There is an anticipation that has always kept me awake the night before a fishing trip. It has been this way since the since my first trip to a Smoky Mountain stream at the age of 4, and even now – after 30 years and thousands of days logged on the river – my heart still beats fast through the night as I stare at the ceiling and images of trout past and future swim before my eyes. In my youth, these trips to the river or miles hiked off trail in search of a secluded mountain lake were about conquest. Each new species of fish caught was notched into my belt, and every water waded was claimed with the resolve of Buzz Aldrin driving his flag into the surface of the moon.
Even if you have been fly fishing for only a short time, you have likely come up against walls erected by other anglers. The waters where the fishing is hottest, the names of fly patterns that are catching fish, and the coordinates of a large trout seen mounted to the walls of our Facebook pages are guarded like state secrets. Anglers jockey for position on the water, glaring at each other through polarized lenses as if they were a couple of bulls forced to share a small pasture. Fishermen pace the bank of their small kingdoms, mixing casts with backwards glances to guard against other anglers who may wish to trespass on “their” water. We give ourselves rights to this water because our boots were the first wet, because we have been fishing this river for more years than the next guy, or because as a “native” of the state, access to the best holes in the river have been bequeathed as a birthright.
Conquest is born from a spirit of competition. There is the pervading thought, a nagging apprehension, that if someone else wades the same river bank, our time on the water has somehow been diminished. Rooted in the core belief that we can only have if others do not, this fear has permeated our ranks, and I believe that – if left unchallenged – this falsehood and the walls that we have erected will choke the life from the sport we all love.
I can’t put my finger on when the shift began for me. Like a seed that was planted in my youth, watered over a hundred river miles, and cultivated by time, my relationship with the water began to change. As I would approach the water at dawn of a new day, I would inevitably bring with me the worries of life. With the stress of the week knotted in my shoulders, I would shoot off my first series of casts like a firing squad, eager to catch fish and mindful that as each minute passed, the responsibilities of home and work crept closer. It was the constant embrace of the river against my legs that started the transformation.
As the river flowed over my feet, and hugged my waders to my calves, I begin to relax. Like waking from a coma, the power of the river and the world that it lent life to came into focus. My fly line transformed from a tool to catch fish into an umbilical cord, connecting me to the waters that make up 60% of my being. The rocks amongst which my feet were planted shared the same minerals that formed my bones, and I knew that the river was never something that we can possess. it was instead returning to the place that we all belonged.
The rivers that we share have followed their familiar paths for millions of years. Snaking their way back and forth across the land, their waters have given life to thirsty bison, were fished by native tribes for millennia, offer solace to today’s fly fisherman, and will continue to flow on long after we are gone. The need to own, to conquer, and control is uniquely European. Bred into us with tales of Manifest Destiny, we have been taught from birth that we must possess if we are to truly enjoy something. The thought that we could own the river is laughable when held up to the least amount of scrutiny. Try to hold back the flow of the Colorado River with your arms, or collect the salmon of the Columbia River in your hands. You cannot contain the power of the river, nor halt the drive of the spawning cutthroat that has been written into its genes by ten thousand generations. Like a generation of mayflies, we are to the river but visitors, here for a short season, and then gone. As anglers, we are but supporting actors in a play whose star is the boundless river – generous, life giving, powerful, and mysterious. It is an honor to get to share in the bounty and beauty of the river with all of those who have come before and those who will come after. The river belongs to the river. It is a place that no one can possess, but is certainly a place where everyone can belong.
So if you see me on the river, I invite you come and stand beside me. Lets walk the banks together and I will share with you what I see, as you share with me. I will gladly tell you which flies are working, and maybe together we can catch that large rainbow rising along the far bank. I still have a hard time sleeping the night before I go fishing, but it is no longer from anticipation of conquest. I’m looking forward to being in the river, to returning to the elements from which we have all been born, to becoming a line in the river’s long narrative, and hopefully sharing that experience with fellow fly fishers such as yourself.
Photo: Mark Jessop | markjessop.com