Franciscan Joy: Fly Fishing Is a Lesson in Contemplation
BY FR. MICHAEL CHOWNING, OFM
Not a contemplative? Do you find your efforts at “being at one” with all creation disappointing and distracted? I have a good solution: Take up fly fishing!
While my father and brother were long time-practitioners of the sport, I didn’t take it up until 1981 while stationed at Holy Family Parish in Albuquerque, N.M. I took a class in fly fishing and quickly made a spectacle of myself on the lawn of the church practicing casting with a piece of clothes line rope. The rope snuggled around me like a python in a death grip. But in time, I managed a semblance of a fly cast.
Then it was time for an actual foray into the mountains. Bob, the instructor, led us to a small stream in a mountain valley, and we were encouraged to scoop our hands into the muck of the stream bed and look closely at them. There was all sorts of life in the muck. Yuck, I thought, as I brushed off the insects on my trousers and swatted those buzzing around me. Bob saw my discomfort.
“Mike,” he said, “look at what is on your clothing and swirling around you. That is what the trout are feeding on. The larvae in the muck will float up to the surface, hatch, ride the water to dry their wings and fly away. When that happens, it’s called a ‘hatch’ and the trout go wild feeding. Or, some larvae are in trees and drop to the water with the same result. Pay attention, and match your artificial ‘fly’ pattern to the insects around you.” Thus my first lesson: Pay attention to nature.
The second lesson? Humility. I will never again say “dumb fish!” Trout are smart and not easily fooled to take the hook. Presentation is everything. The “fly” must match the hatch or whatever the trout is feeding on. The drift of the “fly” must be natural to the current. The “leader” must lie invisible on or in the water. And, finally, the human remains out of the trout’s line of vision. Such a small creature is not easily fooled by its larger earthlings.
The third lesson, I learned very soon thereafter on the San Juan River just below the Navajo Dam in New Mexico: Respect Sister Water. It is pure and pristine but a powerful force; a few inches of water can sweep you off your feet and set you on your can, or fill your waders and drown you. Feeling adventurous and wanting to find that perfect spot where a trout might be lurking, I waded into chest-high water and began bobbing up and down, my feet losing contact with the river bed in the strong current. Respect nature!
The fourth lesson I learned as I bobbed along toward a huge beaver dam: Don’t panic! Be calm, remain upright, and let the current sweep you toward shore, close enough to restore your footing. Prayer also comes in handy in such situations!
A fifth lesson I learned: Fly fishing can hook you, literally! Always wear a hat – one that covers the ears, too. Otherwise you might have to make a run to an emergency room to have minor surgery to remove a deeply embedded hook in your scalp or ear. Wire cutters don’t always work, even if you happen to have a pair in your tackle box. Don’t ask me how I know.
Finally, be courteous. Never invade another’s “hole”; that is, don’t get too close to his/her fishing spot; keep one’s distance either up or down stream. Be aware of others.
Given all of that, how is it that fly fishing is contemplative? For me, it is an act of immersion into nature. To enter the stream is a conscious act of “at-one-ment” with nature. To commit to the water, feel its force, its chill, the river bed with its varied objects, the breezes, the grasses and trees, the animate life around with birds, wildlife, and silence broken only by the occasional animal, wind, or storm. Soon, catching something is unimportant, and the Apostle’s exclamation comes to mind, “Lord, it is good to be here.”
Fly fishing has taught me respect for nature, to value nature for itself, its beauty, its power, its dignity as begotten by God. Plus, I learned a few things about myself in the process, such as, not to take myself too seriously, I can be skunked by a fish! Furthermore, I don’t know everything: Trout don’t bite, but rather suck the food into their mouths. Try night fly fishing during a hatch, and you will literally hear the slurping sounds of the trout sucking their prey.
Finally, I learned that I can be embarrassed and giddy with God’s kindness when I have a good day on the river in the midst of others on the stream. Given my ineptitude, God continues to make me look better than I am. Praised be God!
(Fr. Michael is retired and living in Oldenburg, Ind.)