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Fly Fishing Jazz: An Art Form?

by Kirk Deeter

I’ve often heard fly fishing described as an “art form,” and I’ve often wondered if that isn’t just a tad presumptuous.  As this is the elk hunting season, when I do a lot of solitary walking and stump sitting (and admittedly not a whole lot of shooting), I recently opted for a little left brain v. right brain wrestling match to try and figure that one out.

For starters, I decided that “art form” is probably more apropos than “sport,” but that’s because I played a lot of competitive sports in my growing-up years.  Sports, to me, have always been synonymous with sweating and panting, trying to score points or go faster than other people.  I think it’s a rule of thumb to assume that anything you can do while you’re smoking a cigar really shouldn’t count as a sport.  Naturally, that also applies to golf, thoroughbred racing (the sport of kings), and tournament poker, which accounts for fair deal of sports programming on cable television these days.  Games, sure.  Sports, not so much.

Fly fishing, like hunting, is part of the “sporting culture” lexicon, no doubt.  But that’s an entirely different type of sport in the first place—namely “blood sport”—isn’t it?

Spey Casting

photo by Secret Creek

Which gets me back to “art form,” a far kinder, gentler way of describing this pursuit that includes many facets and variables but ultimately revolves around sticking a sharp object in the mouth of a fish, and imposing your will on that creature.

If you Google “art form,” you’ll read the following definition:  An activity or a piece of artistic work that can be regarded as a medium of artistic expression.

Fly tying clearly fits that bill.  It is an activity that yields artistic work, and the personalities and ideas of innovative tiers are always readily apparent.

Casting… maybe a little less obvious, but sure… as an activity that involves unique shapes and execution, great casting is every bit as much the art form as architecture, sculpture, or water color.  It’s just much more temporary, that’s all.

The word from the definition that strikes me most—and what connects this thread to jazz (perhaps one of the only uniquely American art forms)—is expression.  I believe that fly fishing is about expression, and that the more an angler expresses his or her ideas and patterns as he or she wades a river or works a flat, the more profound the experience and results will be.

So maybe that’s it.  Maybe we should call fly fishing an art form because every angler should endeavor to be an artist with rod in hand, rather than a hunter of fish.

A presumptuous thought indeed.  But I’m fine with that.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Kirk Deeter is the editor of TROUT, the national publication of Trout Unlimited, and a frequent contributor to MidCurrent.
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  • And I thought we couldn’t make this blood sport more presumptuous. Art form, indeed. Thanks, Kirk. 😉

  • Art? I say no. I love art and I love fly fishing, but art is about conveying the aesthetic experience from the artist to the viewer. I think writing about fly fishing can be made to be art. Plus the obvious visual arts related to fly fishing (not that a pretty picture is art – insert discussion about craft vs. art here). I do agree that fly fishing can cause an aesthetic experience in the fly fisher. Creativity is involved in fly fishing for sure but that alone is not enough. I think it is more like viewing a sunset or a mountain, a beautiful – but natural experience that is free of expression. It is in communicating this experience to others that the art lies. The fly fisher has to do some more expressing – not just experiencing to push it to the next level. Just my thoughts. Glad to read this though – and know I’m not the only person thinking about such things.

  • Scout

    The biggest fish crowds the water source, with insatiable appetite and a cunning to avoid the predator…the reason for sport! Taking on the responsibility to shape a self evolved style in which one presumably will present a worthy challenge, creating a duet or duel in lines that cross in one single point…the hook! To fish is sport, to become a fisherman is an artform!