First Lesson

Without question, the most popular sport in the United States, in terms of participation, is fishing. However, I am uncertain as to whether all fishing can provide the Zen experience I described in my previous submission. I do not mean to exclude specifically subsistence or commercial fishing here, as I strongly suspect the Zen experience is quite possible in those conditions. Rather, it is two hundred  horsepower bass boats or overcrowded public piers or the competitive fishing tournaments that do not seem conducive to a quieted mind. Fly-fishing, on the other hand, is the sport of the gentler gentleman; its foundational properties of balance, rhythm, and mental focus are certainly the components of a Zen experience. I was lucky to discover this by accident.

Some years ago while rummaging for treasures and antiquities in the attic of my parent’s home, I uncovered a small collection of split-cane bamboo fly-rods. For the uninitiated, a cane fly-rod is to fishing what a Stradivarius is to a Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Though I was mostly unfamiliar with the sport, it was the possible value that sent me to a local fly-fishing shop.

I traveled a short distance to a shop that I had always noticed for the classic Land Rovers and International Scouts commonly parked out front with large fly-rod tubes strapped to roof-racks. Inside, the place seemed as much museum as retail with low light, priceless displays of artifacts, and hushed atmosphere. Everything was of a sort of dignified masculine beauty–dark oiled woods, polished silver, and delicately tarnished brasses. On the walls hung mounted fish, retired wicker creels, and black and-white photos of victorious day’s catches. Quite literally there was a pot-belly stove surrounded by wooden chairs filled with old men telling old stories of fish that may have existed. As I entered one of the men stood and moved to the glass counter. It contained displays of tackle that did not just seem to be, but were in fact true pieces of art, crafted by the hands of caring masters and conscientious artisans. Before I said a word to him, he furrowed his brow to drop automatically his glasses from his forehead to his eyes. He squinted towards the fly-rods that I had bundled in my under my arms. I handed them over and told him of how I found them and wondered about them.

“Are they valuable?”  I asked the man with Roadshow anticipation.

“Somewhat,” he replied without expression. I should have guessed that the proprietor of a shop like this would be a cool customer towards an obvious greenhorn like me. He knew what I wanted to know, but he was going to force me to ask specifically about money, and so I did.

“Do you think much? One hundred dollars, maybe?”  I offered.

“Hard to say,” he replied again coolly. His stoicism was unnerving. Was I so much an outsider to these salty dogs that he could not share or do business with me? Maybe I had walked into a club in which I was not a member—and he was trying to make it clear. Though, here I was, with something admittedly valuable and something that I was clearly trying to sell. Why would he not make a clear offer—even something that would begin our haggling?

“Too valuable to use for fishing?” I then asked, abandoning any hope of quantification.

“Not at all.” He said, finally with expression. “You could do quite well with these.”

His sudden warmth and interest inspired me and I began inspecting the rods a little more closely, “What do you suspect I would need to get started then–to use them for fishing?”

The man finally animated himself and ducked behind the counter to gather things. He popped up with full hands and placed on the counter two small spools, a box of flies, and a few extra odds and ends. “Besides this, you just need to get a reel and you are set to go.”

“What do you suggest?” I asked while continuing to look at the rods that were, at that moment, becoming less the windfall I had anticipated and more of the money-pit I feared. “It seems like an antique reel would go best with these old rods,” and before I could swallow my words I looked around at the price tags on the displays that, in clear and bold handwriting, showed numbers that were for gentleman of means beyond my own.

One of the wood-stove old-timers stood and reached into his pocket and pulled out a reel that looked old, a little worn, and perfectly suited for what I had. It was classy but not pretty—unadorned and all business.  Its patina expressed the many fish it had caught, and the many more it wished to catch.  “It’s an old Pflueger,” he said, “fits those old cane rods you have.”

I suspected that these guys waited for greenhorns like me to blunder in and unwittingly pay top dollar for their tackle. He probably had me pegged when I walked through the door. All of them are in on it, I thought. We’ve got just the thing for him–they must be thinking. I might as well ask … “How much would you like for this?” I cringed, wondering — one hundred, two hundred, more?

“Fifteen bucks, I guess. You think you can do that?  It’s got a little boat rash, but works just the same.”

I set down the rods and  picked up the reel, looking closely at it, “Sure I can. How much for the rest of this stuff?”

The man behind the counter mumbled numbers and shuffled through the stuff on the counter and explained this was out-of-date and that was something on clearance and then offered it all for thirty.  This I accepted gladly.

I gathered up the new accoutrements that were now evidence that I was indeed a fly fisherman. I stood a little more at-ease.  I now held the fly-rods with conviction — by the handle and occasionally shaking them to inspect their flexibility. I even held one up the light to peer down the eyelets to inspect it for flaws.

One of the still seated men asked me as I began to turn towards the door, “Where do you plan to use that stuff?”

“X* Creek.  I think there is a fair number of trout in that stream,” I said with a casually authoritative tone.

The man behind the counter broke in immediately, and with a tone of concern, “There are no fish in that creek.”

“Sure there are,” I said in stunned protest.  Why, I should know,  “I’ve fished that creek since I was a kid.” I may not have known much about this tackle, but I knew damned well that that creek had trout in it.

“There are no fish in that creek,” he repeated with increased emphasis and volume.

When my facial expression did not register understanding they, the man at the stove chuckled and winked and I understood that I had just received my first lesson in fly fishing.

*Please note that the name of this creek has been withheld in deference to the master fisherman whom I met in the shop.

* * * * *

For further reading on a gentleman finding his Zen in commercial fishing, I recommend: Hemingway, Ernest (1937) To Have and To Have Not, Scribner Classics

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Fishing « Modern Gentleman - August 19, 2011
  2. Fishing with Flies « Modern Gentleman - August 26, 2011

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