Holy Fly Fishing Distraction, Batman!

Recently I was invited to a retreat of executives. The facilitator ask us to introduce ourselves, and I was one of the first to do so. We were mostly in our 50s, with a few in their 60s. I ended my introduction with “And the great joy in my life is fly fishing.”

The woman next to me introduced herself and then concluded by saying her great joy was golf.

The next person, however, said that only grandchildren could bring joy to his life. Then every person in the room with a grandchild or two said, definitively, “Grandchildren.” Once grandchildren were mentioned, the two losers (who had mentioned fly fishing and golf) shrunk back in their chairs in shame.

With no grandchildren, I have no idea whether they bring joy. Steve, my podcast partner, has seven. He says grandchildren bring joy. I’ll have to take him at his word. My laconic and grumpy 16-year-old teenager did not bring me large amounts of joy when I dropped him off at school this morning.

I’ve decided I need a better word or phrase to express how I feel about fly fishing. I’ve come up with “holy distraction.” Fly fishing is not so much my great joy as it is my holy distraction.

Fly Fishing Holiness

I had just started my second business when the Great Recession hit. Within a year it was clear the business would not succeed, and it took another five years before I finally was able to unwind and unload it – for about 25 cents on the dollar. Then the recession began to drag down what I had taken for granted – my other stable business.

Never before had I felt such acute fear for such a prolonged period of time. Almost two years.

One year during the latter part of the Great Recession, Steve and I took two trips to Montana, when both of us could barely afford one. I don’t remember how I justified two fly fishing trips or how I paid for them. Or why my wife Jana didn’t put her foot down. Steve and I did both trips on the cheap, like we always do, but it was still a chunk of money in a year when my family’s financial future was in flux.

Upon reflection, I can see that the two fly fishing trips (in addition to our regular trips to the Driftless) helped refocus me during the worst days of those years. The discipline of fly fishing, even in one of the most stress-filled stretches of my life, distracted me just enough to refresh me. Fly fishing was a holy distraction.

I’ve poached the word holy from my faith tradition. The word actually means “to set apart” or “sacred.” I definitely don’t want to be a lightning rod, so I need to be careful what I call sacred.

Fly fishing, however, was the chance to set apart some time from the grind of life, a distraction from the unsolvable parts of my life. Fly fishing offered me long stretches on the river with nary a thought, only the futile struggle to cast between gusts of wind or to warm my fingers while tying on an egg pattern in an early April snowstorm.

If only for a few hours at a time, I was liberated from my mind’s machinations, which had ground me to exhaustion.

I can’t explain it. Something transformative happened to me during the rhythms of casting and mending. It wasn’t like I returned home after a week in Montana with my life and business back to normal. I always returned to uncertainty, and it took several years for my business to stabilize fully.

Somehow, though, the time set apart for fly fishing was a kind of holiness, even sacred.

I haven’t yet had the courage to use the phrase holy distraction yet in a public setting. Maybe I’ll keep using the word joy. For sure I don’t want any grandchildren joy while my oldest is still in college!