The Most Wholesome Pursuit: an Essay on Fly Fishing (and sex!)

Photo illustration for "The Most Wholesome Pursuit"As a young man I dreamed of sex.

I don’t mean I dreamed of it the way I dreamed of someday being a rock star or astronaut. I mean I dreamed about it in my sleep, often every night.

Those dreams featured the co-stars you would expect: girls from my high school, a few of their mothers, super models, movie stars. There were guests of a more unusual nature, too, such as cartoon characters, both of my aunts, and (once) Julia Child.

I wasn’t alone. Adolescent brain chemistry and hormone levels enable all teen boys to dream on this subject with such vividness that certain physiological eventualities sometimes, um, spill into reality.

In puberty class, the gym teacher told us, “This is a natural happenstance, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed about it.”

I took this admonishment very seriously. In fact, I rather welcomed dream sex—the real kind was hard to find back then.

This essay is going to turn to the subject of fishing. Eventually. I may even equate fishing and sex. But not yet. I have one more point to make.

We’re told that men think of sex with ridiculous frequency. I have heard it measured in minutes and even seconds. Some guys I know would need smaller time units than that. I didn’t think much of this theory until my wife brought it up in conversation.

“How often is it for you?” she asked, with that “you men” tone in her voice. “Seconds? It’s gotta be seconds. And not very many.”

Not wanting to unjustly epitomize my whole gender, I stalled.

“Honey, it’s much more complex than that,” I philosophized. “There are numerous factors to weigh, environmental circumstances.”

“You’re thinking about it right now, aren’t you?” she said.

If I was, that was hardly my fault; we were talking about sex at the time. But in the weeks that followed, I found it impossible to measure this for myself, and for obvious reasons. It’s easy enough to mark the occurrence of a sexual inkling, but upon doing so all of one’s inklings turn sexual, and the trial collapses. It’s a corollary of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: you cannot observe a particle without getting that particle really turned on.

Now. Fishing. One day on the Logan River I hooked a cutthroat trout of about fourteen inches, a nice fish for that area. He first made a downstream run but I turned him upstream and as he passed me by I watched him shake his sooty golden head. His jaws were wide open and I could see into his frost-colored mouth. I let him pull into the current and it wasn’t long before he tired and turned on his side. As I brought him to hand, it occurred to me that I hadn’t entertained a single risqué thought in the entire two hours it took to work that section of the river. The casting is somewhat technical there, with willows that lean in to protect all the best water. The wading can be tricky, too—it’s high-gradient, muscular current. If you don’t think two or three moves ahead, you’ll either ace yourself out of the best casting positions or be forced to tromp into unfished water.

The fish were taking dry flies that day, but it seemed like they did so out of some weary sense of duty, and only if my presentation was beyond reproof. Too heavy a touch or a hint of drag, and the fly was ignored. Miss a strike and the whole pool was spoiled. And so it was a day for concentration.

It came as a revelation: while fishing, the only time I thought of that other topic was to mentally remark how infrequently I thought of that other topic, which doesn’t really count, does it?

I didn’t go public with my findings, but I tried hard to replicate them. After several weeks of stellar autumn fishing, I confirmed my hypothesis—when conditions on the river were challenging, my mind was only on the fishing. And even when the fishing was less intense, the liquid tones of the moving water filled my senses, or the microscopic gleam of sun on trout scales, or the odor of wet autumn leaves. Or all of these at once.

The resulting theory holds exciting therapeutic potential, obviously, but the first practical application I attempted was convincing my wife that fishing is better for me than either of us ever thought before, and so I must be turned out to spend more time at play. This went over about as well as cold fusion, but it at least confirmed an idea I always suspected: fishing is the most wholesome pastime there is.

When two things are diametric it means they are connected in some way, like the poles of the same magnet. In the case of sex and fishing, the connection has to do with dreaming. Before I continue, let me note that I am grateful my nights of randy dreams are behind me. No man could survive in productive, daylight society if he were starring every night in psychedelic porno films.

Occasional nocturnal fantasies still visit me, but the chaperone of my adult conscience typically intercedes before things go too far, and the tawdry scene turns jittery. I more often wake up in a state of panic rather than anything like gratification. All I can do now is fondly salute my former ability to dream so convincingly.

Sadly, this lack of saturation and comprises my fishing dreams, too. I dream of fishing much more than any R-rated activity, but my dream fishing is usually unfocused in the same way. I have dreamed more than once of a burly rainbow trout that makes a hoop of my rod and fights like a hippo for what seems like an hour. But when the climactic moment comes, when it’s time to hold the prize for an instant before release, the image hazes over, just like my more recent dreams of women.

This leaves one to conclude that the adult mind is always hardening over, always growing gradually less capable of dreaming deeply. I have heard old folks say they don’t fear dementia because they’ll be carried away in endless dreams of better days. But it would appear that while the dreams may be endless, they may also become less and less fulfilling.

I hope there is another explanation. Maybe our brains can’t accurately recreate certain intensely satisfying activities. Would it be idyllic to suggest that fishing is an experience not even dreams can encompass? The dynamic pulse at the line, the flick of caudal fin as a trout re-enters the water from an angler’s hand—perhaps the human mind can only respond to such moments.

This would explain a great many things—why I fish past sundown on blank days, why I fish whether it’s 25 or 95 degrees outside. It explains why I risk running afoul of the wife I love for the chance at gazing at a smooth, cold creature for a few seconds.

Here is the reason we seek out fish: they can only be experienced in the waking world. It’s why I write about them, read about them, lie about them. It’s why they are treasured. And it is why I set fishing alongside the other great joys of life.

Photo illustration for "The Most Wholesome Pursuit"

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2 thoughts on “The Most Wholesome Pursuit: an Essay on Fly Fishing (and sex!)

  1. Star says:

    Chadd, this is another one that will go down through the annals of Helicon West as a VanZanten Classic. Really good stuff.
    Star

  2. Sshh, don’t equate these two subjects too publicly. We’ll get inundated with new guys on the stream. But good writing!

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