The Fly Fisher’s Inconsolable Longing

The fly fishing community is a rather diverse group. Some fly fishers are plumbers, others are professors. Some are Supreme Court Justices (think Sandra Day O’Connor), others are leftover hippies. Some are college basketball coaches, others are musicians.

What you get from such a varied group of fly fishing enthusiasts is a lot of great stories.

Thankfully, a few fly fishers have written them down for the rest of us to enjoy.

Shortly after I moved to Helena, Montana in 1987, I was browsing in a bookstore in Last Chance Gulch (downtown Helena), and I purchased a little book written by a retired English professor at the University of Chicago. He had reached his seventies before his two children finally convinced him to write down some of the stories he had told them when they were young. The opening paragraph of his little book captivated me, and the story he told touched me deeply. The book begins:

    In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout waters in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

By now you probably recognize the book and its author: A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.

The Angler’s Soul

In this book, fly fishing is simply a window into life. Two themes stand out to me:

The first comes from the final sentence of the book: “I am haunted by waters.”

These words emerge from a deep place in an angler’s soul while fly fishing a river in the cool of the day at twilight. It’s what the Oxford scholar, C. S. Lewis, calls “the inconsolable longing.” In his essay, “The Weight of Glory,” he talks about how certain experiences provide the “scent of a flower I have not found, the echo of a tune I have not heard, the news from a country I have never yet visited.”

I remember a poignant moment like that one April evening on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. I was fly fishing alone, fighting 16-inch rainbows in the setting sun. As I looked at the red
glow on the snow-covered Absaroka-Beartooths to the east, I thought of bow-hunting elk with my dad in those mountains before cancer took his life. I thought of my grandparents who were buried in a little settlers cemetery on a ridge beneath those peaks.

The rhythm of standing in the river at twilight with fly rod in hand stirred up in me that inconsolable longing. For a few moments, I, too, was haunted by waters.

Fly Fisher’s Inconsolable Longing

A second theme is the book’s big idea, which surfaces a few times right near the end of the story.

After Norman finds out about the death of his brother, Paul, he drives to his parents’ home to tell them the tragic news. Norman says about his mother: “She was never to ask me a question about the man she loved most and understood least. Perhaps she knew enough to know that for her it was enough to have loved him.”

Later, his father wants to know if Norman has told him everything about Paul’s death. Norman says, “Everything.” His father replies, “It’s not much, is it?”

To which Norman replies, “No, but you can love completely without complete understanding.”

His father says, “That I have known and preached.”

I think about that conversation when I reflect on the life of a buddy in Helena, Montana, with whom I often fly fished. He was one of the happiest guys I’ve ever met. Or so I thought.

A couple years ago, his wife notified me that my friend had taken his life. It turns out that he battled depression for years. I was his pastor and his friend, yet I did not realize the emotional anguish that cut deeply into his soul.

I thought I understood him, but I didn’t. As the elder Maclean said, “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

News of a Distant Country

Fly fishing has a unique way of forcing me to think deeply about life. I fly fish for joy of catching trout. But some evenings on the river stir something deep within me. I think about those whom I love yet fail to understand. And the poignant ache, or inconsolable longing, gives me the news of a country I have never visited.

In those moments I, too, am haunted by waters.

(photo credit: Jim Keena, Bozeman, Montana)

What a Mountain Lion Taught Me about Fly Fishing

A chill surged through my body. I was standing on a high ridge in Montana’s Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness area with a compound bow in one hand and an elk bugle in the other. Moments before, I tried my best to sound like a young bull elk as I blew on my bugle. The sound echoed off the peak to the north. Then silence.

“Turn around and look,” whispered Jeff.

I was hoping to see a six-point bull elk, but the sight that sent a chill through my body was a mountain lion sitting on its haunches. It was about 35 yards away. What struck me was how still it sat and how it blended in with its surroundings. I had seen mountain lions before while hunting, but it was only a glimpse as the big cats bounded away through the timber. This image was uncanny.

Jeff and I looked at each other, and I remember saying, “I think we should get out here!” I had an idea what to do if a grizzly bear showed up, but a mountain lion? Besides, I knew that shooting a mountain lion, even in self-defense, could land me in more trouble than if it attacked us.

Jeff and I began walking back down the game trail we had been following. So did the mountain lion. When we stopped, it stopped. This continued for about a quarter of a mile, and it was unnerving. Finally, the big cat seemed to vanish. That was even more unnerving. Was it circling us for a surprise attack?

But about thirty minutes later, we made it down the mountain to the trailhead.

I’ve thought a lot about that encounter over the years. Jeff and I figure that we got close to a den, and the mountain lion was making sure that we left the area. Whatever the case, I learned a bit more about the predator-prey relationship. The mountain lion saw us first. It blended in with its surroundings and didn’t make a sound.

Months later, it occurred to me that those same “predatory” behaviors work well for fly fishers. We improve our chances of catching trout when we see them first, blend into our surroundings, and move soundlessly.

Perhaps most impressive, though, was its patience. The big cat did not seem in a hurry to chase us out of its area or “confront” us, though if we had inadvertently walked on top of the den, its behavior may have changed dramatically. The mountain lion’s patient, non-anxious character is a trait to emulate.

There is a romantic notion tied to fly fishing. It conjures up images of fly fishers moving leisurely through the water making artistic casts.

If that’s what you’re thinking, stop it! At least if you want to catch more trout. The best fly fishers are predators. They move stealthily and purposefully, staying hidden and keeping quiet until they are ready to overtake their prey.

Just like a mountain lion.