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February 2016 Issue
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Learning to fly

Routeburn Fishing. Photo: Christian Martin

Mark Banham wades into the world of fly fishing. No fish were harmed in the making of this story

I’ve always looked at fly fishermen with the sort of scepticism normally reserved for members of weird religious cults. The poor fools. Someone must have caught them at a moment of weakness and before they realised what was happening, the too-good-to-be-true story had taken root in their minds. Now they’re condemned to give away all their money and wander through the wilderness chanting, “Just a little further… just a little further… they’ll be biting just a little further upstream”.

I was comfortable with that outlook on the world of fishing until recently, in my own moment of weakness, with an injured Achilles tendon curtailing my usual summer activities, I signed up for the local angling club’s fly fishing course.

My baptism into the world of fly fishing was a bit of a blur; one moment I was in a classroom with men speaking strange incarnations and next thing I knew, I was being dunked in a river and told I was now one of them.

Despite my best attempts at journalistic accuracy, as I write this, fact, myth and romance have blurred together in my mind. I’ll put it down in writing here and leave it up to you to separate the truth from the delusions of a newfound zealot.

The lord cometh

As much as this was supposed to be a beginners’ course, much of the audience on the first night seemed to be experienced anglers there to reaffirm their faith.

These people had their own dress and rituals, and seemed more concerned with the lifecycles of the local insect population than their jobs, families or personal wellbeing. I tried my best to blend in, but that wasn’t easy, being the only guy in fluorescent orange activewear in a room full of khaki-clad hunter-gatherer types.

The conversation fell silent when our instructor entered the room. I’ll maintain his anonymity to protect the guilty (i.e. me) from a libel lawsuit. Let’s just call him The Lord of the Flies.

Lord had the sort of presence you might expect from a military drill sergeant; tall and stoic with salt-and-pepper stubble and a faraway gaze that hinted at still waters running deep. When he spoke, it was with a staccato delivery, launching fast salvos of information followed by long pauses to reload. The fact he was dressed in head-to-toe camouflage, despite being in the middle of town, completed the persona perfectly.

When he suggested we headed out onto the nearby school oval to learn how to cast, I had to bite my tongue not to reply, “SIR! YES SIR!”

Convincing casting

Fly fishing can be quite blokey. For some reason, few girls see the appeal in standing waist deep in freezing water being bitten by sandflies. But don’t think for a moment that means it’s devoid of grace.

A good fly cast is a beautiful thing to watch. It’s where form and function intersect in a movement of pure elegance. After a hundred thousand repetitions, any extraneous movements have fallen away from the fisherman’s cast, their hand hardly moves, just enough to pick the fly line off the water, trailing a delicate mist behind it as it breaks the surface tension.

The hook whistles past the unflinching angler, hanging behind him momentarily as though defying gravity until the sweep of the rod accelerates it forward again, forming a perfect S-shaped line and depositing the fly in front of the fish so delicately as to appear like an insect, recently deceased of entirely natural causes.

I quickly realised it’s not something one can learn in an evening. My first casts – made on the grass with only a piece of orange wool at the end of the line – were clumsy affairs with woollen ‘fly’ landing in a heap of tangled line about three metres away from its target.

After half an hour and some coaching from Lord, my arm was exhausted, but the line travelled further, straighter and closer to the target. It wasn’t pretty, but it was definitely a fly cast.

As Lord points out, when there’s a trout at the other end, it doesn’t need to impress your fishing buddies – it just has to convince the fish.

 Lies and flies and other paradoxes

When you strip away the romance, fly fishing is really just the deception, torture, capture and occasional consumption of innocent creatures – but paradoxically fly fishermen are deeply ethical and vigorously protective of river environments.

In his lessons, Lord went into great detail on the use of knotless nets to avoid harming the fish and the procedure for removing hooks and releasing, including holding your breath while the fish is out of the water – “when you need to breathe, so does the trout”.

This ‘fish husbandry’ probably comes from the simple fact that taking good care of trout in catch-and-release streams means there’ll be more trout to catch next time. But from his tone of voice, you could see that so many years in the trout’s world had left him with a genuine affection for them. It’s a trait that seems to be shared by most hard-core fly fishermen.

That affection extends beyond the fish themselves and into matters like water quality, insect habitats and streamside vegetation. In an age where environmentalists tend to myopically focus on just the cute and cuddly endangered species, it’s refreshing to know someone is looking out for the caddisfly larvae.

Getting into the flow

For the final lesson, tactics and playing the fish, Lord took us through the strategies to capture our quarry once it’s taken the lure. He spoke of the klaxon call of the reel as the fish runs, fighting the urge to pull back too soon and yank the fly out of the fish’s mouth, the struggle to prevent the prize from running into its ‘bolt hole’, and the relief as the loaded net is raised.

As he spoke, something interesting happened. The stern demeanour he’d had for the rest of the course vanished, replaced by a state of bliss at the mere memory of his last hook up.

It was at that point I got it. I finally understood why these guys head out into the cold and the bugs, learn the knots and deal with the frustration to catch ten dollars’ worth of fish… and then let it go. It’s the flow.

Psychologists talk about ‘flow’ as a state where someone is using a high degree of skill on a challenging task and the world seems to fall away. Time flies, worries vanish and a state of euphoria sets in. It’s usually associated with jazz musicians and yoga fanatics. But hearing Lord talk you could tell: the fly hooks the fish, the flow hooks the fisherman.

Henry David Thoreau got it dead right when he said, ‘Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.’