If you have been fly fishing for a while then you have most likely discovered the deep and meaningful connection that fly fishing provides.
Fly fishing takes things to a new level when it comes to bonding with nature and reflecting upon one’s own self and one’s life, in my eyes at least, and I think most fly anglers would agree.
Going for a long walk along a river doesn’t do much for my soul or my energy but pausing, fly rod in hand, looking at the water, thinking about where the fish will lie, and looking hard for any hatches coming off the surface take me into a deeper world.
Then comes the meditative, repetitive process of casting, and working riffles, all whilst standing knee-deep in a river and having your mind quietened by the sound of nature around you. The world almost stops spinning and it becomes a spiritual journey.
Fly Fishing & Religion
Fly fishing and religion have long been thought of as being connected and the most obvious example of this is found in the writing of Norman McLean in his book A River Runs Through It.
The story of a Minister describing Jesus and his disciples as fly fishermen, and some of the disciples as dry fly fishermen, could not make fly fishing’s relationship to religion more clear, especially with quotes such as “there exists no clear line between fishing and religion”.
The Bible even backs up Norman McLean’s thoughts on the topic, to a point, in Mark 1:17. 17 “And Jesus said to them,” “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” So the long-term connection between fishing and religion is quite undeniable.
The book, The Complete Angler: Or The Contemplative Man’s Recreation by Sir Izaak Walton was first printed in 1653 and since, is the third most printed book in the English language, ever, behind the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress.
While this doesn’t correlate with a direct link between religion and fly fishing, it certainly speaks volumes about the sport’s popularity. If you have read the book, you will know that it also talks of a deep connection to nature, conversations, and bonds forged through shared experience.
But, how can spending time on a lake or river casting a fly rod to be compared to religion and attending church? Let’s take a look at what the scholars think.
How Is Fly Fishing A Religious Practice?
The words we fly anglers use to describe fly fishing have long been associated with religion and religious practices. We use words such as sacred to describe our hobby/addiction or to describe the environment we practice fly fishing in.
Mediation is a word I often use to describe my connection to fly fishing and how spiritual the practice is plus how the ritual provides a deep sense of peace in my life. Doesn’t this sound like going to church? Some anglers even describe going fishing as going to their Sunday sermon.
Religious scholars such as Robert Orsi and David Chidester started to use a new lens to view religious practices and these include lenses like “manifestations of religion” in day-to-day life.
Another scholar, Rebecca Gould, describes the lenses as “lived religion” and “nature religion” all of which sound quite fly fishy in my eyes.
Robert Orsi put it best when describing religion as a “meaning-making activity” and we can not deny that fly fishing is just that.
Conversions Through Fly Fishing
Conversion, just think about that word for a second. When and where do you hear “conversion” in life and what does it refer to? Usually, it is found in religion, but you’ll hear it in fly fishing too.
Conversion to faith by a non-believer who accepts God into their hearts.
A conversion from a non-angler to a fly angler, or even a conventional angler to a fly angler.
Some of you might be asking how conversion can take place through fly fishing, but fly anglers reading this will likely be able to tell you a story of one or multiple conversions they have experienced while casting a fly rod.
A “fly fishing conversion” takes place when all pieces of the puzzle align on the water, usually in a joyous moment when you have connected so deeply with nature that you connect with a fish at the end of your line.
Fly fishing forces you to have to understand and connect with the cycles of life and how they are all systemically dependent on one another.
From how bugs hatch to how fish behave, why they behave that way, exactly what about the river makes them hungry and happy, to how does the weather make them go deep and stop feeding.
This deeper requirement of knowledge to be successful when fly fishing creates a deeper connection to nature, and in turn can be compared to or even create a deeper connection to God. Jeff Franchell, a fly angler from New Mexico, said in an interview;
“I saw the cycles of life. Looking at insects and becoming an amateur entomologist, looking at life cycles. I felt so close to God. You cannot fly fish and not believe in a higher power, I truly believe that. You would be a fool to think that this was some random act of events that makes all that process take place. To see a mayfly as a nymph, turn into a fly, mate and die to feed trout. That trout can take advantage of this wonder, and acts of God. That is about where I get it.”
Jeff Franchell clearly went through a conversion here where fly fishing connected him more deeply to God, and one could even speculate that fly fishing brought religion into his life through understanding nature so deeply.
He also mentioned earlier in the interview that learning fly fishing caused him to sell all his spinning gear and switch to solely fly fishing. This is the power this sport can have on people and hence why fly fishing isn’t just any religion, it is the high church of fishing.
Water Connects Everything
A lot of what we have talked about so far in regards to the connection between fly fishing and religion is the act of fly fishing and its effect on the mind and body. But, there is one physical aspect that joins it all together, water.
Water, through baptism and other ceremonial journeys, is a large part of religion. Christians go on pilgrimages to bathe in holy springs, Hindus go on pilgrimages to bathe in the holy water of the Ganges, and fly fishermen do the same to go and catch a fish, but there is more to it than that.
Water provides a medium for purification and connection to the divine in religion and wading into a river to go fly fishing, can be seen as a self form of baptism that does the same, and feels the same.
A fly angler having spent hours wading up a river, deeply focussed on their surroundings, absorbing the sounds of the current, and merging their body into one with the river will have a deep feeling of purification.
We fly anglers have all experienced this, haven’t we? We seek it out, and in my case, in hard times even more so than others.
After a breakup, or a troubling time of life, a yearning to stand in a river all day comes over me, and doing so provides immensely clarity to how life slots together, and it is being in the water that does it, more than the act of fly fishing, for me.
The celebration of rivers, streams and lakes by fly anglers is incredibly similar to the celebration of water across religions.
It Is Not About Catching Fish, There Is More To It
John Gierach, a famous fly fishing author, often states in his fishing books “ that for many anglers, it is not the gear, the river, nor the size of the trout that matter, but rather, it is the opportunities to commune with nature in solitude that constitute the bedrock for the religious and spiritual perceptions that can come with fly fishing.”
All fly anglers feel the need to go fishing. It is not logical or scheduled like regular exercise, it comes from a deep place inside us, a yearning that must be fulfilled or if not, we risk not having the replenishing experience that keeps us balanced in life.
Herbert Hoover said “next to prayer, fishing is the most personal relationship of man,” “to wash one’s soul with pure air, with the rush of a brook, or with the shimmer of the sun on the blue water,” “fishing is not so much getting fish as it is a state of mind and a lure for the human soul into refreshment.”
Both Hoover and Gierach are speaking of, what I would describe, as the holistic feeling and experience that going fly fishing brings into one’s life. An interview with Gus Gustafson, a fly angler from New Mexico, couldn’t describe this holistic experience any better.
“Fly fishing re-creates the soul. Fly fishing provides a release of stress and things. It’s spiritual: it is a lot of different things. When I am fly fishing it is not about fish, it is about where I am and what I am doing. It allows me to step outside myself. That is refreshing!”
I think we can all agree that fly fishing gives us the chance to look back on ourselves and deeply reflect upon our lives. The meditative practise of casting and mind-silencing sounds of nature provides the ultimate environment for this to happen.
I personally feel, though, that the re-creation of the soul comes from the sounds and feelings of my connection to nature, and it is through casting that I gain access to it. I am sure all fly anglers have felt this but some might find it comes from other parts of the experience, as it would during a religious experience also.
Feelings and Experiences Create Sacred Spaces and Conservation
The holistic, refreshing feeling of one’s soul being recreated through the act of fly fishing is no meager experience that goes unnoticed. It is overly obvious, deeply felt, and so much so that it creates a lifelong need and addiction to go fly fishing.
Such feelings create sacred spaces in the hearts of fly anglers and these spaces are where they spend their time fishing, and they must be protected.
Even when I see a dog jump into a river when I am fishing, which actually causes no harm to the river, I feel like something has broken and the need to advise the dog’s owner to put it on a lead comes rushing through me. I don’t act on this, but it goes to show a fly angler’s protective nature.
A fly angler’s local stream on which they have fished for years regularly will most likely be their most sacred of spaces and to watch such a space be slowly destroyed, as many of us have through environmental degradation, is heartbreaking, and this leads to conservation through accepted behaviors, akin to a doctrine in religious behaviors.
I can almost guarantee that every fly angler on the planet approaches their time on the water with the utmost respect and care for the sacred space they are fishing in. Like a monk’s behavior in a monastery.
There are thousands of conservation groups that are formed by groups of fly anglers across the globe and the most notable of which is Trout Unlimited.
Trout Unlimited has over 150,000 members and together they have protected and restored watersheds and lots more it is through their great network of devotees that they have been so successful.
The connection and similarities between fly fishing and religion need to be experienced to be understood, after which they will sit in plain sight, even if you are an atheist. The feeling is somewhat other worldly and is the form of “lived religion” that religious scholars refer to.
There are millions of fly anglers out there who have all experienced the amazing things that fly fishing provides, but they are not alone.
Other sports, such as surfing, also provide a refreshing, cleansing, and meditative experience in people’s lives and this only goes to show how such a deep connection to nature’s rhythms can be an immensely powerful benefit to our lives.