Fishing for New Stories

A Meditation on Fly Fishing

A friend, knee-deep in a masters program for rangeland ecology, lamented once that ignorance was indeed bliss, telling me that knowing too much had trashed her crush on the West.

I was learning to fly fish at the time, and her comment struck a chord. I made a reverse-snob choice to protect the magic and mystery of fishing by unfurling its layers gently, exploring the enigma slowly. I swore there would be no books. No casting clinics or lessons. And through two decades, my fishing has remained a dive into being a kid.

I’ve sketched my whole life, often repeating the same doodles and concepts. One such drawing has been of a wild-haired little girl sitting within the ancient roots of a tree… on a river bank… with a fishing pole.

Growing up, I hadn’t fished. The drawing was just the expression of a daydream that lingers with me still, for its elements hold grace.

My first rod was a hand-me-down, fat and sloppy, with lazy action. I suffered immensely learning to cast with it—tangling it in the bushes behind me, snagging hidden schmeg in front of me. I whipped my line into many a woeful knot.

I also experienced the fantastical, though.

Hanging my feet in the Laramie River, that childhood drawing came to life. I had spent 15 minutes deconstructing a wicked knot; by then, detangling was practically a meditation. In my stillness, something nudged my calf—a muskrat. I was charmed and flattered as he accepted me fully, nonchalantly swimming ‘round one leg, then the other, harvesting the grass alongside my thighs. His teeth crunched on juicy stems. His tiny fingers fisted his bundle of grass blades. In our shared closeness, the world became ours, two tranquil specks of life floating the veil between water and sky.

While those moments are unique to stillness, active compulsive obsession often led to the sublime.

Chasing brookies up the Piedra, time disintegrated. All that mattered was casting; seeking; poking away at the puzzle. What was below that boulder? In that seam? Under that bank, I wondered, bend after bend in the stream. Noticing a change in the air, I finally turned. The stream behind me had gone magenta, suffused in a wilderness sunset. It felt primordial; my humanity evaporated. “Genevieve” disappeared.

I don’t land many fish and I’ve pretended for years that was okay. Truth? Pair me with an expert angler and it shames me to admit that bearish insecurities arise. This vexes me.

Years ago, during filming for a documentary on fishing in Mongolia, I blew every attempt at landing or even hooking a fish on film. Distraught and sleepless after blowing the money-shot at a long-awaited honey-hole, I rose early the next morning, needing alone time.

Low fog and soft rain held untamed aromas of damp earth and sage. Leaving camp, I ghosted back to the river. No cameras, no pressure. I snuck in the best fishing moments of my life that morning, pulling one husky, muscular body after another from the dark, foaming depths. We held eyes, the fish and I as I unhooked. The wet pungency on my fingers was the slick scent of union.

“Separation” has no place in the water. Wading in, the current grasps and engulfs you. Rivers are “embrace”. Sharing this experience with others is a treat not to be tinged with jealousy.

Like love, the golden hours of fishing call to us at dawn and dusk. During these purer moods of the day, as we rise anew or relax after what has been, rivers offer up this union. Evening is especially poignant. The dropping sun guilds all, presenting all as infinite: illuminated black trees, monochrome mountains drifting off in layers of light, the river reflecting our hearts and minds. A luminous cosmos of hatching life forms fills the air…caddis kissing my hand… fluttering against your face. What is this, but affirmation?

Now that I feel an ease on the river, I can no longer lie to myself— a fish moving on my fly brings a visceral pleasure I crave. I want more.

And that wild-haired urchin on the bank? Writing this, it hit me: she never had a fish on her line.

Fly fishing isn’t rangeland ecology. Maybe my angling aspirations should have included landing a few?  Perhaps it is time to cast aside my old stories and go for it?