01/06/2013 12:21 EST | Updated 03/06/2013 05:12 EST

The Truth About Fishing


The campus where I teach writing is exactly seven minutes downstream from one of my favorite fishing spots. I check the weather on my work computer and try to figure out why today would be a good fishing day -- even if I'm not fishing anytime soon. Warm equals hatches. Cold equals people staying home. Windy equals nymphing. And rain. Rain is my favorite.

Of all the sporting ventures, fly fishing -- and, particularly, river angling -- must be the most romantic. And I get it. Rods whip back and forth like a drunk conductor's baton. Lures are constructed out of thread, feathers and lead wire. Special gear allows you to feel like you're getting wet when you're actually staying dry. And the fish.

On good days, fish seem like they are conjured instead of caught. But here's the truth: fly fishing -- no matter how pretty Brad Pitt makes it look -- is about people pestering animals for their own pleasure. Harold F. Blaisdell said in The Philosophical Fisherman, "All the romance of trout fishing exists in the mind of the angler and is in no way shared by the fish."

Even though I know this fact and feel its weight every time I angle, I still can't go a day without thinking about fishing. I've taken up hobbies connected to angling so that I can think about fishing when I'm away from the river. I tie my own flies (my wife calls it "man crafts"). I furl my own leaders with a jig I constructed out of cheap pine and dowels. I fall asleep watching fish porn (the only thing naked are the fish). On YouTube, men in Montana clutch trout; their teeth grit as they heft fish for photos.

Most of the adages and folk knowledge about fishing must apply to spin anglers, because they aren't talking about the people I fish with. The idea that fishing is about patience is laughable. When working a river, if I don't catch a fish within five casts I move up to the next hole. The saying "That's why they call it fishing and not catching" seems off too. If I go fishless for over a half hour I get itchy.

The only stereotypes I've found that are true relate to anglers being secretive, superstitious and liars. I've taken oaths to keep secrets related to flies and fishing holes that make the Russian mafia look like the Girl Scouts. The same streams fish different from day to day, so anglers turn to superstitions to explain the changes. Anglers lie because the sport itself necessitates it.

If you were to chart catching a fish into a traditional story arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action), it would be all exposition and climax with no rising action or falling action. Even on those great days when you're not sure if it's late summer or early fall, when the riffles boil, when it seems like any well-placed cast produces a fish, anglers have to imagine what happens under the water because they can't see it. Anglers lie because even when it's done with other people, fishing is a solitary act. They have to patch over the holes in their own stories while they're happening. Fly anglers place the fly in the right current. They get the perfect drift. They see the fish turn and take. And, sometimes, it actually happens.

Once a stray mayfly (a staple of a trout's diet) bumped into my office window as I graded student essays. I watched as he forced his haloed wings to smash his body against my window over and over again. I tell my students to just write about something they love -- about something they can't not write about. I tell them that I'll read essays about video games, about music, about old MASH episodes, about pocket lint or My-Little-Pony collections.

I ask them what they look up on the internet when they have five minutes (and, sometimes, I regret that). But they won't pick topics they're actually interested in. They write about things that they think I'm interested in: Dickinson poems, politics, even fishing. Their essays fall flat. I go home after teaching, eat dinner with my wife, and put my daughter to bed. Then I pull out my fly bench and try to reconstruct that mayfly.