When I was in seventh grade, I picked up a book laying in the corner of a classroom called A River Runs Through It. The first paragraph was short and about a boy growing up with religion and fly fishing, and how in his family there was little distinction between the two.
The sentences were simple and elegant, and something about them struck me in a way that is rare for an adolescent. I put the book down, bought a fly rod and learned how to fly fish before reading the rest of it.
Several years ago, I was in Iceland talking to another American. He was from Montana, where the book is set – and after I discovered that he, too, fly fished, I brought up the novel. I told him the story of that first paragraph and how it alone made me pick up the rod.
He listened patiently and then agreed that the first paragraph is indeed great.
“But I like the last paragraph the best,” he said. “How does it go?” He paused for dramatic effect and then said, “Oh yeah …” and took off his shirt.
He had the last paragraph tattooed across his chest.
No one else in my family fly fished – but Jack, a friend of the family, was an enthusiast. He took me on the local rivers and taught me to keep the top of the pole between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, watching the shape of the line.
There were plenty of tangles at first, but after a half-an-hour – although it was not pretty – I was able to perform something akin to fishing. By the end of the day, I had even caught several trout, of which I was fairly proud. I slipped them into a plastic bag to take home and met up with Jack, who didn’t have any. I had seen him catch plenty of fish, but didn’t mention it on the way home.
Sometimes Jack brought me to Trout Unlimited’s annual picnic. It was mostly college lecturers, small-business owners and other men who had found ease in their middle age. They talked about fishing trips they were going to take and the flies they learned to tie.
They commented on the year’s water levels. The president of the club denounced the local assemblywoman, who didn’t support putting a deposit on bottled water, and lamented the destruction of the streams because of it.
Suddenly the crowd grew quiet. The picnic was held next to a trout stream, and a kid emerged from the bank holding a large rainbow trout. He was obviously proud of it and looking forward to showing it off to those at home.
I thought the picnickers were silenced by awe – until I saw a few of them shaking their heads and guffawing. “I don’t like to see that,” one of them said, staring the kid down. “Not leaving the fish for others. I don’t like to see that.”
Sometimes I brought my father and grandfather to the spots where I fished, and the three of us would spend the last parts of the day on the river. The unfortunate part of fishing, as my father himself would say, is that fish eat at the same time as cows – when the sun first comes up and when it has just gone down – but it was easy to convince him to make arrangements so we could still be on the water at dusk, when the trout would hit the best.
My father and grandfather used bait and rods, like common people, I jested, but they didn’t mind sitting on the bank and talking while I moved up and down the river, casting and recasting into runs.
I was the only one who caught anything, but when I returned to my father and grandfather, I was empty-handed. “Where’s the fish?” my grandfather asked with alarm. He had grown up in post-war Germany where food was scarce, and since then took little for granted.
In his 70s, he raised rabbits, which he enjoyed as pets but still ate them because he ultimately believed that to be the function of a rabbit. He worked 47 years in a factory and was the closest thing to an honest woodsman as existed.
The truth was, I was feeling too lazy to clean the trout when I got home, so I released them back into the stream. Such a thing as taking the time to go fishing but not taking home the fish was not in line with my grandfather’s doctrine. “Geez,” he said, nearly flabbergasted, “I think you could have kept the trout.”
The thing about fly fishing I regret is that, to some extent, it has been claimed by the rural yuppies. There are many who buy expensive rods because they can afford it and wear their enthusiasm on their sleeves (or across their chests).
They talk about the virtues of fly fishing and call it an art. They’re eager to be known as good fishermen but hand out the title themselves sparingly.
Still, there’s another type of person on the river. There are those who are there because they enjoy it and use whatever equipment they have and are willing to admit that there are probably only a few kind of flies you’ll need for any given river.
Instead of handing fly fishing over to the middle class without a fight, I’d rather say it’s not the act itself that means anything, but the way one approaches it. I don’t buy a license anymore and enjoy telling it to people who are upset by that.
I purchase my flies online. I keep the fish, even if they’re a little small. I don’t fish on catch-and-release sections of the river, and if I do, I keep those fish too. And if someone asks why, I’ll tell them: I do it for the purity of the sport.
Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.