fishing from a rowboat in the rain
wanting to give the family a fish dinner–
within the river.
Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser
My wife calls it man crafts, and I guess that’s fair. In the past two weeks I’ve bought electric-orange chenille and bright purple feathers. What separates my crafts from what my sisters do with their daughters is this: my final product always has a chemically sharpened hook jutting out from under the fluff.
I recently started to fly fish, which is why I started tying flies. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do because I bought in to the romance that seems to orbit the rods. To the credit of the ones who spin the romance, when done right, fly-fishing is beautiful—the long arcing casts, the right lays, the rising fish, the disappearing knots—all of that, I get. But it’s built on lies and carnality. It’s sentient beings fooling and injuring primitive beings using primitive methods. At least spin anglers often use actual bait—flies are artificial; they’re tricks. But it does get me outside and makes me more sentient. Fishing builds, like many good things, on ritual: feeling the rod slide together and connect, rubbing my thumbs over the small open sores on my index fingers caused by the bite of the line when I pull knots tight, feeling my felt-bottom boots suck to the rocks so that I don’t fall. It’s the muscle memory of setting a hook. And it’s the fish too. I feel the occasional guilt for disrupting them—but, to be honest, I don’t catch many: partially because I’m not very good, and partially because I remove the barbs from my hooks. Barbless hooks are kinder, but I’m sure I still ruin the day of every fish I catch.
This might be the reason why I don’t measure good fishing days by how many fish I catch. Don’t get me wrong—I like catching fish better than not (except on the really cold days) but that’s not all there is to it. My fishing journal is filled with things like, “the water was exceptionally clear today. Shadowed on the bottom, all the way across the river I could see fish” and “so cold today. My rod and reel froze. I had to high-stick. Caught a Brown that was still milting. Poor confused bastard.” Fishing was just something to do in the rural Utah town where I grew up. I didn’t know it was hip until much later. Kind of like hiking. When I went to college someone defined it as walking around on trails in the wilderness. I moved sheep or walked to a spring or looked for elk—in the wilderness. I didn’t know that it was called hiking—that people bought special equipment to do it. For me, fishing isn’t about catching fish, just like hiking isn’t about the hike. Fishing is something I did with my friends, with my dad, with my cousins, with my mom and by myself. It’s an excuse to get wet.
This shared space—what you’re reading right now—is a beginning. Beginnings are rarely new—but old things that have become something different, that have found a new shape. Honestly, the first fly I tied wasn’t this winter but nearly two decades ago. Shane Heaps’s dad had a vise in his basement. Shane and I spent hours twirling sewing thread around a hook and reading a book to produce a bee. It was ugly and falling apart, but we took the bee up to Gordon’s pond that was filled with stock rainbows—small tasteless things that preferred corn and hamburger to native insects. We dragged that bee behind a half filled bubble until whole hunks of feather fell off in the water. The sky streaked, then darkened. Finally a rainbow grabbed on—probably out of pity. It didn’t fight much. We landed it and in the process of pulling the bee out of the fish’s mouth, the fly disintegrated back to just a hook. The fish was finless. His tail had been worn down and looked like a paddle. We ate him breaded and deep-fried.
**A little explanation is needed for this. I originally wrote this a while back for braidedbrook.com (a lit mag that I co-edit). I thought of editing out the weird references to time and braidedbrook itself, but it kind of ruined the essay. Plus it fit the theme for today’s Every Day In May prompt. Sorry for the confusion. Sort of.