MANY FLY ANGLERS rely on analogies… be they analogies that help us teach and explain things (“fly fishing is like golf, it’s a leisure pursuit for the type A personality”), or analogies that help us rationalize the manic chase of fish species with brains no larger, at best, than a peach pit (“fly fishing is an art form… a culture… a society… a way of life”).
For the record, I buy all those analogies. And I’ve shamelessly used them on my wife, my parents, guide clients, readers of my stories… and pretty much anyone else willing to listen. In fact, the untold mission in every fishing story I write is to help you sell those analogies as well… to your significant other, your family, friends, and, most of all, to yourself.
But several weeks ago, Marshall Cutchin (publisher of Midcurrent, and a long-time friend) hit me with an analogy that I hadn’t considered before. The more I let it ruminate and marinate in my brain… the more I liked it, and in fact, the more I thought it was the perfect theme for explaining the “how-to” aspect of fly fishing.
That’s jazz music. Perhaps the only purely American art form. Rooted in a culture… built with technical expertise… but foremost, dependent upon improvisation.
I’ve played tenor sax for years (for the record, I was kicked out of my high school orchestra because I had a penchant for improvising beyond the sheet music). And I’ll lay odds that I’m the only white guy/fly fishing writer in Pine, Colorado, who has studied and listened intently to the likes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Gene Ammons, Oscar Peterson, Freddie Hubbard, Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis, and the like, for most of my life.
Coincidence… sure. But when you wrap it all back to fly fishing, there’s a real, relevant thread there. And that is improvisation.
In fly fishing, we’re taught to adhere to some basic rules and guidelines. For example, the fly line follows, exactly, where the rod tip tells it to go… the perfect cast revolves around starting and stopping casting positions at “10 and 2” on an imaginary clock face,” and so on, and so forth…
Do you think jazz music is completely “loose” and “free-wheeling”? Think again. There are structures… parameters to follow. The jazz musician knows the ground rules also. I’ll give you an example: Say I’m playing with a quartet in the key of F. I know, my solo (playing a B-flat tenor sax) will revolve around seven notes: G, B-flat, C, C-sharp, D, F, and G. I also know, at the onset, if we’re playing up-tempo, in 4:4 time. I know that there are “destination” notes the band will wrap back to at certain bars (so I should too)… there’s an in-flow, and an out-place for the sax solo.
If you don’t think jazz is “tight” and structured, listen to The Count Basie Orchestra play, “Lester Leaps In.” That tune involves dozens of people working around the same ground rules, seamlessly. But what stands out? Right… the free-flowing improvisation. And history/recordings will prove that the sax solo was never exactly the same, from night to night, stage to stage.
And that’s exactly the same with fly fishing.
There are, of course, steadfast, never-changing rules that dictate the tempo, the key, and where a fly angler starts and ends his/her tune. But the real beauty, and the real art, happens only through improvisation… and understanding that every run, every cast, and every fish will not, and should not, require the same generic approach… as if it had been printed on a sheet of music, or for that matter, in a fly fishing book or magazine story.
As such, I’ve agreed to pen a column for Midcurrent called “Fly Fishing Jazz.” It will be a how-to column. Yes, we’re going to talk about standard lessons, but the real focus is going to be on improvisation… and teaching you how to work past a framework approach into a realm where you are “soloing” and catching fish—making your own music—as the feelings and situations move you.
My last book was called The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing. I had the great pleasure of writing it with Charlie Meyers, the late outdoors editor of the Denver Post (who was also, by the way, a jazz aficionado).
I’m looking at this column as my next book. Written weekly, chapter-by-chapter (stanza-by-stanza), in a real-time, up-tempo forum, where I’m not encumbered by “sheet music,” and I can go where I want, when I want, so long as I’m in tune and on the beat. And like a live jazz performance, you can fire back as the tune evolves.
I hope you’re willing to sit in and play along.