Fly Fishing and Spirituality

striper

I am finally “settled” in Maine and can get back to taking care of this blog. Just a few days here and I am refreshed and renewed. The sunset tonight was as spectacular as any in memory. The bay was absolutely flat so that it reflected the setting sun as a mirror would. But the real sense came this morning when I went out fishing for the first time this season. My son-in-law, Tim, came with me. A good thing because he knows the waters on his side of the peninsula that we both live on much better than I do. We left the dock in a pea soup fog that complicated finding the spot we wanted. I stuffed my usual skeptical view of technology as only the GPS allowed us to navigate along the narrow channel where we thought we might find some stripers. And we did.

In the past, I have had some push back from followers of the blog and readers of my books when I talk about fishing as a sort of spiritual exercise. I have found being out on the water produces a calming sense, even as I have to be very careful moving the boat around. The excitement of finding a few stripers, especially so early in the summer, disturbed the calm enough so that I put my boat on the bottom. Fortunately it is very muddy there and the tide was coming in, so all that happened was that I had a few extra minutes to talk to Tim. My sense that fly fishing could be likened to a spiritual experience in the sense of being conscious of a connectedness to the world around me was reinforced by a book I have been reading and am almost done.

Gill (a rabbi), one of the faithful readers of the blog, wrote me about a month ago with a suggestion that I read Fly-Fishing—the sacred art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice. Co-written by a Rabbi and an Episcopal priest, the book echoes many of the experiences I have. They speak almost exclusively about trout stream fishing; my experience is almost exclusively limited to saltwater fly fishing. I find their description of the solitude of a stream running through a woods very much like the stillness and feeling of peace I get while out on the open water. On a windy day, I hear sounds not unlike those of a running stream. While I am very unlikely to encounter an elk or deer on the water, today I saw a harbor seal surface near the boat and fish along with Tim and me. Later as I was coming back to my mooring, I passed a large bunch of American eiders and their very newly hatched chicks. I often hear them as I wake up in the morning passing close by my window.

My scene is certainly not the same as trout stream tucked away in a woods or mountainous area, but I do have exposure to the world of the sea everyday. On a given day, I see many varieties of gulls, a few Great Blue herons (my favorite sight when in flight), kingfishers, an occasional bald eagle, seals. One day a few years, a moose swam up to the marina across the road from our house. I have access to all this sitting on the side porch of our cottage, but it is not the same as the sense I get out of the water. I am often the only boat in sight. Saltwater fly fishing, unlike trout fishing is largely a game of patiently casting onto the unmoving ocean waters and hoping that a hungry fish is lurking below the surface. The stripers sometimes make their presence known by creating swirls on the surface, but even that is no guarantee that they are hungry for whatever the fly I am using is designed to mimic.

The “sacred art” book suggests that the practice of casting can be a “meditative practice.” I agree. There are times I am painfully conscious of the erratic casting I am doing, but other times I find myself into the flow and feel each cast as coming from my whole being. The whole purpose of fishing is to connect to a fish. I fully accept the criticism of those who argue that fishing is cruel and dominating. I take great pains to minimize whatever pain I may cause to the fish. Stripers usually take the fly in their cartilaginous lip from which my barbless flies can be extracted without causing injury. I am consciously grateful for the opportunity to be with a world I do not have for the 8-9 months I live in the city. And that consciousness is highest when I am out on the water. A few exceptions come when I sit and look at a gorgeous sunset over the bay, like the scene tonight. Our house is on the east side of a north-south peninsula so the sun sets over water, quite unusual for the East coast.

The book adds that connections go beyond those to the world out there, reaching to a community of like-minded fly fisher folk. Over the years I have gotten to know a whole community of men and women centered on fly fishing and all the context that surrounds it. Where to find the fish? What flies are working? Who has caught a big one? Tales of troubles with boats. All this writing today to try to sound authentic about my calling fishing a spiritual practice. Taking a line from Rabbi Eric and Reverend Mike (the authors), the solitude it affords, the feeling of connection, the joy of community add up to the same kinds of experience a more conventional spiritual context may produce. Bottom-line, I truly experience a sense of flourishing out on the water, that is absent during much of my living activities. Many times as I return to the mooring I am conscious of my commitment to bringing the same sense of wholeness and completion into our tired world.

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