how many more might there be in likelier streams? So drop whatever you're doing. Throw your rod and other gear in the car. Park by the lake, drive to the river. Check out the water. Cast.

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