Solitary Pursuits

Fundamentally, fly-fishing with another person is a little like fishing with a detached shadow.

  • By: Maximilian Werner
The Purist

Years ago I attended a party at a colleague’s house to celebrate the beginning of fall semester. Although I do not normally mix pleasures, I had just relocated to Utah and thought it wise to get to know my colleagues, including our host. I wasn’t fond of Rosley, but I respected him, both as a classic scholar and as someone who had survived the long and demanding life of an academic. How had he endured what the poet Theodore Roethke described as the dolor of pencils?

The short answer, I’m convinced, is he fly-fished. I had just started fly-fishing myself three years before and, like any newcomer, I was beside myself. For whatever reason—perhaps because he had fished his entire life, or that he was getting on in years, or?—Rosley was rather sedate and a bit haughty. Despite these characteristics, I wondered what fishy wisdom the depths of this old water would reveal. We were colleagues, after all, so maybe he’d invite me to go fishing and share some of his hard-earned knowledge.

On some level, though, I knew I was being naïve. Even if he didn’t just prefer to fish alone, it was likely he was selective when it came to fishing partners: They have a certain understanding that enables them to fish together unperturbed. Fundamentally, fly-fishing with another person is a little like fishing with a detached shadow. This is not to say that partners, however similar, do not learn from each other nor bring novelty to the experience. It just means that if I’m standing riverside admiring a nice run or listening to the mating song of a yellow warbler, I’m not going to look over and see my partner pissing in the water or throwing his candy wrapper on the ground or whatever. Partners know the rules, not because they have been stated, but because individual philosophy has made contrary behavior virtually impossible.

In fairness to my former colleague, then, my own puerile optimism was partly to blame for our failure to connect. I had no reason to expect him to invite me to share something as personal as a day on the river.

Although we never did fish together, we still exchanged what I think of now as tokens of our stations in life. At that time I nymphed probably 90 percent of the time and cast dry flies the rest. The same ratio described my tying habits as well. I had been experimenting with different bead-head nymphs that I tied with a fine chamois and (perhaps in anticipation of my own maturation) silver, hair-thin wire. Sometimes I added a hackle to imitate the tiny legs of an emerger, but generally I left out the hackle to better emphasize the meaty, grub-like body of the nymph. This nymph and several variations were quite popular on the local rivers, especially the middle Provo, which is where many anglers I knew were fishing in order to avoid the crowded, lower Provo.

Assuming Rosley was among this group of migrants, I stopped by his office to offer him a half-dozen of my nymphs. His door was partway open and he was sitting at his computer with a book in his lap, looking over his glasses at the computer screen.

“Knock, knock” I said.

In his typical, detached fashion, Rosley didn’t respond immediately, but instead he lingered on his work for a long and uncomfortable five seconds. As I turned to go he spun around in his chair, sat very erect, wiggled his head and said “Yes, what is it?”

That was the first time I realized Rosley and I could never fish together. He seemed too entrenched and unwilling to abandon the power structure that separates colleague from colleague. Out on the water, the power structure doesn’t dissolve, exactly, but it is absorbed by the amplitude that is the experience of fly-fishing. Therein lies the rub: Fly-fishing is a social leveler, which can pose a problem for those who do not wish to be level.

“I thought you might enjoy these,” I said, holding out my hand. Rosley’s chair was on wheels, so instead of standing, he used his feet to roll to the middle of the floor.

“Hmmmm,” he said, peering down through his glasses, a hand on each knee. “Very nice of nice you, but I don’t nymph.”

Obviously his refusal to accept the nymphs was mildly bad mannered, but I didn’t give it much thought: Didn’t nymph? What, you don’t eat bread and butter? Nor did he fish streamers. Rosley was a bona fide, exclusive dry-fly angler. The first so-called purist I’d ever met. And the only place he fished was on his own private stretch of the Logan River.

“Well, in that case, let me give you a Deputy,” I said in a last ditch attempt to rescue the moment from complete awkwardness. The Deputy was short for “Deputy of Darkness,” which is a phrase I had taken from Cormac McCarthy’s book Blood Meridian. But he didn’t ask for the story behind the name and I didn’t offer it.

“Alright, I’ll give it a try.”

I ran into Rosley a week later and asked how the fly had performed. “It caught a fish…” he said flatly. Before I could say anything, however, he added “…on the retrieve.”

Catching a trout while retrieving a dry fly is like catching a trout on a small streamer or an emerging nymph. In both cases the fly is wet, which could only mean one thing: The purist had been compromised. I wanted to ask him if he had bathed in the river afterward.

“Well, I guess that’s something,” I said. That was the last time I saw Rosley, which was fine with me. I had learned all I was going to learn from him, which boiled down to three things: First, that some anglers sincerely believe they are purists; second, that purism, although it exists as a word, has no true counterpart in reality so far as anglers are concerned; and third, that while the enthusiasm we anglers have for fly fishing is a powerful and curious adhesive, that does not mean for one second that we are going to automatically like one another.

The notion that anglers are united in some special way, one that transcends human nature, is probably related to the idea that fly-fishing and religion draw their essence from the same well. The comparison reminds me of the final moments of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Jake— the impotent protagonist—and Brett—the unattainable embodiment of all his desire—are riding in a taxi:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I know well the temptation to conflate the wonder inspired by the natural world with religious experience, but (and with all due respect to the Reverend Macleans of the world) if the purpose of comparison is to improve understanding, I wonder if it makes sense to equate fly-fishing with religion. If I wish to gain insight into the distinctness of an Appaloosa relative to its original environment, I ought not to study unicorns. If, however, I look at the horses of Tibet and ask how their short legs and stout bodies might be the result of their mountainous environment, I may then come to better understand the uniqueness of the Appaloosa relative to its native home.

A cursory comparison between the Apache Trout (Onchorhynchus apache), which originated in the high deserts of Arizona, and the Rainbow Trout (Onchorhynchus mykiss) would suggest that their forms and habits are directly linked to their respective geographical and aquatic environments. Insofar as the apache is geographically isolated, its coloration does not significantly vary. But the rainbow’s range extends from Mexico to Alaska and British Columbia, in which case its coloration is correspondingly varied and nuanced. Also, that the apache originated in slower water is suggested by its square caudal fin and compressed keel, whereas the rainbow’s caudal fin is smaller, notched, torpedo-shaped and thus adapted to moving water or currents that require greater navigability. Incidentally, I’m guessing a comparison of teeth would be equally insightful.

In the end, each angler must determine the veracity and usefulness of such comparisons, and whether the beliefs that inform them are worth the expense. Ultimately, whether an angler displays the Jesus Fish or the Darwin Fish on the back of his fish mobile, the question is the same: In what ways do our ideas about ourselves and the world we inhabit help us to live and, when the time comes, to die? Maybe I’m asking too much. Perhaps the power of fly fishing (and the comparisons it invites) lies not in its confrontation with meaning, but in its escape from it.

Pretty to think so.

Maximilian Werner is a writer who lives in Salt Lake City. His story “Anglers’ Ball” was a finalist for the 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award.