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)

Why I Fly Fish

Why I fly fish – it’s pretty simple to explain. I often get asked, “Why do you fly fish? What do you like about it?” This question typically comes from folks who are dabbling in it or thinking about trying the sport. If that is your question, let me try to answer it.

Several years ago, I tried to improve my golf game so that I could spend more time with a friend. I soon realized that I didn’t love golf. In fact, I found it frustrating. I remember golfing on the Cottonwood Hills Public Golf Course just west of Bozeman, Montana, and looking down the hill at the Gallatin River. I longed to be fly fishing. My friend didn’t fly fish. So I found other ways to connect with him. We both loved to play softball. But I decided that day I was done trying to do things I didn’t enjoy.

But exactly why do I love fly fishing for trout (and salmon at times)?

Engaged with the Outdoors

Fly fishing allows me to experience the great outdoors in an interactive kind of way. I love mountains and the clear rivers or streams that flow through or below them.

Obviously, there are other ways to experience my favorite parts of nature. I’ve done outdoor photography, backpacking, hiking, and a bit of non-technical mountain climbing. I even reached the summit of Long’s Peak in Colorado (14,259 feet) twice. All these were great experiences. But unless I’m photographing my fishing trip or heading to a high mountain lake or stream, neither photography or backpacking does it for me. There’s something about standing in thigh-deep water as the snow softly falls or sneaking up on rising fish that allows me to interact with nature in a way that other pursuits do not.

This is not a knock on outdoor photography or hiking or anything else. It’s just a reflection of how I’m wired. Pursue whatever lets you engage with nature most fully and brings joy.

Addicted to the Riser

I’m also addicted to seeing a trout rise to take a dry fly and to the fight that follows. What else can I say? Fly fishing gives me an adrenaline rush and a sense of satisfaction that most other outdoor sports do not.

One exception is calling in bull elk during the rut in archery season. But nothing else quite compares with fly fishing.

Connected to the Art and Skill

Years ago, I fished with a spinning rod and a box full of Mepps spinners.

That brought me a lot of joy at the time. But I love the aesthetic side of fly fishing. There is a grace to casting (when done well). There are also endless ways of improving my craft – reading waters, identifying insect hatches, tying flies, maneuvering a drift boat, and casting.

Fly fishing gives me the chance to be part of something that I can never fully master. It offers a lifetime of learning. Even the literature of fly fishing is rich and often reflective.

I should add that fly fishing is more doable at this point in my life than other outdoor sports that bring me joy.

As I mentioned, I also love bow-hunting for elk. The crisp September mornings, the bright yellow aspen leaves, and the echo of an elk bugle across a canyon make me happy. But this is where reality kicks in. I no longer live ten minutes from good elk hunting.

A decade ago, I moved to the Chicago area.

The time and cost of hunting elk in Montana as a non-resident are simply prohibitive. It’s the cost, mostly. So out of my two outdoor passions, I’m grateful I can still pursue one of them. Fly fishing for trout is generally less expensive. I can afford to go to Montana at least once or twice a year to fly fish. Besides, I can find great fly fishing three seasons of the year (spring, summer, and fall) as opposed to a three weeks of the year (for bow-hunting elk). I’m hoping to bow-hunt for elk again one of these days with my brother in Colorado. But until then, I’m content to fly fish.

If fly fishing appeals to you, give it a try. The sheer thrill of landing a trout on a fly rod might turn out to be something that brings you as much joy as it brings to me.

5 Fly Fishing Safety Devices

fly fishing safety devices

Fly fishing is a gadget-intensive hobby. The stuff you need to land fish, to wade safely, to meaure water temperature, to tie on a size #20 fly, to waterproof that fly, and to weight your line seems to multiply at an alarming rate. Since I don’t want my fly vest to weigh as much as a WWII flak jacket (about 22 pounds), I regularly go through it and take out items I don’t need.

But in the interest of safety, there are five fly fishing safety devices that I never leave at home or in the truck. These devices are, ultimately, more important than split shot or forceps or fly floatant.

1. Bear Spray.

You must carry this with you whenever you fish in grizzly bear country.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I prefer UDAP (, the spray developed by Mark Matheny of Bozeman, Montana. The spray canister is designed to fit into a hip holster so that you can shoot from the hip. There may not be time to remove the canister from the holster to spray a charging grizzly.

Why am I so insistent on carrying bear spray?

Several years ago, a friend and I bow-hunted in the Taylor Fork drainage northwest of Yellowstone National Park. The next fall, my friend took a business partner to the same spot. They were charged by a grizzly, and my friend’s business partner ended up with some broken bones and needed surgery. But my friend unloaded his canister of UDAP at the grizzly, and it fled before inflicting any more serious damage.

Keep in mind that a canister of bear spray does no good buried in a pouch somewhere in your fly vest. So you need to hang it from your wading belt (and that is the next device!).

2. Wading Belt.

This is not a luxury item, yet some beginner fly fishers forget to scrounge through their duffel bag in order to find it.

Ideally, you shouldn’t need to search your duffel bag. Keep the belt looped through the single belt loop in the back of your waders. You can’t afford to leave it behind. Without a wading belt, your waders can fill up with water if you fall or get swept into water over your chest. That means you will sink instead of float to the surface.

3. First Aid Kit.

A friend of ours got a hook deeply embedded in his finger while releasing a trout last summer. After Dave, my podcast partner, removed it, we were glad to have some Neosporin and a band-aid. Besides, you never know when you’ll get blister or sprain an ankle. I could keep listing the injuries which a first aid kit will treat. But hopefully you get the point.

4. Communication Device.

In some cases, a cell phone works great. Honestly, I get better cell reception at certain spots in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park than I do in my office in the northern suburbs of Chicago.


Apparently, the team of Verizon workers who appear in those television commercials prefer the great outdoors to the ‘burbs. There are a few places, though, where Dave and I carry two-way radios. We’ve been known to swap information about what flies are working best or to brag about a trout we’ve just landed.

But we carry these to make sure we can call for help if needed.

5. Flashlight.

There’s no excuse to be without a flashlight. Twisted ankles happen. Or inclement weather slows down your return hike. Sometimes, even the most punctual fly fishers (if such persons exist) can’t resist the urge to keep fishing until Dark Thirty (or O Dark Thirty!).

One alternative is to load a flashlight app on your cell phone. However, this will drain your battery in a hurry. With so many compact, lightweight flashlights on the market, you’ll be better off keeping one of those in your fly vest.

If you hike in far enough to fly fish a mountain lake or a remote stretch of river, you might also consider fire starter (a butane lighter and a folded paper towel) and even a space blanket (a thin metal-coated sheet which folds up into a pouch the size of your wallet).

Water-purification tablets are advisable, too.

Even though you are anxious to get to the river, don’t forget the items that will help you avoid or at least cope with dangerous situations. Yes, you could lighten the load by removing the first aid kit that you’ve never used once in the last five years. You probably won’t need a flashlight, either, since you’re planning to get back to your vehicle before dark.

Chances are, though, that there’s going to be a fly fishing safety device that will help protect you during one of your fly fishing trips this year.

Don’t leave home without it.

Episode 37: Why We Fly Fish

fly fishing podcast safe wading yellowstone runners fly fishing lessons hopper season animal season fishing Rocky Mountain National Park

Why we fly fish is personal and subjective. Our reasons are probably not the same as yours. In this podcast, we get a bit more philosophical and reflective as we try to describe fly fishing’s strong pull on our lives. Why we fly fish is both simple and complex.

Why Do You Fly Fish?

What are the reasons you are a fly fisher? We’d love to hear from you. Please post your insights below!

Don’t Miss a Podcast Episode!

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

View our complete list of podcast episodes on iTunes or on Stitcher, if you have an Android.