This week on the Selway River I am rowing a fishing boat. It's the later part of the season and the drinkable river is low. More rocks, less water in the river, less space for the fish and thus higher concentrations of them per cubic foot. The fly lines will be whipping back and forth out fore and aft as I pull my wide brimmed hat down over my eyes and ears and make sure to always wear my sunglasses. I have been hooked in most of my cerebral orifices at one point or another over the last 26 summers.
Some people think that fisherman terrorize the fish and that it is yet another instance of man hunting, killing, penetrating nature for his own entertainment and enjoyment. That we live in a society where it is not necessary to harass fish - that it is in some way immoral.
I do not ascribe to that notion of fishing. Most fishermen I know are also stream and river conservation activists as they understand that the health of the riparian zone and watershed in its entirety correlates strongly with the health and vitality of the fishery. Trout Unlimited is a great example of such advocacy.
I see fishermen and women as sensualists - feelers.
They smell, watch and sense the river on varied levels. Their awareness extends to the bottom of the river through the middle layers, up to the surface currents. They closely observe the behaviors and presence of "hatches" - when new waterbugs and flies are emerging at certain times of day or in certain sections of the river. They mimic what they are seeing in these hatches with their choice of fly which they tie to the end of their tippet - the long, gossamer thread that extends off the end of their leader which is a nine to twelve foot long section of fishing line. The leader is comprised of three to four different sections of line going from thick to thin. Once the fly is attached to the end of the leader the fly-fisher-person whips their rod back and forth over their head to get the line to shoot out of the rod eyelets so the fly lands delicately on the surface of the water sometimes fifty to sixty feet from the boat as I angle to get them in the best position to land it in eddies and cushions and seam lines that will produce hungry, fat trout.
Once the fish is hooked, the rod bows down to the water and quivers with their struggling escape attempts.
This process is dependent on a collection of filament line, carbon fiber, and the delicate and precisely engineered gearing of the reel.
The rod is a nerve— an extension of the fisherman's brain and spinal cord.
They feel the river and sense fish. They think like fish. They have fish for brains.
The rod is a dendrite in the "organism" that is comprised of the boat, the fisherman, his rod, reel, floating line, leader, tippet, and fly. From thick to thin - the entire flexible, feeling quivering system is a high tech, highly evolved piece of technology that allows the person with the rod in their hand to sense and to feel and to watch and to join with - become one with the river, the fishery, the bugs, the eddies, the cushions, the rocks, logs and all other members of the diverse community that is a river.
And so as I float down the river this week beneath my hat and sunglasses rowing upstream for six to eight hours to maintain good access to the best fishing holes on the river I will see two of these "nerves" flicking back and forth and laying down quietly and predatorily on the surface of the drinkable river. The three of us will watch those flies - the end of the nerve that hopefully will be sipped, nibbled and bit down on by the cutthroat and rainbow trout that call the Selway home.
After hooking them and bringing them next to the boat we will gently release them with nothing more than slight perforations in their lips. We will watch them swim away and disappear into the deep dark green of the flowing river in search of bugs and flies that are real, protein filled and not made of animal hair, feathers, and synthetic materials.
The fly rod is a way for fishermen and women to connect and to throw a nerve fifty or sixty feet into the beautiful fecund and fertile mystery that is the watery drinkable depths of the Selway.