The only reason this essay exists is because I can’t seem to wrap my head around a piece that I was writing about the deserved pretentiousness of fly fishing. The internet is full of articles telling fly fisherman to be ambassadors for the sport, it is full of articles that tell fly fisherman to be kind and less egotistical, but there is nothing that makes the point that fly fishing is significantly harder than spin fishing, requires much more dedication, and deserves its ego in just the time investment alone. It’s a complex piece that attacks spin fishing and glorifies fly fishing by defending its pretentiousness and ego. However, no matter which direction I go in that essay, I continuously contradict myself, drive it in circles and find myself fearful of a community blackball by all the nice guys in fly fishing. So I put it on the shelf, where it’ll live until I am either more brave, cultured, or mature.
Now I am forced to write on a new subject, one brought to you by the very fear, contradiction, and repetition of the piece I can’t bring myself to write. I recently took a trip down to southwest Colorado to fish some new water in the middle of the winter. This trip came after listening to Into The Wild on audiobook the week prior. My feet were itching to be outside yet despite my history as a Marine, I don’t hold the stupidity and/or indifference towards nature to make some ridiculous, and deeply unprepared trip into the backcountry to escape society, so I settled on a very tame road trip revolved around fly fishing.
For those that have not read Into the Wild, let me give you a quick summary. A kid named Chris McCandless, burns his possessions after college, travels the western United States armed with books by Tolstoy, Jack London, and Thoreau, develops a deeply romantic view of life thanks to his impressionable nature and seems to “pretentiously” offer life advice to all the adults he comes across. Eventually, he decides he is going to live off the land in Alaska. He pieces together, quite literally, an awful plan, and walks into the Alaskan bush. 100 or so days later, he is dead. Shocking. But his death isn’t the spoiler alert, the spoiler alert is looking at this kid and seeing the super complex nature of humans, and falling in love with this kid’s bravery and willingness to live out his own dream and lifestyle even if it is ill advised at best. The spoiler is both loving his willingness to tackle adventure and hate his immaturity and inability to see past his very narrow view of how others should live.
After reading this book, I quickly spent the better part of the following week entrenched in the balance of adventure and planning. In preparedness vs resourcefulness. And as mentioned above I am uninterested in some grand alaskan adventure but I am deeply invested in making my fishing trips as valuable as possible. So I started to put together some lessons from Into The Wild to apply to your next trip.
Plan, but don’t plan much: Of course you should plan for a fly fishing trip. But keep it to clothes, gear, flies and letting people know where you’ll be. Otherwise, leave shelter, food, and route completely ambiguous. One of Chris’s more insightful quotes in the book is “The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure”. And I think there is a lot of truth in that, I think one of the things that keeps a trip enjoyable is the unknown. There are infinite places to eat and sleep, so really-don’t plan it. Let’s call this the “magic bus theory” you’ll find a place to rest your head, no need to google it. After one of my best fishing days we picked a roadside motel, and grilled chicken wings in the parking lot on a grill we bring on all of our road trips. We drank, and laughed our ass off in twenty degree weather. I’m not suggesting you eat wild berries in the woods and construct your own shelter, I am simply saying that void of a plan, you may have an experience that you really remember, an unexpected pleasant add on to your fishing trip.
Meet people and hear them: It seems a little unfair to say that Chris McCandless didn’t listen to the people he met. But the book seems to really portray him as this kid that loved to tell people how they SHOULD be living. It doesn’t seem to make note of a single circumstance where he came across a new contact and didn’t go out of his way to share his Tolstoy-esque regurgitated views of life. And while I have nothing against sharing your own views on living, (you might have noticed that I am doing that in this article/essay) I do believe it is a much more enjoyable endeavor to actually hear the person you meet on the river while fly fishing than to impose whatever beliefs you have, either on fishing or life. Let’s call this the “I don’t know shit theory”. A theory that if deployed more regularly by Chris, may have drastically changed the course of his adventure.
This happened to me when I met Dean. Dean and I shared a stretch of river and were both Euro Nymphing, so naturally we started shooting the shit, talking about flies and leaders, and general fishing conditions, eventually I found myself in a run next to Dean where I noticed fish aggressively feeding. I caught three or four fish and told Dean to hop in, he made a quick fly change and a depth change and on his second drift he caught a great rainbow that I was happy to net for him. I noticed his net, a wooden net that looked far from commercially produced and I complimented him on it. Dean then shared the story of the net with me. Dean won the net in a silent auction for a veterans nonprofit organization that focused on fly fishing, unbeknownst to him he was bidding against his best friend Duane. Duane died a month ago, Dean had intended on giving the net to Daune but obviously death, as it often does, ruined the opportunity of a good deed.
I didn’t tell Dean that I lost my best friend when I was 17, and I didn’t tell Dean that I remember exactly how fresh the wound is a month after a loss. I didn’t offer up any advice on how to deal with it, I didn’t pretend to understand his situation nor did I advise on next steps for his life. I didn’t say anything because I am wise, I just didn’t have the words.
Luckily for me this played out exactly as it should have, his very next cast he put another wonderful rainbow in Daune’s net and I walked away smiling. Several days later, I ran into Dean again on the river, we laughed and caught up for a few minutes and then he watched as I fought and landed the best wild fish on the trip. I like to think Daune had something to do with that. It was yet, another unexpected pleasant add on to my fishing trip.
Wild is a state of being: McCandless was very obviously and outwardly attempting to fill a void. If I was a betting man, it would have been the void that most young men feel of being a wild animal in an increasingly domesticated world. The same void sent me to war at 21, or convinces a 22 year old to buy a motorcycle. And I believe it’s this same void that sent Chris into nature in hopes of interacting with nature as animal would. Being wild, in the wild. I think fly fishing is one of the purest ways of engaging directly with nature. I view it as problem solving via senses. Being present, using your eyes, ears, rationale, and previous experiences to predict and control a desired outcome is, from my definition’s standpoint, as wild and as animalistic of an action one can participate in.
In regards to travel and adventure, I don’t think this starts and stops on the water. I think it starts from the removal of things that hinder your sense of wild. Like a cell phone, or a tv, or any other device that pumps you full of useless information that distracts your senses from the need to problem solve. When you are out to travel and fish, and your goal is exist in nature, I don’t see much value in sea-sawing back and forth between the overly domesticated world and the endless unpredictable wild world.
My advice on this is easy and clear- leave it behind. Travel to places removed from cell phone service, or turn the phone off. Stay away from a computer and tv. From the moment you step off on your trip, to the moment you return- stay as wild as you can. Meaning, use your senses, rationale, and previous experiences to problem solve for a desired outcome. Let’s call this the “Chris was definitely right about this theory”. Chris knew that the advancement of comfort and convenience was altering all of our relationship with nature, so he promptly removed those things from his life and relationship with the outdoors.
Now, these lessons wont fit for every trip and it certainly won’t fit for every angler, and that is totally ok. They’re simply lessons I took from a book I read and interpreted and applied to my own trip and will continue to apply to in the future. I am both a McCandless lover and hater. I, like him, have complex and often contradicting opinions on various subjects. I do hope you will indulge me and apply these lessons on your next trip. Be Well.
Check out Hunter’s previous article here: