WHEN I WAS A YOUNG BOY growing up the early 1960s, a time that now seems as antiquated as the Civil War to me (our family owned a 1959 Plymouth with fins as large as a great white shark, and we drove it absolutely unironically), gas was 25 cents a gallon, America was sending these garbage cans up into space containing humans who actually volunteered to ride in them, most families I knew had black-and-white televisions, and computers were the flashing-light things I saw on Star Trek.
Oddly, fly fishing was part of that time for me: a mystery of the modern age that must be solved. The truth is, I was not raised in a fly-fishing environment. I was raised in a Rapala and spinning-rod environment, where fishing was merely a hobby, not a way of life, and certainly not an obsession.
MADNESS. Insert maniacal cackle here.
You know. Craziness, obsession, absolutely dead-nutty gagalike-you-were-over-some-girl-in-the-fourth-grade-cuckoo fixated. On fly fishing.
Deconstructed (and you should never deconstruct something or someone you love—it leads to trouble), fly fishing seems like an unlikely object of obsession/madness. You just put a fuzzy sharp thing on a piece of string at the end of a long thing to catch a slimy thing out of wet stuff that you then do not keep. What’s so compelling about that? It certainly would be explicable to be obsessed with food, sex, or something along those lines. There is a long history of pleasant feelings and experiences associated with those hobbies, not to mention the fact that they are necessary for human survival. Fly fishing, sadly, is not necessary for human survival.
Like all madness, it comes on slowly. Friends notice little changes in your personality. What once was a simple pastime becomes a reason for living, a central organizing principle, a raison d’etre, a metaphor, a need.
A kind of disorder.
When you first start fly fishing, you start off with one rod, one reel, one line, one vest, some flies, and a pair of waders. All of that is certainly justifiable. You need all that. But then the madness sets in. Suddenly you realize that one rod, one reel, one line, one vest, some flies, and a pair of waders is simply not enough.
You start hanging around the fly shop more. You only hang around with people (fellow madmen) who are interested in fly fishing, and only fly fishing. Soon that’s all you really want to talk about. All other conversation becomes drivel. Talk of your job, relationships, possessions, goals, hopes, dreams, and ambitions goes out the window in favor of talk about fly fishing. The conversation about fly fishing is performed by wind-talkers, horse whisperers, and cryptographers whose only true language is trout and the pursuit of same. You discuss what you really need, what you really want, and how to get it. How do I get the second new rod and somehow justify it? Madness says, screw justification—you just get the second rod. Black budget it. Bury it in the Christmas tree appropriations bill. Whatever it takes . . . just get the second rod.
And you do. What about a third rod? A fourth? A 9-weight. A 2-weight. A Spey rod. A 5-piece 8’6″ for a 5. A 7’9″ for a 4. Any sane person knows that a 9′ for a 6-weight will get you through the vast majority of situations . . . everyone but a madman, that is. The madman is now on the road to acquiring 13 rods of varying lengths, and, hey, try and stop him.
And this is just the beginning.
Size 22 midges. Lots of them. In color-coded boxes.
Driving four hours one way to hit a hatch for two hours, turning around, driving back in a thunderstorm or two. Absolutely no second thought given.
Take building your own rod—BUILDING YOUR OWN ROD? I mean, that’s like telling people you’re restoring a 1936 Hudson Terraplane, and it’s gonna be all original parts. Do you know how hard it is to build your own rod? It’s almost impossible. I tried it once. I would rather try prostate surgery on myself than try to build a rod again. You have to do the guide wraps so that they’re perfectly even. Mine looked like they were wrapped by a guy whose hobby is collecting a large twine ball in his back yard. The varnish has to be perfectly even—you need to buy a rod turner. Do you know how insane it sounds to say you just bought a rod turner? Even the oddest step-retracing, check-the-gas, make-sure-the-locks-are-locked (again), wash-your-hands-57-times-a-day OCD fly-fishing junkies don’t build their own fly rods. They just don’t.
For the love of God, just take a look at fly-fishing magazines. They have 2,000-word articles in them about a certain type of duck feather. It’s not U.S. News & World Report, people. They have huge color illustrations on how to wrap lead around a small piece of piano wire. They devote pages and pages to how many cubic feet per second a river carries. Essays about orange versus red fuzz.
And then there’s the weather. Weather that you wouldn’t rise from bed in order to get the morning paper because it’s too cold and wet (58 degrees and a light mist) is nothing compared with the kind of weather you would think nothing of to catch a few 9-inch hatchery rainbows. I once fished in a snowfall so hard that not only did my line freeze in the guides (that’s nothing), but I wasn’t really sure if I could find my way back to the bank without GPS and 50,000-watt klieg lights. And I was happy. I felt like Jon Krakauer, freezing to death at 23,000 feet in a small nylon tent, stepping over dead frozen sherpas in order to catch trout the size of a canned herring. Freezing rain. Nuclear blast–speed wind. Icy pellets smashing into my face like 12-ought buckshot. Nothing. I felt nothing, really, nothing but happiness because I had turned the corner from sanity into the psychological state known as fly fishing.
When I was in college in Minnesota, we used to have a rule: no skiing if it was below zero. In fly fishing, we don’t stop fishing until the water ceases molecular motion, the fly bouncing off the ice, helpless, useless, hoping the trout had a part-time job as a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.
Heat? We don’t stop fishing if mosquitoes the size of B-17s have drained every drop of blood from our brains in 102-degree heat. We don’t stop fishing if our skin is burned down to the dermis and smells like a rare New York strip steak. We just put on the A1 sauce and keep casting. We don’t stop fishing if the sun looks like it’s about to crash onto the earth’s surface. We don’t stop fishing until the river turns into water vapor and doesn’t flow anymore, but drifts off up in the atmosphere. We don’t stop fishing even if the water has turned into magma with a hatch. We don’t stop fishing if Satan comes over and asks us what pattern we’re using. We. Don’t. Stop. Fishing.
There must be some sort of intervention at some point. Your family and friends invite you into the living room you haven’t sat in since Reagan was in the movies; they all gather around you with wide, liquid eyes (liquid! You can fish in liquid!) and tell you they love you and that you need help. Special help. Help with your, you know, Jack . . . fishing.
“Great! I need some help with my fishing! Can you tie me up some size 24 Trico spinners fast? I need to drive to Montana tonight in my diaper wearing a T-shirt that says “The Way to a Man’s Heart is through His Fly.”
I once actually saw a friend wearing this exact shirt on a day when then-governor Bill Clinton happened to be visiting my newspaper. The governor said, without a trace of self-knowledge, that he liked my friend’s shirt.
We should have recognized a fellow fly-fishing madman when we saw one. We could have saved Ken Starr a lot of time and money.
There was a great scene in the movie All the President’s Men. Deep Throat was relating a tale about the famously mad Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy.
“I was once at a party where Liddy put his hand in the flame of a candle until it burned. Someone asked, ‘What’s the trick?’ Liddy said, ‘The trick is in not minding.’”
It was then that I knew G. Gordon Liddy was a fly fisherman.