Fly Fishing Jazz: You’ll Never Get Good in “The Comfort Zone”

Trout Jumping

photo by Secret Creek

My friend Kent Klewein, guide and co-czar (with Louis Cahill) of the “Gink and Gasoline” blog, nailed a very pure piece of fishing advice several days ago when he simply suggested that the “Best Way to Improve Your Trout Game” is to not be afraid of technical water.

I thought I’d steal Kent’s idea here and add a few metaphors—including jazz music—just because his lesson is worth reinforcing.

I’ve been playing music for 35 years now, and I do not know a single musician who ever got better by playing only in his/her “comfort zone,” or repeating what they learned from sheet music.  Personally, my favorite jam sessions have always involved sitting in with players who were far better than me.   I still relish any opportunity to “noodle” with those who can turn a musical phrase cleaner, or solo with more imagination, than I can.  Admittedly, sometimes I feel lost in the flow, and I’m forced to sit back and learn.  But I usually come away with a little riff that, with practice, I can add to my own repertoire.

Many years (and many pounds) ago, I was a competitive swimmer.  In the typical swimming practice, there was always one lane of the pool reserved for the fastest athletes.  We called it the “animal lane.”  That’s where the reps and the intervals were toughest.  And the only way to get really good (shaving seconds off your personal best times) was to venture into that animal lane.  Sometimes you’d feel like a dishrag, tossed around in the rinse cycle of a washing machine.  But eventually, with enough work, you’d hold your own, and not only join the flow, you’d start plowing past the others.  When it was race time, if you’d paid your dues in the animal lane, you had no apprehensions and no fear… it was all business… all “paid for” in advance.

So why, I wonder, do so many anglers shy away from the technical challenges like casting at wild, sipping trout in a spring creek?  I distinctly remember the first time I fished DePuy’s spring creek in Montana.  I watched those trout bubble and boil, ever so subtly.  I made a few lucky casts and caught a couple of fish.  But I basically got my ass kicked.  And after a full day, I thought, “Man, I paid a lot of money for this.”   But I didn’t regret it.  In fact, over the years since, I’ve been back, and paid more money, many times.  And it’s been worth every penny.

Compare that with the other “pay-to-play” scenarios, where fly fishers fork out high dollars to wade and cast in Disneylands of stocked trout.   When those anglers net and photograph a two-foot trout, the only things missing are the Mickey Mouse ears, the obligatory fireworks in the background, and a rousing chorus of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

Now, I have always been fast to admit that there is a time and a place for everything, and I not only fish those places, I sometimes guide them too.   Success breeds interest, and that’s ultimately a good thing.  They’re wonderful places to play, and for better or worse, the fly fishing world wouldn’t be the same without them.

But there are certain rivers to fish when you want to pretend to be a great angler, and other rivers to fish when you want to actually become a great angler.  So let’s not confuse the two.

Get in the animal lane now and then.  Sit in with the pros.  Get your ass kicked, let your head swim with the fast tunes, and learn a thing or two along the way.  You’ll learn to appreciate it.  And, when all is said and done, you’ll be a better angler for doing so.