“All forms of spiritual practice share one fundamental quality; they bring upon the practitioner a sense of peace. This peace does not come from mastery of the practices; a focus on Mastery (while it can be very interesting) is counterproductive (to spirituality). I think of it (fly fishing) as putting ourselves into the way of the world; in the Tao of Life. Not the busy mechanical, technological (electronic) world but the Natural world of which we are a part, the earth that was here before we came and hopefully, will be here after we are gone.” Rev. Jennifer Brooks, Unitarian Universalist Minister, 4/19/09
Early on you have to make a simple choice: Are you a fly fisherman or a fish catcher. What is important to you, catching fish or fly fishing.
If you choose to become a fish catcher, you become a head hunter, someone looking to catch the most fish, or the biggest fish of the day if that is your preference. Your focus narrows to your fly and the immediate area surrounding it so that you are ready for the “take” and the landing. Your reason for being there is to catch fish and nothing less will do. All that is important is landing the fish. If you don’t plan to eat the fish you throw it back without care to the condition of the fish; you need to catch the next one. You can have a “bad day.” You have missed everything.
If you choose to be a fly fisherman you, above all else, slow down and become naturally more in-tune with the environment, and especially the river. The river is everything, the flow of the currents, the clarity and temperature, the fish you see and don’t see, the shadows that can hold fish, the trees and shrubs lining the bank, the downfalls in the river, the ducks and birds, the position of the sunlight on the water. You watch the fly drift into the feeding lane of the trout and wait to see if you have convinced the fish that the hook with the string, feathers and “dubbing” will look enough like a tasty morsel and that the trout is hungry enough to take it. You may cast many times before it is all just right. And then “the take.”
When the take happens, you now have a direct line to the fish and the natural living world; you are holding the thin, fine line and the electric shocks come right up from the water and into your fingers and hands. There are so many things that can go wrong and lead you to lose the fish that you must now put all of your focus and concentration on that line and point where it joins the water; the movement of fish and the river.
When you have brought all of it together in that moment in time, the absolute spirituality of that moment is clear.
In the beginning, it’s all about the fish, how many, how big and where. But there is so much more to this fly fishing stuff.
One early fall afternoon I was walking back up the river after a day with zero fish, bummed because all I caught all day were twigs and leaves moving just under the surface. The sky was bright and the sun had warmed me to the point of sweating as I walked up the stones and over the stumps and deadfalls on my way to my car.
My legs felt filled with failure, failures filled my waders and dragged me down as surely as if it were water. Although I was not a stranger to being “skunked,” I still took it personally. I had about 3/4 of a mile to walk back up the free stone river to my car and the long drive home in a car filled with the stench of failure. I found myself going deeply into myself and not really paying attention to the river, the sky, the valley, the birds or anything else. I was in a funk!
I knew this piece of river pretty well and knew that I was about halfway back to the Steel Bridge and the two German shepherds that wait to greet you, hoping for a small treat. I sat on the rock beside the river, overdressed, sweaty and hot in the midday sun on a day that was supposed to be cool-to-cold.
I had known this large rock was a nice place to sit and I just eased myself onto its bright sun-warmed surface. Took a deep breath and waited to cool down a bit before I finished the walk, falling deeper and into those old messages I tell myself about my failures.
At first, I didn’t notice them, turned as inwardly as I was. Then there was just the realization of movement nearby, but turning right I just looked down the river and didn’t focus on anything. Then I noticed movement on the left and then the right again and then right in front of me. Finally, the moving object in front of me came into focus. It was a black-winged butterfly with deep purple highlights on the wing. “Oh, how pretty,” I thought. And just then I realized that these were the movements on each side, above and even behind me that I had felt but did not see.
Then there were twenty or so butterflies and then thirty or so and then I couldn’t count them as they flitted around me. Black and purple floating bits of color. And then they started to land on my hands and arms. They would land then take back off almost immediately.
Then as I quieted myself and sat still, they started to land one-by-one and stay, first for a second or two, then as they folded their wings, for longer and longer. Then opening and closing their wings and tickling my arms, hands, and face they walked, exploring and tasting my sweat only then to lift off in the breeze. I sat with these butterflies for some time although I really have no idea how long it was, and then they left as quickly and quietly as they came.
Today my prize was butterflies!
Tomorrow is another day and there will be some prize for me on the river, and it may or may not be a fish. It will, however, be the time alone in the wild country, listening intently for the sip of the trout taking the fly, for the clacking call of the kingfisher patrolling the river for a meal, watching intently as fish silent slip along through the water. And in that world is the essence of spirituality and the Seventh Principle.
Michael Beech, Board of Trustees