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Why Fly-Fishing Is the Worst, and Best Outdoor Sport

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My 20s were, as they should be, well spent. Possibly overspent, as I devoted the adventurous decade to creating memories most folks accumulate over the course of a lifetime: skiing snow deeper than I am tall, on mountains as steep as elevator shafts, rafting Class V whitewater, mountain biking at speeds only intended for cars. This concentrated expenditure also created a lifetime’s worth of broken bones, surgeries, scars, bruises, and aches. Now in the shady side of my 30s (though armed with a handful of ibuprofen and a freezer full of ice packs), athletic outdoor endeavors are still a daily must. They just need to be less jarring. So, I’m taking up fly-fishing.

As an outdoorsy sport, it seems a little less risky, and lot less painful than my current pursuits. Last summer I began Phase One of my real-go effort, equipping myself with all sorts of Orvis gear: everything from a 9-foot, 5-weight Recon rod and Safe Passage pack loaded with angler widgets, to ultralight wading boots and the Clearwater Waders. Fancy outfitting made the point clear: I am investing in and pinning my entire life as an aging athlete to this sport.

There is one small, significant issue: I am aggressively godawful.

Fly-fishing is not meeting the meditative, transcendent, connected-to-the-natural-world moments I’d expected. Mostly, I say the F word as often as I breathe and barely stop myself from snapping my rod in half. Who the hell is going to want to hang out with some foulmouthed, belligerent grandpa?

Coordination can’t be the issue. Sports have always come pretty naturally: pick up the ball or the equipment, start doing, and basic competency soon follows. The first day I set out on the river, however, my arms felt backwards and on opposite sides of my body. I looked at my hands and thought, “Why…why aren’t you working?” If the techniques of fly-fishing mastery were written down, it’d create a phone book-thick manual. There is just so much going on, so many things you’re supposed to remember and do, and so much to unlearn, completely forget, and not do.

With other sports, there’s an obvious base to build on. Mountain bikes? I grew up riding bikes. I understand edge control because of hockey. There is also a muscle-memory cornucopia of technique from other sports that is actively making me more terrible at fly-fishing. The snapping of the wrist and high elbows that were drilled into me by lacrosse and baseball coaches makes me a clumsy-armed caster sloppier than a loose meat sammich.

So if you’re thinking, he can’t be that bad, you’re right. I am worse than whatever you’re imagining. Maybe early fishing experience might’ve helped. My sole reference was a Wisconsin dock outing with a Snoopy pole at age 7. It yielded no lasting skills or formative memories—aside from accidentally hooking a kids ear when casting, and, after somehow landing a fish, seeing it poop in my dad’s hand while he jimmied with the hook. (Now that I think of it, my father, all doodoo-handed, chucked that fish into Lake Michigan like it was a tomahawk—an incredible sight.)

Suffice to say, I was not hooked. But there isn’t any other real low-impact athletic option for my golden years in the mountains. I’m not going to take up the glorified yard game of golf, that’s for damn sure. I can barely afford fishing gear, let alone the desire plus bottomless bag of cash it takes to get anywhere near passable golfery, let alone proficient.. I also have no desire to fill my closet with the wardrobe of the links: shiny collared shirts and plaid slacks, referred to by my fish-chucking father, as asshole pants. So for endless frustration, fly-fishing it must be.

I kicked off last season with a day alongside friends in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. I looked up and down our stretch of the Frying Pan River as both my gal and my friends all exemplified the beauty and poetry of rhythmic casts amidst the river’s speckled reflection of the waning tangerine sun. They were on fish, but even if they never had a nibble, they were in tune with their rod and their surroundings. Meanwhile, I was shooting darts in the dark, the “fishing” like standing in a banquet hall darker than a moonless midnight, knowing that somewhere in empty abyss there might be a dart board. Utterly lost, I cast sloppily and tried to get my fly, which I couldn’t see, to land somewhere close to water.

And then I thought of my father. He’s not an angler, but he is a lifelong athlete. His exploits in the fathers-versus-sons Turkey Bowl football games of my youth are still legendary in our neighborhood, including a diving catch he made while wearing his signature red sweat pants. I think it made SportsCenter’s Top 10 in 1991. When I was a kid, returning his serve on the tennis court was like trying to stop a runaway tractor-trailer. But it didn’t look as fast or as powerful the last time we played doubles. I could tell that the surgeries on his C-spine, meniscus, the spinal fusion, and the ever-present aches and pains of 60-plus years of using your body as an athletic tool had accumulated. It was different, but that doesn’t mean it was bad.

My pop and I took on his friends, who, between the two of them, had at least seven knee braces and four pairs of Rec Specs. The match was admittedly slower, but I noticed something of my father’s game that made me smile: While he dialed down of power, he dialed up of smooth technique, most notably an incredible drop shot so aggravatingly sinister it’d make McEnroe head-butt a line judge. His skills had the duo across the net faked out of their jockeys. Good thing they had all those knee braces.

Fly-fishing is my drop shot: my quiet, humble athletic repose of finesse over power. My entire adult athletic life has been a series of using the clout of my larger-than-normal body to battering-ram my way past technique and into the experience. But there’s just no room for overpowering a fly. It’s soft and subtle, and a true fisher needs to be gentle to be any kind of catcher at all. Maybe that’s what I was wading around looking for—that sense of peace and calm where brute calamity lived for so long.

So I’ll trudge the fly-fishing path of sucking harder than an industrial strength vacuum, until that day when I can cast and drop the fly with precision, mend the line upstream as I bait a fish to rise, and let all of it just float down toward and past me at the river’s pace, at whatever speed the blue-green water deems.

Until then, I’ll be puffing out expletives. But hopefully, they’ll be strewn from behind a smile.

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