Fly Fishing and Humanness: Looking for the Answers to Questions - Fred Condos
…it isn't fly fishing unless you are looking for the answers to questions.
After 40 years of teaching and serving in administrative capacities at both the K-12 and higher education levels, I am fully retiring. For me, retirement will mean simply redefining my work as a continuation of my life story which has focused on love of family, friends and students with whom I have worked, and a commitment to seeking out answers to confounding questions about the nature of things. My story has also focused on a love of mountain climbing and fishing. I am a fly fisherman, a craft that I have developed since my youth in the mountain streams of Colorado. I feel most comfortable exploring the perplexing questions that have challenged me throughout my life while standing knee-deep in rushing water with a fly rod in my hand. For me, fly fishing is a means — and a very enjoyable one at that — for seeking out a fuller understanding of our true humanity.
I want to clarify from the outset that I am a fly fisherman, because fishing can take many forms. The bait fisherman, for example, seeks to hunt and gather fish of many species by the use of live bait: worms, salmon eggs, slices of meat, marshmallows and the like. They will at times also use artificial bait such as plastic worms, mechanical spinners, metal spoons, poppers and a myriad of other such lures. The tools for the bait fisherman are his or her spinning or casting rod and various kinds of reels to dispense the line and baited hook. The rods are made of fiberglass, graphite, boron and a composite of fiberglass and graphite. Often the fisherman will own many such rods and reels in order to meet the requirements of various fishing conditions and circumstances.
By contrast, the fly fisherman uses no live bait of any kind, only artificially-made imitations of insects. These take the form of the various stages of an insect's life cycle, particularly the species that are born in the waters of lakes and rivers and complete their life cycle as mature flies. Other land-living insects are imitated as well, such as grasshoppers, ants, bees, and beetles. The imitation fly is carefully made on a commercial basis for retail sale, or it can be made by the fly fisherman at home. Creating these tiny works of art requires a degree of skill and patience that perhaps only a fly fisherman can understand. The tools of the fly fisherman are his or her rod and reel with line matched in weight to the rod in question, which can be made of bamboo, fiberglass, graphite, boron and composites of fiberglass and graphite. The line and attached leader of varying thickness will match the weight of the rod and the particular fishing conditions encountered. Often the leader is as thin as a human hair; this is where the imitation fly is to be attached with the use of a special knot. Nothing is haphazard in this sport. Fly fishing requires a good deal of skill in casting and presenting the artificial insect to the fish in a manner that imitates nature as closely as possible. Nothing will scare a brown trout more quickly than a heavy fly line slapping the crystal clear water of a mountain stream.
And this begs the question: If all this is so complicated, why do it? Why fish? What is it about this activity — this art — that attracts so many? This essay will attempt to answer some of these questions in the context of how fly fishing in particular can offer us insights into the nature of our most essential humanity. Oh yeah, you say. How can one arrive at attributes of being human by attempting to answer the question, "why fish"? The ancients approached this through a philosophical approach known as metaphysics, and we as rational humans still struggle today with fundamental metaphysical questions of the human condition and human nature. Throughout the course of your life, both in and out of college, you will be exposed to a variety of theories about what humanness is and how it can in some way be defined. Likewise, you will be exposed to a myriad of questions, most of which will go unanswered, just as the metaphysical questions of Aristotle and so many other philosophers have still not been fully answered. This essay is no exception; there will be more questions resulting than answers provided. And this is the point: perhaps a large part of our humanness lies in this innate ability to be curious about our experiences and to seek reasonable and meaningful answers to fundamental questions about our existence and calling as Homo sapiens (literally, "wise humans").
I was first exposed to fly fishing during my high school years. Growing up in Denver, I had fished the mountain streams and lakes, as well as the flatland lakes and rivers, as a bait fisherman. I spent countless days fishing with family and friends, and always with my preferred means of attracting trout: a live worm wriggling on the end of a sharp hook. This was until I met Jim Poor. It was during my sophomore year in high school when I happened to stop by a gas station in Littleton, Colo., a kind of "mom and pop" place adjacent to a small motel in the foothills. I would often pass it on my way to the South Platte River and Waterton Canyon, my favorite places to fish for big but wily brown and rainbow trout. Jim owned the motel and gas pumps and was behind the counter when I went to pay for the gas. In his shop were all kinds of fishing supplies housed neatly in glass cases along the wall, but there was not a carton of worms to be found, which is what I was looking for. I asked Jim for a couple dozen night crawlers and he replied, much to my surprise, that if I wanted worms I need never return to his establishment. And with that he launched into a lengthy description of the gentleman's art of fly fishing, suggesting that if I truly wanted to know how to catch fish in the proper way I should give it a try. I later learned that Jim was widely known as the "master of the South Platte." He was the expert that all serious fly fishermen would seek out concerning tactics and fly patterns to use in the canyon. So began a lifelong journey learning to fly fish and discovering what Norman Maclean meant about "looking for the answers to questions." Jim was my friend and mentor, and from him I learned not only about the technical part of fly fishing but how it was to shape me as a human being and how it could heighten my awareness of the world. Jim is one of my heroes. He is long gone now but to this day I cannot set foot in a river without hearing his voice in the back of my head. But why step into the river at all? Why fish? Countless days on lakes, rivers, and in the forest created for me vivid moments of the outdoors and its magic and wonder. Indoors, we are insulated and protected from the harshness of the world; we are cut off from experiencing nature. Outdoors in the world, fishing makes us alert, demands effort and presents us with risk, forcing us to step away from the security we enjoy behind closed doors. Fishing engages us in something bigger than our thoughts about ourselves. Fishing has a way of serving as a restorative that is a kind of protective barrier against pessimism and doubt. It pulls us away from thoughts focused on self and encourages us to perform small acts with extraordinary care. It reminds us that the relationship among and between the small things of this life is what forms a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. It might even make us better persons since performing small tedious acts forces us to slow down and be more observant. Fishing — like eating, which sometimes follows — enriches our relationships with friends and family. It humbles us. I am awe-struck with the reverence I have developed for wild things and beautiful places. Fishing has allowed me to realize that occasionally it is a very good thing to "waste time," and even perhaps that time needs to be "wasted."
Jim Poor taught me to be a participant fisherman and to participate in nature rather than merely observe it from afar. He would often remind me that participants tend to become passionate about and protective of the natural world; spectators or observers are usually indifferent about it. Standing in a river fishing, or simply gazing into the water or into the sky, one comes in contact with the mystery that connects us all to each other and to the natural world, a mystery so large and complex that our conflicts and differences seem reduced to insignificance. The mystery forces an examination of the connectedness of all living things. Fly fishermen are serious about understanding what the natural life in the water is doing and how to match with an artificial fly the pupa and larva of the insects, or the flies that have freshly emerged on the surface. They are men and women who need to get below the surface of things and participate in the mysteries. Jim's insistence that I be a participant fisherman and connect with nature as a good steward of the natural environment became ingrained in my schematic way of doing all things related to fishing and being outdoors. Stewardship of the natural environment implies active participation individually and collectively to preserve the sustainability of the waterways that are home to the fish. They are the lifeblood of nature itself, of which we are all an integral part.
We live in a well-explored world that seems to be getting smaller with each passing day. The future is not just knocking but pounding at the door. An alarming recent trend in the west is that land is getting gobbled up at a hectic pace changing the face of the environment. Montana is a very good example of how nature shapes culture, and how cultural conflicts can in turn shape nature. The newest and most powerful of arrivals in Montana over the last decade or so is a new class of absentee owners. Growth of wealth in the high-tech world has resulted in an influx of ultra-wealthy investors in this state who have turned their attention to buying large amounts of ranch land. By the late 1990's Ted Turner, for example, had purchased well over one million acres of Montana and New Mexico's most pristine ranchland and forest. Likewise, he has purchased large amounts of ranchland in Colorado and Nebraska. One of the results of this new acquisition has been to cut off the traditional public access to prime fishing waters, denying access to all but the very wealthy. Mr. Turner sees this as a necessary step to take in his pledge to protect the land and maintain its natural environmental balance.
Not all of the land owners in the west make the pledge that Ted Turner has made. On the contrary, cultural conflicts between ranchers and environmentalists result from old ranching practices and new developments that have damaged fisheries and in some cases almost eliminated certain aquatic species native to the west. The range of indigenous trout is shrinking. In Colorado, the Colorado River Cutthroat, and in New Mexico, the Rio Grande Cutthroat, are especially endangered by cattle grazing. Today, the trout inhabit only a fraction of their original natural range; both species are increasingly isolated in high mountain lakes and small streams. The increased building of roads and irrigation results in the escalation of sediment in the streams and rivers, and this in turn clogs interspaces in the bed gravel, suffocating fish eggs and small fry. In adult fish, the high degree of silt levels interferes with their gills' capacity to absorb oxygen from the water. The fish-kill rate is very large in such water conditions. Organizations such as Trout Unlimited are active in environmental issues and its members are primarily fly fishermen with a stewardship consciousness. The efforts of TU are focused on preserving natural fisheries and promoting regulation of land use to assure water quality that will support and sustain the natural ecosystem of the land and water. Membership requires a level of commitment to these activities both monetarily and through volunteer actions. TU and other such organizations have successfully influenced countless preservation outcomes across the country. Stewardship requires responsible action. A good steward is a participant in the world and is committed to protecting and preserving all life. It is a human characteristic to seek to connect with nature and to preserve it.
Old Jim Poor also insisted that sooner or later a participant fisherman must face the thorny question of whether it is right to hurt or kill an animal for pleasure, or curiosity, or just because one can. This is a conundrum for those who hunt or fish for sport. We all accept the fact that it is a common practice to raise and kill certain animals and to hunt others for food. But we all do not agree that it is the right choice to take another life for any reason. One can choose not to eat any animal meat at all. Vegetarian practice is surely an alternative choice. My purpose here is not to argue for or against one set of choices as opposed to another. Rather, it is to find a balance between the necessity for food and the preservation of the natural. As humans we have always been hunters and gatherers, exercising our dominion over animals and using them as food, as well as cultivating and gathering plants and their bounty.
Does the fisherman fish for sport or for sustenance? Of course, it can be for both reasons. Jim Poor's question forced me to ask and wonder how many fish were injured in the sporting process of being caught and released. How many survived the episode? Bait fisherman generally keep the fish they catch because the hook is most often swallowed by the fish; if it were released it would most surely die. If the bait fisherman uses artificial lures, the fish is usually hooked in the mouth and can be released without much physical harm. Fly fishermen generally can release the fish they catch because the hook is nearly always imbedded in the upper or lower lip, or on the side of the mouth. No internal organs are damaged. Many fly fishermen fish with barbless hooks, which do very little damage to the fish and are easily removed. Others engage in a growing practice of catch and release, keeping no fish other than perhaps for food. To release a fish also preserves the natural fisheries and allows the fish to grow and reproduce. For me, it makes me feel a sense of kinship, a common bond of the living, to be sensitive to the welfare of the fish that I catch and release.
Many game and fish departments that manage the fisheries in their states have designated certain stretches of rivers and streams and some lakes as "catch and release waters" only. These are referred to as "quality waters." For the fly fisherman, fishing is primarily a sport, a sort of chess match with the ecology of the river and the fish and its natural behavior. Consequently, to release a fish is to acknowledge its natural right to live and to respect its deceptive tactics and courage. The mysteries of the aquatic ecosystem where trout live and "play" create for the fly fisherman a sort of reverence for that system and the living things that give it balance. They provide the common thread that connects fisherman and fish as respected partners in a game of cunning and art.
Nature is always in a state of ebb and flow; it is, almost by definition, change itself. Nature is alive, organic, and is sometimes in a state of disequilibrium, but it adjusts, adapts and modifies itself in its constant quest to seek a kind of dynamic equilibrium. As fishermen, and surely as somewhat ineffective stewards, we too are seeking to adjust to ecological and cultural changes, ebbs and flows, to seek a healthy balance between human needs and the preservation of natural ecosystems. Fishermen are deeply involved in this quest for balance in their own lives as well. Balance leads to a healthier, happier life.
In my experience, and when I reflect on my life story, I must conclude that no one cares more about the ecological balance and health of streams, rivers, lakes and oceans than do fishermen. In fact, fishermen give more of themselves to preserve animal rights than perhaps they care to admit. They care deeply for the health of the ecosystems that support aquatic life and the fish with whom thy spar. In some mysterious and magical way, fishermen are forced to confront the world in terms of the life-giving force of water and the creatures who live in it, who serve to sustain other forms of life. They cannot avoid the question of what our place is on the planet, or what makes us human in our journey here.
Jim Poor told me in a rare moment when I knew he was deep in thought that he did not know why for certain he felt compelled to fish so much. He said that I ought to confront that question myself. Why do I fish and why do I need to fish so much? I have thought about this over the years and still do not know why fully, only in part. I sense a restoration, a renewal of something in me; maybe it is soul, or perhaps heart itself. It is certainly a spiritual experience for me. Standing in the river, intent on a single purpose, the world leans in and says "pay attention to me." What I see results in a renewal of my faith in my God. Whatever the reasons, I am compelled to fish. I know that the creative energies and the physical activity provide a renewed feeling of vitality, of being alive and connected with the world in a satisfying and restorative manner. It is for sure a sense of balance — balance with the life forces of nature and my own small place in it. My friends are the fish. The contest in which we engage helps me to identify over and over again with my humanness and with my responsibilities as a human.
So now, I am heading to the river, looking for the answers to questions.
Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them…. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and
runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.
A River Runs Through It