What Fly Fishers Pursue

what fly fishers pursue

Henry David Thoreau once said: “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” I have to agree. I love catching trout when I fly fish — the more the better. But I figured out long ago that what fly fishers pursue is much more than the fish.

Here is a brief list of what I’m after when I head to the river with my fly rod:


I love the sheer beauty of rugged mountains, crystal-clear streams, snow showers, yellow aspen leaves, and the piercing bugle of a bull elk. Fly fishing gives me a way to experience this beauty — not just observe it. Whether I’m knee-deep in Montana’s Yellowstone River or in the Milwaukee River not far from where the Milwaukee Bucks play basketball, there is beauty to feel and see on the river.


I like people, so it took me awhile to realize that I lean more toward introversion than extroversion. A couple lines from an old John Denver song resonate with me whenever I go fly fishing.

    Now he walks in quiet solitude, the forest and the streams,
    Seeking grace in every step he takes

There’s something about fly fishing that gives me the space and quiet and time to re-energize. The next couple items on my list are by-products of that refreshing solitude.


I do some of my best thinking when I’m fly fishing. It’s rather unintentional, though. When I’m fly fishing, my single-minded focus is on casting to the right spot and getting the right drift. Yet this concentration clears my head of the white noise, and my mind begins connecting scattered thoughts and seeing solutions to problems I’ve been pondering.

The dynamic at work here relates to what a writer once counseled his students. He told them to quit writing for the day at a point of frustration. Later, during the mundane activities of the evening, one’s mind begins making connections until a solution appears. That’s what happens to me when I’m fly fishing. I go to catch trout and come back with a list of insights and ideas.


My friends describe me as an optimist and a rather positive person. But I can brood over failures and frustrations with the best (or worst) of people. Fly fishing provides a solace — a comfort or consolation that I don’t get elsewhere. Maybe it works because fly fishing provides physical exertion to counteract my fretting and brooding. Hiking and casting and wading serves as good medicine.


Ironically, fly fishing provides togetherness as well as solitude. I crave both. The most obvious form of togetherness is the experience and conversation I share with my fly fishing companions. This is most often my podcast partner, Dave, and occasionally my brother or one of my sons.

The time together on the river is rich. We alternate between silence and laughter. The conversation ranges between where we will eat at the end of the day and where we will be at the end of our lives.

There’s another form of togetherness, though.

Norman Maclean speaks of it near the end of his novella, A River Runs Through It. Fly fishing for him was a way of reaching out to those in his life who were gone. When I’m on the river, I think of times with my dad bow – hunting elk high on the mountain slopes in Montana’s Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness Area. I think of the times when he waded into icy mountain streams to free my, uh, Mepps Spinner from a rock or submerged branch. Somehow, fly fishing triggers these memories more than anything else I do.

There’s also a sense of togetherness with the Creator of the rivers I’m fishing and the mountains at which I’m gawking. Or, in the words of a poet, there is a sense of “awesome wonder” when I consider all the works God’s hands have made.


Of course, fly fishing is not all contemplation. It’s a blast, too!

Sure, fly fishing is not an extreme sport, but it is an adventure. There are cliffs to climb, moose to avoid, currents to wade, snowstorms to endure, and some of the most interesting people you could imagine. Will I catch a 20-inch rainbow today? Will I step on a rattlesnake? Will I make it out of this isolated stretch of river before dark? Once Dave and I walked around a bend in a trail and came upon a herd of bison, and one of the bulls wanted to get to know us better. The bull walked within 30 yards of us before switching its tail and heading up the ravine with the others.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like catching fish. I always on a mission to catch trout – and hopefully lots of them. But Thoreau was right. I’m after much more than the fish.

The Legacy of My Fly Fishing Mentors

fly fishing mentors

It takes a village to raise a fly fisher. In my case, it was a village of fourteen fly fishing mentors who showed up in my life over the years and helped me learn the craft of fly fishing.

I’d love to pay tribute to them by naming them. But I’m not going to do so for two reasons: First, the list would resemble the credits at the end of a movie. Nobody cares about them except the producer and those involved in the production.

Second, I am still a mediocre fly fisher on my best days. So I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone by citing them as one of my fly fishing mentors.

Perhaps I can pay tribute by listing a few characteristics that they all had in common. These characteristics can help you identify a mentor if you are new to the sport. Or, they can help you be more effective when you get the opportunity to mentor a younger fly fisher.

1. Patience

This is the number one characteristic by far.

My mentors did not sigh or curse (at least not audibly) when I slapped my line against the water, when I was slow to set the hook on a strike, or when my backcast hooked a branch. I may have even hooked one or two of my mentors. They simply went over their instructions again and again.

Bob never raised his voice when he kept telling me to mend my line, and Kevin didn’t roll his eyes when I tried to threat my tippet through my fly rod guides when we were getting ready to fish the Gallatin River.

2. The ability to simplify

Fly fishing is a complex sport. It can bewilder beginners. But good mentors break down complex concepts into simple explanations. One mentor encouraged me to stick with a few simple patterns while I learned to fly fish—the Woolly Bugger, Prince Nymph, Parachute Adams, and Elk Hair Caddis. Another boiled down my first lesson in casting to: (1) flick your wrist when you cast and (2) keep your eyes on the target. Still another taught me that the foam line in the current is the feed line. The simple explanations formed a knowledge base on which I’ve been building for more than three decades.

3. Creativity

Good mentors are also creative.

None of my mentors had me cast to the rhythm of a metronome like Norman Maclean’s father did in A River Runs Through It. But Gary Borger taught me to tie a couple important knots by using a small piece of rope rather than a tiny 6x tippet. He also taught me to pick up my line off of the surface by drawing the letter “C” with my rod tip.

Good mentors traffic in word pictures and analogies. They find vivid ways to show and tell.

4. Unselfishness

I’ve had some faux-mentors who simply left me on my own while they raced ahead to their favorite spots.

Real mentors, however, sacrifice the time they could be fishing and share the prime spots they could be fishing. They act more like guides whose mission it is to set up their clients for success.

I remember my mentor and friend, Bob, taking me to fish for fall browns on the Madison in Yellowstone National Park. He brought his rod along, but he didn’t make one cast that day. He simply devoted his time to helping me read water, cast, and (of course) mend my line. It’s rewarding to teach others to fly fish. But you have to be prepared to give up some rod time and even some of the hot spots you love to fish.

5. Humility

These mentors are some of the best fly fishers on the planet. But none of them felt the need to inform me about this. I had to coax out of them the stories about their fly fishing heroics The best mentors do not have egos the size of a jumbo jet. They do not need to tell you how great they are.

I’m convinced that humility is what enables patience and unselfishness.

Okay, maybe I will let the credits roll. I owe my fly fishing skills to the mentoring of Gerald, Duane, Doug, Kevin, Jerry, John, Murray, Bob, Toby, Harry, Dave, Gary, Leon, and Ben.

Thanks, fellas.

I’m fishing in and around Yellowstone National Park this week, and I’m a better fly fisher for all the ways you invested in my development. I wish you were all here. I still need all the help I can get.

Fly Fishing Joy at the End of Days

fly fishing joy and the end of days

In the final scene of the movie “A River Runs Through It,” the narrator, Norman Maclean, is alone on the river, trying to tie a knot. He is old now. His brother Paul has been gone for five decades. His wife, gone. Most of his friends, gone.

The narrator says:

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand in my youth are dead, even Jesse. But I still reach out to them.

Of course now I’m too old to be much of a fisherman. And now I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. But when I’m alone in the half light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and memories. And the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four count rhythm. And a hope that a fish will rise.

Only the river, which has flowed since the beginning of time, remains. It is the one constant in a full life, one of joy as well as tragedy and loss.

The Old Man and His Browning

Norman MacLean’s end of days are a lot like those of my father, whose hunting and fishing friends are now mostly all gone. My father turned 87 this year.

I think of Walter, who hunted upland game and waterfowl with us for 30 years until his wife Laurine died. Dad, my brother Matt, and I struggled to forgive him for putting away his Browning for good after she passed. He said he quit hunting because he had no one to clean his birds. That sounded so sexist to my post-modern ears, but it was Walter’s old world attempt to describe his sorrow.

Walter was only in his early 80s when Laurine died. He passed away in a nursing home about a decade later at 93, his lightweight 20 gauge (made in Belgium) never to be fired again. Physically, he could have hunted for most of the rest of his eighties. Dad and I stopped by the nursing home for a few minutes about a year before he died. He towered over us in his hunting years, but now was diminished in the wheelchair. The TV blared as we regaled him with stories from the last hunt. He said he was looking forward to seeing Laurine.

His Browning now rusts in its case with a son who doesn’t hunt.

Walter’s brother Albert also lived into his nineties – and hunted with us until his late eighties. He called it quits when he said the geese flying over him appeared as shadows, his eyesight failing. We didn’t argue with him, though he still had no problem knocking down birds. But it was time.

He lived for another five years after he stopped hunting.

Right before he died, he told his son, who was 70 at the time, “When you turn 80, start another business. You’ll have more than enough time to watch TV when you’re my age and can’t leave the nursing home.”

Albert and his son inspired me through the years to pursue my entrepreneurial calling. Walter and Albert are now gone, as are most of my father’s friends.

My father scans the newspaper obituaries every day, something those who are left behind often do. I spent a two-week sabbatical with him and my mother in North Dakota several years ago. Several times during the two weeks, he would look up from the paper and say, “Do you remember _______? He just died.”

If you get to live long enough, those you love pass on one after another until one day you discover that you are alone, in the half light of the canyon, astonished at the brevity of life. You have to decide whether to fly fish when only the river beckons, and the voices of others have gone silent.

Giddy at 80

About a year and a half ago, I got a call from my Dad. He had been out deer hunting, alone.

He said the November Dakota wind was howling up to 50 miles an hour, the temperature plummeting thirty degrees in a couple hours. On his way home from the hunt, a large flock of mostly snow geese was circling a harvested field along the gravel road, trying to land against the wind. My father stopped the truck, grabbed his Browning and three shells, crawled and walked in the ditch for about 50 yards, crossed the road, shot three times, and knocked down eight geese. Alone.

He had just turned 80 several months earlier.

On the call with me not long after, he was giddy, emotional, like a boy who just had shot his first goose.

There is much to be said about the fellowship of hunting, the late mornings after the hunt in the coffee shop, the Ole and Lena jokes that make you groan, the story-telling while picking up the decoys after a slow morning.

But there’s joy in the hunt itself, in the act of netting a 17-inch brown in late fall. Norman Maclean may be alone on the river near the end of his days, but there’s no place for sadness.

Big Flies and Fly Fishing Joy at River’s Edge

I watched “A River Runs Through It” again not long ago, and the final scene, like always, slayed me. I fired off an email to my fly fishing partner of forty years saying we need to promise each other that whoever remains on earth last will continue to carry on our fly fishing tradition, until like Albert and his failing eyesight, the trout become only shadows.

“I don’t see myself ever stopping,” Steve replied. “We will just have to fish big flies! And stay near the trail head. Wouldn’t it be cool to fish together in our 80s if God grants us both that much time?”

Yes it would.

But if for some reason I am granted days greater in number than those of my friends, and my kids are too busy to meet me at the river, I will walk the edges of the river alone.

What remains when the only companion left is the river itself is the joy of fly fishing that comes with the hope of a rising fish.

Episode 19: Our Favorite Outdoor Authors

A River Runs Through It

There’s only one “A River Runs Through It,” the classic fly fishing novella by Norman Maclean. But there’s a host of great outdoor writers who capture the joy and emotion of life in the outdoors. In this episode, Steve and Dave discuss their favorite outdoor authors, including Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, and Rick Bass.

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Episode 5: Reflections on “A River Runs Through It”

A River Runs Through It

Reflections on “A River Runs Through It” are often about family – and what it means to love someone you don’t understand.The movie A River Runs Through It starring Brad Pitt, Tom Skerritt, and Craig Sheffer, and directed by Robert Redford, narrated a tragic but true story of a Presbyterian family in western Montana. Before the movie, though, came the book, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. The story A River Runs Through It is actually a novella inside the book of short stories by Norman MacClean, the older son who taught at the University of Chicago and who died right before the movie was made. In this podcast, Steve and Dave reflect on how the story impacted them, including the relationships within their families. Listen to Episode 5: Reflections on “A River Runs Through It”

Listen now to Reflections on “A River Runs Through It”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last segment of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

How did you make the transition to fly fishing on your own? What advice would you give someone who wants to start the learning curve to fish on his or her own?

By the way, we’d love for you to refer our podcast to a friend, your TU chapter, or fly fishing club. Be sure to pass along our podcast to others.

Other Articles on the Book and Movie

    Fun Facts about the Movie “A River Runs Through It”

    Gary Borger on the Making of “A River Runs Through It”

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