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
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.