One Native Life: Learning To Fly Fish

By Richard Wagamese
News From Indian Country 2-08

There’s an elegance to fly fishing that defies description. It’s a combination of grace and power like you see in ballet – all that harnessed beauty, directed and rhythmic and carved into motion. When you do it, when you become a part of that poise and finesse, it changes you, gives you a sense of what freedom is all about.

When the rod draws the line off the water and the tiny speck of fly is pulled back into an elongated “U” behind you and then cast smoothly forward to land on the water without a ripple like the insect it imitates, that’s a sublime moment – refined, sophisticated and addictive.

It’s the soundless grace of fly fishing that drew me to it. I was working in Calgary in a big, noisy building with a big noisy staff on a big, noisy street. Everything was huge and loud and the Indian in me craved the silence of the woods.

I stood on the banks of the Bow River where it flowed through the downtown and watched a group of fly fishers work the water. The sun was setting and in that gorgeous pinkish hue the rhythm of the sport reached out and touched me. I watched in awe as the neon ribbons of line cut the air into flowing streams of color. For the longest time I thought that casting was everything. Until a fish took a fly that landed at the head of a long ripple and the ensuing battle captivated me.

When I asked about the difficulty of learning how to do it, one of the men stepped up onto the bank and showed me how it was done. He spooled out a length of line across the grass and showed me how to lift it and ease it backwards behind my head, then to bring it forward smoothly so the line didn’t give a crack with the change of direction. He took his time and led me through a dozen casts calmly showing me the rhythm and teaching me how to use the rod rather than my arm muscles to initiate the weight transfer of the tiny fly.

For a bait fisherman, one of those used to the worms and the minnows and the leeches on hooks, the weighted lines and the gears of a crank reel, the feathery feel of a fly rod is odd in the hands. But one cast was all it took, one fumbling, over-anxious, caveman kind of thrashing that ended with the line splashing down on the surface of the water, was all that was needed to hook me.

I became a regular on the banks of the Bow. The fly shops and gear places came to appreciate my sudden zeal. I was soon outfitted with a top-notch rod and reel, hip waders, a float tube, fisherman’s vest and a selection of flies that was second to none. Everything sat in the trunk of my car in case the sudden urge to cast came upon me and I wouldn’t have to drive all the way home to retrieve it. Many times I parked on my way to work and took a dozen casts on a likely looking riffle.

I became a hard-core river fisherman, and Southern Alberta is perfect for that particular beast. The foothills of the Rocky Mountains hold some of the best streams for whitefish and rainbow trout anywhere.

Ninety percent of the fish live in ten percent of the water, an old-timer told me outside a general store in some back-road town one day. I took those words to heart and I learned how to read water, just as I learned the life cycle of insects and how to choose the right fly based on that cycle. Learning to read water became as engrossing as reading the books I surrounded myself with all my life.

Every weekend I drove out to find another stream. I can’t count the days, rain or shine, that I sat on the banks of a river or stream gazing at the particular bend or chute of it, examining its color, its speed, the many variegated faces of it before reaching for my gear and making that first cast. I caught a lot of that ten percent.

When I was on the water the world disappeared. I was alone in the cathedral of water and wind and sunrises and sunsets all pink and magenta and glorious. My only company were the deer, foxes, raccoons, marmot, ducks and beavers that came to the stream and once a great cinnamon grizzly who sat and ate berries while I watched waist deep in the current a dozen steps away. In the end, it came to be about a whole lot more than catching fish.

Instead, it was about learning how the world fills you up. The way great stretches of empty can work their way inside you and make you feel bigger, lighter and more magnificent. It was about the way the wind smells in the mountains, how there are tinkly voices in the riffles and rush of water and how a trick of the light can make the mountains seem to breathe all around you. Geographies sometimes need our hearts to fill them.

Friends laughed at me, said fly fishing wasn’t an Indian thing to do, that it was elitist and snobby and not a sport at all. I didn’t care. To me, the ballet of line and rod and wrist attached me to everything. I became a part of whatever river or stream I was on and absorbed the light around me, allowed it to fill me, sketch me out, become me.

That’s the way it is, the joy of things. When you immerse yourself in them they color you and there is no black or white or Indian – only joy, only the great ballet of life drawing you into its magic, the Great Mystery being a mystery.