You might suppose that fly-fishing is about catching fish. But that’s not really the goal; if it were, we’d all be out on the river tossing in sticks of dynamite, which would be a lot more effective and probably less expensive. But no, the real aim of fly-fishing is catching fish in the right way, and the right way is less a matter of athletics than of aesthetics. The right fly at the right moment with the right cast is a thing of beauty. Who needs a fish?
The aesthetic of fly-fishing hasn’t been captured very well in all the vast angling literature. A few years ago Judith Dunham published a wonderful little book, The Art of the Trout Fly, in which the creations of the world’s top fly-tiers were displayed in evocative and sometimes startling settings. But, for all her talent, Miss Dunham seems to have lacked ambition; while her book is four-color throughout, it is on the small side, and my copy is in paperback, no less.
No such small-minded limitations were placed on Charles Jardine and his colleagues with the creation of The Classic Guide. This book was not so much written as produced. Mr. Jardine is the angling correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, and one suspects his authorship was enlisted principally to lend authority, since there is very little in the prose that is either original or particularly enlightening. The real inspiration behind this book is its designer, Michael Wood.
The Classic Guide aspires to be nothing less than a compendium of everything one needs to know about fly-fishing: the habitat and habits of trout, the fisherman’s equipment, the flies and fly-tying, and the techniques and tactics of fly-casting. If it fails to accomplish such an impossible goal, it still manages to cover nearly everything a beginner needs to know.
But even the most experienced fly-fisherman will enjoy this beautiful book, thanks to its superb art direction-especially the excellent photography, which includes six of the most spectacular underwater shots I’ve seen of trout swinging up to take a fly (credited to the “Hunting and Fishing Library,” whatever that is). With its dramatic use of typography and line drawings, the design truly captures the elegance of the sport.
It also leads to some reflections on why fly-fishing is different from other kinds of fishing. Of course, the nature of the sport, the very delicacy of it, requires the fly-fisherman to be utterly attuned to nature’s rhythms: to water temperature, hatching cycles, sunlight, barometric pressure, and so on. Much of the beauty of the sport, in fact, devolves from its delicacy.
But the true aesthetic of fly-fishing is deception. The objective is to flutter a tiny, nearly weightless, artificial insect, connected to the rod by an almost invisible tippet, onto rushing water with such convincing naturalness that the world’s most nervous predator will mistake it for lunch. A trout is too stupid to be curious and too lazy to be brave. He only goes for the sure thing.
So an artistic principle lies at the heart of fly-fishing. Other fishermen-I don’t say lesser fishermen, although I’m thinking it-tend to consider fly-fishing pretentious. But that’s just ignorance. My upcountry neighbor, Joe, sells sausage for a living; if you want to know the antithesis of pretension, meet Joe. But Joe can cast a line in an arc of such consummate beauty that the mouth gapes, the senses freeze.
A thousand acts of beauty make up this wonderful sport. If you want an introduction to it, buy this book.