A Chance to Wash One’s Soul

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

Author Izaak Walton called fly fishing ‘the contemplative man’s recreation’. And Walton was right. While a decent cigar can be smoked to last for forty-five minutes or so, one can fly fish for hours and then days. Cogitation is unavoidable. Being at one with nature, hearing and feeling the river water, gauging the changeable parameters – the flux – of that day’s conditions is uplifting. Far more relaxing than watching the test at Lord’s and, these days as an Englishman, far better for one’s stress levels.

To the outsider few things appear quite so ridiculous. We no doubt seem like eccentric men (invariably we are fishermen) in silly clobber often standing in the river and casting then recasting our line like children launching kites. Yet to the fly-fisher the riverbank is a cathedral – its larvae act as useful and guiding inscriptions as if etched on stained glass windows shape-shifting in the light of seasons, its rocks and vantage points jut out like pulpits and altars from where leaps of faith are made. Fly fishing may as well be a religion. The river is the Holy Spirit – pure, omnipotent and sometimes kind. The fish are its Truth. Men cast their lines as others offer holy petitions – on a wing and a prayer. Fly fishing is high church fishing – the rest, dare I say, considered somewhat coarse.

Often there are days when the fly-fisher returns home empty-handed, but he’s had a ‘wonderful day fishing’ and only he knows why. The parameters to cricket may be plentiful – the parameters to fly-fishing are endless and require multiple lifetimes to absorb and master. I have been fly fishing for a while now and I still take John Goddard’s Waterside Guide: An Angler’s Pocket Reference to the Insects of Rivers and Lakes with me in my tackle bag.

To the uninitiated, the key difference between fly fishing and spin or bait fishing is that in fly fishing the weight of the line carries the hook through the air, whereas in spin and bait fishing the weight of the lure or sinker at the end of the line gives casting distance. But there are other key variations – the larvae tell their changing story, the river can be fruitful in one spot at one time of year and then be barren at another, while there are certain flies for certain times of day at some beats. The permutations are infinite – therein lies the sport’s spellbinding attraction. The fly-fisher’s addiction is part collector and part philosopher – the fish occasionally make an appearance and render the fly-fisher back to mere angler.

And what is the fly, I hear you ask?

Artificial flies are an imitation of aquatic insects that are natural food of the target fish species the fly fishers try to catch. Artificial flies are formed by fly tying, in which furs, feathers, thread or any of very many other materials are tied onto a fish hook. I have an Irish friend who has had much success with bits of strawberry chew attached to one particular fly. However, for the more orthodox, flies fall into roughly five categories: dry flies, wet flies, streamers, poppers, and saltwater flies. After centuries of artificial fly-making, there are so many flies that a list is without end and thus pointless. I made the mistake of inheriting a collection from a fly-fisherman with far more years and experience than me, and I have no idea what half the flies are purposed for.

Fly fishing is hardly a new recreation. Many credit the first recorded use of an artificial fly to the Roman Claudius Aelianus near the end of the 2nd century who described the practice of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River casting flies. However fly-fishing as a documented sport did not emerge until the fifteenth or sixteenth century in England. The earliest English poetical treatise on Angling by John Dennys, said to have been a fishing companion of Shakespeare, was published in 1613, The Secrets of Angling. In it lies the first mention of the phrase to ‘cast a fly’:

“The trout gives the most gentlemanly and readiest sport of all, if you fish with an artificial fly, a line twice your rod’s length of three hairs’ thickness… and if you have learnt the cast of the fly.”

And of course the British brought fly fishing to all corners of the globe. North Americans fly fish for trout, salmon, steelhead and bass but they tend to be more into the numbers game than us Brits who enjoy the sport for what it is rather than as a means of production. The Brits fly fish traditionally for trout and salmon too. In India, the British fished for the Himalayan golden mahseer with fly-rods and fly-spoons in the time of the Raj and today India’s fly-fishing locations are numerous, dotted around the mountainous regions – most of the cold-water streams and rivers in the Indian Himalayas have wild brown trout. One has to journey to the borders of India and Nepal for golden mahseer fly fishing – the mahseer fish is a type of carp that lives in the glacial rivers of the Himalayas.

If you have never been, try and go fly fishing. There are plenty of lessons available in the UK. For lessons in India the myriad spring-fed, glacial rivers and lakes of Himalayan region are where to head.

The American President Herbert Hoover best described the allure of fishing and his words I think chime well for the high art of fly fishing, which is very unpretentious and welcomes beginner’s luck if you try:

‘To go fishing is the chance to wash one’s soul with pure air, with the rush of the brook, or with the shimmer of sun on blue water. It brings meekness and inspiration from the decency of nature, charity toward tackle-makers, patience toward fish, a mockery of profits and egos, a quieting of hate, a rejoicing that you do not have to decide a darned thing until next week. And it is discipline in the equality of men – for all men are equal before fish’

Lucky fishing, my Indian friends. And remember – happiness is a big fish, and a witness!

Dominic Wightman is a British businessman and political adviser. He is the Editor of Britain’s popular Country Squire Magazine which launched this Indian edition last year.