Why do I fly fish? A Philosophical Pause.


According to my WordPress Dashboard this is my 50th post (woohoo! – these posts don’t come easy to me). So in honor of this auspicious occasion I want to take the opportunity to play at philosophy and to reflect upon the question “Why Do I Fly Fish?”

I’m sure that many of us have asked ourselves this question. I’ve been asking it a lot lately and there are a lot of “reasons” and a lot of contributing factors. I can’t help but to think that if only I can distill this mixture of ideas and thoughts to its essence then maybe I can learn something about my nature.

The Obvious Answer is…
The obvious answer to the question of “Why do I fly fish?” is “To catch fish”. Hold on – not so fast. It isn’t that simple- is it? “To catch fish” is the answer to somebody’s question but not to the one I’m asking myself. If that were the answer then I could satisfy the urge a lot more simply. Regardless of what some fly fishers may think, there are easier (and more effective) ways to catch fish – at least most of the time.

Contributing Factors
At first I was tempted to list all of the things that I like about fly fishing (and stream fishing for trout most especially). But I soon realized that most of the things on this list are not at the root of the question. They are only contributing factors. Here are some of the things that I’m thinking of:

  • to get outside
  • to enjoy nature
  • to get exercise
  • to find peace and quiet
  • to forget my worries and become lost in the moment
  • to enjoy the company of other like-minded individuals

Obviously this list could go on and on – I’m sure that all of you reading this could add many points. We won’t all have the same list, but there will be many points in common. Looking at this list though – it is pretty obvious that these things could all be found in other ways, and they are not exclusive to fly fishing. So there must be something more.

The Hunter and the “Civilized Man”
In the prologue to the book The Trout and the Fly by Brian Clarke and John Goddard they tackle this question briefly. One of the answers that they come up with is the idea that fly fishing is much like hunting.

The first consideration, we believe, is that man is a natural hunter, and that fly-fishing – particularly fly-fishing on rivers – gives him an opportunity to stalk his quarry, as he did before memory began…The fly enables the angler to act out, in more than a mannered way, some elemental trace of the forest and glade that lies within us all.

From The Trout and the Fly by Brian Clarke and John Goddard

I enjoy fly fishing the most when I’m hiking along a stream, looking for visible fish to cast to. So I think that they are on to something here. Sight-fishing like hunting fulfills us in a vital way; it taps into something primal and instinctual that the “civilized man” may otherwise lack in his modern everyday life. As mankind has become more and more civilized, our everyday activities have become progressively removed from those which directly keep us alive – and those for which we are well suited (by design or chance – I’ll let you decide that for yourself).

Most of us no longer hunt, fish, gather, sow, reap, fight or flee to stay alive. We are left with skills we don’t use, and impulses and needs which often go unfulfilled in our daily routine. For those of us lucky enough to have leisure time – we turn to our avocations to fill in this part of our lives. Fly fishing is just one of the many pursuits that allows us to express the part of us that has been left behind by the progress of the modern world.

Fly Fishing to Stay Alive and Sane
I had a phys-ed class in college called Exercise for Stress Management. The premise of the class was that stress in our life comes from the fact that in our modern, civilized lives we cannot act upon our natural fight-or-flight urges. Further, it is from this inability to act that stress arises, and stress causes many illnesses, physical and mental. The class taught that physical exercise is a way in which to act on this urge and to reduce the stress and stay healthy. I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch – to say that stress can also arise in our lives because of the lack of opportunities to act upon other innate and instinctual impulses, such as the the act of pursuing prey. Fly fishing is one way to act on this urge and to reduce that stress. So by fulfilling our natural impulses, fly fishing reduces stress in our lives and helps keep us alive and sane.

So it’s like John Lee Hooker says in Boogie Chillun “It’s in him and it’s got to come out”. Fly fishing is just in me and it’s got to come out, otherwise I risk grievous bodily harm. Fly fishing helps to keep me healthy and sane. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of this question, there are many other things that I’d like to say on this topic, but I’m afraid I’ve already rambled too much. I’ll have to tackle the “why” of fly fishing again in another post.

I’d love to hear what others think about this – why do you fly fish? Please leave some comments and let me know.

2 Comments on Why do I fly fish? A Philosophical Pause.

  1. Anthony,

    As you said, there are many contributing factors. I’ve tackled this question so many times, I’ve confused myself more than enlightened myself.

    One important distinction you make is “fly” fish. When I used to bait and spinner fish, it was to catch fish. In 1993, about five years after I switched to fly fishing, I wrote, “Fly fishing is an outgrowth of the inner life of this angler. My life had changed—call it maturity, call it progression, or simply call it change—whatever it was, at some time I experienced a fishing transformation.”

    So for at least 16 years I’ve been contemplating this very thing. There is no easy answer, but lots of brain cells have been spent trying to answer it anyhow. I’ll post something on my blog (I don’t want to run a 2000 word comment on your blog), then link back to this post so you can see my ruminations.

  2. Anthony Naples // September 17, 2009 at 9:50 AM // Reply


    I too experienced a transformation from bait/spinner fishermen to fly fisher. At this risk of sounding dramatic and pretentious – I’d liken it to an enlightenment. What I mean is that I looked at the world differently from then on. Stones used to just be stones – now they were something to turn over and examine. Bugs used to just be swatted at – now I was catching them with my hat so I could scrutinize them. Here was a secret “shadow-world” full of arcana, that so many others didn’t know about.

    I’m looking forward to reading your further ruminations on this subject.

what say you?