By Tom Palka
As I progress with new skills, techniques, and fly patterns, I keep thinking about what fly fishing means to me. Perhaps it’s a sign of growing maturity, reconsidering my previous assumptions and desires. In the beginning it was all about catching fish. For the first two years I mostly lost flies and the fish I caught per year could be counted in single digits. Eventually I figured some things out, got more successful, started looking for bigger fish, then started looking at different species. But while there is still much for me to learn, my perspective on fly fishing is changing.
I’ve come to realize that catching fish just isn’t the real goal anymore. Some will recall Henry David Thoreau’s quote: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” For me, now, it rings very true.
I love being in water, be it a flowing river or a lake, feeling my inner blue heron, being still, moving slowly, observing, focused on seeing the next fish. The world disappears, thoughts go away, there is only the moment. The skills I worked long to acquire help me to present the fly, to move it like a natural insect, or to dart it around, to catch a fish’s attention. These puzzle pieces require careful thought and a fairly precise execution.
Once a fish takes the fly, I bring it to the net as quickly as I can. Barbless hooks make the release simple. But after I’ve caught a few fish in the same manner and I feel like I figured out the pieces to the puzzle, I lose interest in the catching. While sometimes I change flies to work on solving a different puzzle, other times I’m happy just to be in that place and time, fish not required. A religious person might ask if God created fish for our enjoyment – to be hooked and yanked through the water. Another might ask if it’s fair to further stress a fish that already spends its life fighting for survival from predators and dealing with environmental issues. Paraphrasing Beth Dutton’s words, “does the fish really need the additional worry whether every floating bit might hook it, make it run for its life, just for someone’s idea of fun?”
After years of fishing with only barbless hooks, I am starting to use flies tied on half-hooks, without any sharp points. A dry fly that is well presented will elicit a take, but the fish can spit the fly and go looking for another morsel. Nymphing, my favorite way to fish, isn’t as rewarding, but with a tight line I can still feel the tug. In either case there is no harm to the fish and I can enjoy my being in the water and solving puzzles.
Catch and release, keeping the fish wet, using barbless hooks, are all very important practices, and a lot has been written about them, see https://bit.ly/tufishcr. But maybe we can do better, and stress the fish even less? My personal perspective is shifting. I want to continue enjoying all the wonderful things that fishing brought into my life, but not at the fish’s cost. Take a pair of pliers and cut a few flies at the bend, you might enjoy the experience and not have to carry hemostats or a net!
Tom’s views are his own and don’t necessarily reflect the chapter’s.