Everything I thought I knew about fly-fishing was quickly cast aside the first time I held a rod in my hand. I’m at the edge of a pond stocked with bass, casting my line, thinking it should be easy. Of course, it’s not. On my first cast, the line doesn’t go out far enough. Apparently I’m using my whole arm, when I should just be using my wrist. The line gets tangled.
Barbara Luneau, a Colorado-based angler with decades of experience, is my guide for this adventure. She demonstrates a roll cast, making it look effortless, a mere flick of the wrist that unspools the line so that it drops into the pond, barely making a ripple as it alights the water.
I keep trying, which is part of the problem. The more I try, the shorter I cast. Once in a while the right movement comes—the line extends then sinks slowly to the water. But then, humbly, I throw a line and it plunks onto the river.
As I cast, time and again, I take in the world around me—watching for fish, for the sun, tracking bugs, peering into the water’s ripples. I’m paying attention to the environment, not just through observation, but through participation. This is the draw of fly-fishing. It’s less about catching and eating fish, and more about fostering patience and curiosity, deepening your connection to the Earth’s natural rhythms, and settling into the understanding that you are part of something much larger than yourself.
“You become present to any changes in the environment around you,” Luneau tells me. “You’re like, oh my God, look at this view. These wildflowers are absolutely beautiful. I wouldn’t have seen this if I hadn’t come here today. Or you see a moose and a baby by the side of the river. There’s just so many things that you get to experience when you go out.”
Many experienced fly-fishers liken the sport to yoga or meditation because of the calm the activity requires; it functions as a quiet, sustained getaway from life’s most pressing stressors. Moreover, fly-fishing goes hand-in-hand with environmental stewardship; the two have become inextricably linked. And to this yogi, the connection between the yamas—the first five ethical principles of yoga—and fly-fishing was as clear as water.
See also: 10 Ways to Bring the Yamas and Niyamas Into Your Practice
How does one fly-fish, exactly?
While anyone can try fly-fishing, to do it well takes practice—and lots of it. Very broadly speaking, fly-fishing anglers cast a thick line into water with a long rod. At the end of this line (which has different “weights” for different sized fish) is a “leader” of seven to nine feet. The leader is a thin and delicate thread, and difficult for the fish to see. At the end of the leader is the “fly,” a piece of bait, hand-tied to a hook with threads, feathers, and other materials. To the fish swimming below, the baits look like actual flies floating on or near the surface of the water.
Over the years, fishing “flies” have evolved to include not just dry flies that rest on the surface of the water, but nymphs, emergers, and streamers that are subsurface and mid-surface. Each have a place in your tackle box, but knowing when to use them is a key component to an angler’s success.
Fly-fishing entails skilled casting, knot-tying, and fly-making, of course, but careful observation of the riparian environment is perhaps the most important skill anglers develop. As Harry Desmond, owner of Berkshire Rivers Fly Fishing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts told me: To be an expert fly-fisher, you need to know what’s happening with the sun, the moon cycles, bug life—everything about the environment.
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The connection between yoga and fly-fishing
Fly-fishing goes well beyond choosing the right fly or learning how to effectively cast your line. Like yoga, it can become a way of life. The very first line of what’s considered the fly-fishing bible, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, articulates what’s true for many avid devotees of the sport: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
In my brief immersion in the fly-fishing subculture, I was struck by the integrity of the sport. In my mind, it checked off all the yamas:
Desmond speaks of the “mutual respect” he feels toward the fish for what they went through together. He teaches his clients about how to handle the fish with care, for example, ensuring that you always use wet hands and keep the animals wet after they’ve been caught. There’s even an organization called Keep Fish Wet, which promotes the best practices to catch, handle, and release fish to ensure their survival.
While this might be a stretch, I saw satya, or truthfulness, in the ways anglers articulated their relationship to their environment—and to the rivers in particular. Luneau, who’s an active member of Trout Unlimited (TU), an organization founded in 1959 “to ensure that wild and native trout populations were allowed to thrive, as nature intended,” points out the importance of rivers in American history. “Now so many people don’t know where their water comes from. They’re not connected to their home waters,” she says. “Our rivers are essential, and it seems like anything that becomes important to you, becomes important because of a personal connection, right? I love the idea that everyone has a home water.”
Many people involved in the sport abide diligently by the principles of catch and release—which aligns with asteya. “What’s interesting about most fly anglers is that almost none of them keep fish,” says Desmond. “Over 50 years of me doing this, I’ve never kept one fish in my life.”
Brahmacharya (Right use of energy)
Each of the anglers I spoke with mentioned the zone of pure presence that arises in the act of fishing. “It’s a sacred space out on the water, like the mat,” says Abbie Schuster, a yoga instructor and owner and guide for Martha’s Vineyard-based Kismet Outfitters. “You quiet the world because you are so concentrated, focused on the cast, scanning the water.”
Another common theme I heard from anglers is the desire to protect our rivers for future generations. There’s attachment in play, but it’s not in service of personal, immediate gratification—it’s for the whole. As Schuster says: “Once someone gets out on the water, they can’t not want to protect it. It’s such a powerful experience, being one with the ocean and the tides and the fish.”
See also: Get to Know the 8 Limbs of Yoga
The future of fly-fishing
Of the sport’s roughly 7 million U.S. participants, men still account for roughly 70 percent of fly-fishing anglers and more than 70 percent of participants are white. But these demographics are slowly shifting. In recent years, fly-fishing has managed to somewhat shake off its staid image and resonate with a younger, more diverse audience.
More women, in particular, have been finding themselves on the side of a river, fly rod in hand—just like I did. In fact, Luneau says women may be better suited to fly-fishing. “With their fine motor skills, reservoirs of patience, and appreciation for the humility that is the locus of the sport—the understanding that you are part of something that’s much larger than our own personal self—women take to it very naturally,” says Luneau.
Ultimately, I learned that fly-fishing is not about what you catch, but what parts of yourself you can leave behind. That may be different for each person, but the process of self-emptying is a hallmark of the pastime. As Maclean writes in A River Runs Through It: “A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.” What the river said to Maclean during his eight decades of life holds true for the many: “Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
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