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ANGLER'S CORNER-"So Why Do I Go Fishing?"

I usually imagine that I go fishing to get away from it all.

Perhaps you do, too.

 

I felt a world of troubles slip away one cold and rainy

afternoon this spring when I ran into a Hendrickson hatch

on the Delaware River. Like the best hatches, it was a carnival

of birth and sex and death all at once: new mayflies as happy

proud sailboats on the water with beautiful sex-drunk adults

in ecstatic mating flights above. Hungry trout and acrobatic

swallows slashed through the whole thing, adding a horror-flick

dimension to the mayfly’s romcom. A good mayfly hatch is one

of mother nature’s great bacchanals. As fisherman, I seemed

merely an audience to the wonders of the wild.

 

A few weeks later I felt the stress of a semester’s worth of

exams and deadlines fade when I ran into pods of striped bass

boiling at balls of silversides in Gardiner’s Bay on the east end

of Long Island. It’s a ritual the bass and the silversides have

performed for millennia. Fly fishing from a stealthy flats boat, I

inserted myself into rhythms beyond human social life, rhythms

that seemed natural and unaltered by man.

 

To come to the One Fly each September is to reconnect

with the cadences of a great trout river. For me the experience

of fishing the Snake and the South Fork brings an invigorating

clarity. Man-made troubles seem to recede, washed away

by flowing waters teeming with wild fish and backdropped by

iconic mountains.

 

But there’s a funny thing about fishing. Do we actually get

away from the man-made when we go fishing? Several decades

ago, the legendary environmental historian William Cronon

at the University of Wisconsin proposed a famous thesis: there

is no wilderness, at least not anymore. In North America there

hasn’t been nature uninfluenced by man for 20,000 years or

more. Wilderness is a human idea, created as a way of coping

with human impacts on the earth.

 

Just think how little of the experience in the One Fly is

natural. Dams built at Jackson Lake in 1907 and at Calamity

Point, Idaho in the 1950's shape the river. The federal Bureau of

Reclamation sets the water releases that fill it. The Army Corps

of Engineers builds and maintains levees along its banks. State

fishery management agencies stocked the rainbow trout that

swim in its currents – including one 19-inch specimen that has

haunted my memories for two years now since popping off just

short of the boat on a One Fly tournament day.

 

In all, the Snake River is a great place to see what some

atmospheric scientists now call “the Anthropocene Epoch”: the

age in which human effects on the earth are the most distinctive

feature of the planet.

 

Come to think of it, I’m not really sure any of us go fishing

to get away from people, here on the Snake or anywhere. Fishing

turns out more often than not to be about sharing experiences

with other people. I’ve been lucky to be a member of the

Horse Creek Hookers for four years now. We may not reel in

the fish or rack-up the One Fly points with any consistency.

(Though watch out for us this year!) But we are a little community.

Maybe your team is like this too; judging from the camaraderie

at the awards dinner every year, many One Fly teams

are. Fishing is a way of creating community in a setting and

with a group of people in which community works, in which

people who come from many different backgrounds and ideas

engage in a social ritual with a shared set of rules and values.

 

Ultimately, what’s restorative about fishing is not nature.

It’s community. In the past year or two, I have been in boats

with longtime friends of the Trump family in the Catskills,

with committed environmentalists in the Hamptons, and with

died-in-wool liberals off of Breezy Point in New York harbor.

One Fly boats bring together people from very different places,

too. And these little boats bobbing along the Snake share a

common conversation. We talk about conservation. We talk

about sportsmanship. We talk about the value of protecting the

environment and fish habitats so that generations after us can

experience the wondrous mix of the man-made and the natural

in which we find meaning and value. We talk, in other words,

about the principles that animate the One Fly.

 

So why do I go fishing? I think it’s not to commune with

the peace of nature. That peace is as much an illusion as a

robust salmon or steelhead run across the thirteen dams along

the Snake between Shoshone Falls and the Pacific Ocean. No,

I go fishing because of the peace that comes from restoring my

faith in other people. Restoring my faith that human beings are

capable of decent ways of treating one another and the planet.

It’s a low bar. But it’s an awfully good one to get over.

 

Tight lines!

John Witt

 

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