The Contemplative Art of Fly-Fishing

Fly-fishing is a meditative activity that deepens your connection with nature, fellow anglers, and yourself.

Fishing rod and river

I watch carefully as the fly drops into the crystalline water and drifts past me.

I’m attempting to read this stream. What insects are hatching? Where are rock beds in which fish might be hiding? Where are currents meeting?

I lift the fly out of the water, the rod resting loosely in my right hand. With my thumb on top of the grip, I hold it in line with my intended target. I move the rod up and backward, keeping the tip low. Then I raise it up and behind me, careful to avoid tangling with the flora.

My rod bends slightly now from tension loading on the line.

When the line is fully extended in the air behind me, I whip it with my wrist. It snaps forward, looping in the air as it travels. It unrolls, and I ease the rod tip down.

The fly lands near a pile of rocks, where trout are likely to be hanging out looking for a snack (trout spend 80 percent of their time feeding). I’ve made many attempts to get it there. It bobs downstream again.

The next time I cast, my nymph — which resembles an insect when it lives underwater — lands in the patch of bubbles percolating in the stream.

I remove my line and cast again.

Again.

Again.

Again.

Again.

I hear my mom’s voice reminding me of one of her favorite old sayings: “There is no glory without practice.”

After an hour, I’ve stopped thinking about how I’m putting the rod in motion. I’m focused only on aiming, casting, and watching the line pass me by. I’ve found my rhythm.

I remove my line and move several steps to my left. (Fly-fishing, I learn, is not a stationary activity.)

I cast again. The fly lands near the riverbank across from me, where trout like to gather for protection.

My body is loose, and my mind feels soothed by this repetition, by the gentle breeze, by the sound of the gurgling stream.

Splash.

“Hey! Did a fish jump?!” I ask my brother-in-law, Al Potter (never just “Al”), who is working the hole a bit upstream.

“Yep,” he says.

“Awesome!” I respond. “Tell it to get on my line!”

I cast again. The fly lands near the bank and begins another journey downstream.

Then it happens.

Tug.

My grip tightens and thoughts flood my mind. Should I reel up? Did my line nip a rock or stick? Did I get snagged on something?

TUGGGGG.

This is it! A FISH!

My heart races. My instinct is to reel quickly.

“Hey! Hey! I got a FIIIISSSSHHHH here!” I shout.

Al Potter is there in a flash, reminding me to keep the rod tip raised and reel slowly, but firmly. “Yeah!” he cheers. “You got this, Heid!”

The trout pulls and thrashes. I’m trying not to drag it along any rocks or sticks. I keep reeling until it tires out and Al Potter cups it into a net.

He works quickly and gently to remove the hook from the glimmering trout’s mouth.  (Holding it too tightly can damage its organs and the slime coat that protects it from diseases. Keeping it out of the water too long can cause delayed mortality in trout that have been caught and released.)

“You caught yourself a fine trout!” he says. I puff my chest up, grinning. I admire its beautiful rainbow scales once more before releasing it.

I step back onto the bank, exhilarated by the patience that I displayed (no small feat, as anyone who knows me would attest) waiting for this one brief moment of angling glory.

Beyond the Rod

Momentarily outsmarting and catching my first trout was a massive thrill, but it wasn’t the favorite part of my adventure. Most of the highlights had nothing to do with fish:

  • Spending a picturesque mid-August day in southeastern Minnesota with my brother-in-law, doing something that he loves.
  • Being surrounded by beauty — a see-through stream and massive rows of corn and farmland stretching for miles around it.
  • Watching monarchs circle the goldenrod and hollyhocks blooming among waist-high prairie grasses, and marveling at worker bees loading their abdomens with pollen to sustain their communities.
  • Laughing whenever my line gets snagged in weeds and even on my shirt (yes, really) instead of letting it upset me like I sometimes respond when something doesn’t go quite right back in my real life.
  • Eating cheese sandwiches and Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls in the van on the drive home.

Fly-fishing gave me an opportunity to practice tying knots, to read nature, and to gain insight into fish behavior. (Fish are more complex than we might think they are.)

But its lasting lesson reinforced something I’ve learned from tai chi, Vipassana meditation, and other mindful activities: There are major benefits from catching the thoughts, fears, and grievances that flow in the restless waters of the mind, bringing them to the surface, appreciating them for what they are, and letting them go.

Reel Healing

Calming the mind is not the only benefit that might be derived from fly-fishing. Many of its practitioners report feeling less stress afterward.

The repetitive motion of casting may invoke the body’s relaxation response, a physical state of deep rest that changes the body’s physical and emotional reaction to stress. (Learn more about how stress works at “The Science of Stress”.)

“You’re focusing on where that fly is going to land on the water, and that breaks the train of everyday thought,” explains Herbert Benson, MD, author of The Relaxation Response.

To experience the relaxation response, Benson adds, you need a quiet environment (such as a peaceful stream or lake) and a “let it happen” attitude (it’s hard to force a fish onto your line, after all).

He argues that regularly partici­pating in practices that stoke the relaxation response — such as meditation, yoga, and fishing — can ease anxiety, insomnia, and other stress-related disorders.

Studies have shown that fly-fishing might also help combat veterans cope with the burdens of war. In 2013, researchers noted significant reductions in posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and improvements in sleep quality for veterans who had completed a fly-fishing retreat.

As part of a 2011 study, University of Indiana–Bloomington researchers collected feedback from 67 veterans who wrote to funders after completing a group fly-fishing retreat in Utah.

“I was most surprised by the overwhelming number of soldiers who commented that fly-fishing was a great form of therapy for them due to the interaction with the calm of nature and the sport-related challenges of fishing,” said lead study author Rasul Mowatt, PhD, an assistant professor in the University’s School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation.

Because community is an essential element in therapeutic recovery, Mowatt and his team theorized that fly-fishing also likely created a setting for positive interaction and for reframing the past. “The fly-fishing allowed soldiers to talk about their experiences with other people without being in a setting that forced them to focus on it,” he explained.

It’s not just military service mem­bers who can benefit from fly-fishing retreats. Casting for Recovery, Reel ­Recovery, and other nonprofit organizations offer opportunities for cancer patients to connect with nature — and with others who have a shared experience.

It’s true that each angler stares into the water alone, relying on skill and plenty of luck. But there is deep joy in having someone else there to witness your success at catching the big one (or even the small one) and to comfort you about the one that got away.

is an Experience Life senior editor.

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