Is Fly Fishing an Art?
Updated: Nov 5, 2020
A couple onlookers stood on the footbridge behind me and watched as I waded through the dark waters. The cold morning fog still hung low over the Firehole River obscuring the distant landscape of Yellowstone. After a couple false casts, I landed the fly and hooked into a brown trout that arched the fly rod over. It was early fall and I was the only angler on the water, just enjoying my hobby.
The onlookers whooped down to me as I released the trout from the net and I gave them a thumbs up with a smile. “This is a piece of art!” one of them shouted to me as they held out their smartphone. I couldn’t see the picture but I am sure it was quite artsy.
On a different river, in a different part of the country, I was wading through sludge that almost sucked the boots off my feet. The river smelled but the carp fishing was on fire that day. I was making delicate casts with the appropriately weighted flies to skittish carp, and everything was just clicking and coming together. It was bliss. Nearby on a bike path, onlookers paused and stared at me as I sloshed my way through the urban river. They did not bother to pull out their smartphones to snap a photo.
One scene was your quintessential fly fisher in a pristine river casting through the mist to rising trout, the other not so much. But the latter, in my mind, required more practice, skill, patience and wit so was it more artful? Or is fly fishing art only when it can be beautiful, whatever you might subjectively determine that to be? Also, a significant purpose of art is expression and producing works that reflect ideas and powerful messages, so how does fly fishing fit into that?
Skill, Practice, Creativity-
Forms of art, like painting or sculpting, require creative skill, practice, imagination, trial and error, etc. As many fly fishers might attest to, fly fishing demands much the same. It can be damn frustrating casting flies to a body of water for hours and not hooking into a single fish. You think about your casting, fly presentation, fly patterns, fish behavior, and plenty of other things. More practice, more attempts, maybe time at the vice, and then finally you connect and start landing fish.
It is a creative process deceiving fish on the fly, and when it all converges together the results are intoxicating. When you see a fish, any fish, pursuing the fly your heart jumps because you did something right. Does that count as a form of art, or is it just a game and puzzle solving?
It is all very subjective when trying to label paintings, music, dance, or photography as good or bad pieces of art. Sure there are rules, techniques, composition, etc. that help pieces of art to stand out from the masses, but it still comes down to personal taste for what is considered beautiful. Fly fishing does not escape these subjective biases either.
I do not know about you, but much of what I thought of fly fishing, when first getting into it, were scenes of untouched trout or salmon rivers with an angler making long delicate casts in the soft evening light. Movies, photos, paintings all depicted this. Hell, I did not even know saltwater fly fishing was a thing (and there are some really beautiful paintings of that).
For much of its history, the concept of fly fishing's beauty was mainly confined to those scenes of trout and salmon fishing. Take a pristine river or lake, add an angler, have them unrolling a perfect cast, maybe include a leaping trout or salmon, and that seemed to be the basic recipe for making a beautiful fly fishing scene. Change it to an urban river with an angler netting a channel catfish and it is still fly fishing, but would you call it beautiful?
Having these mental images of the ‘art of fly fishing’ are fantastic and I would not disagree in their beauty, and I think if you surveyed and asked people to think of a beautiful fly fishing scene most would respond with the trout stream. However, calling fly fishing an art because it is beautiful can edge out other aspects of the sport and where it is going. Over the last couple decades, fly fishing has gone through a lot of changes, and watching and living through this evolution has shown me that fly fishing’s most compelling argument (that it is an art) is through its storytelling and expressions.
Beyond skill, creativity, and beauty art can deliver powerful expressions. Using fly fishing as a medium to express ideas or to tell a story can be inspirational, and I think it is the sport’s most ‘artistic’ aspect going on today. Fly tying, rods, reels, a wading angler, casting a fly line are all very beautiful things that encompass fly fishing, and changing the traditional narrative on where or how these things take place creates new ways to view the world.
People do not necessarily get into fly fishing just to catch fish, there are far easier and less frustrating ways of going about that. Instead, people may get into it because they enjoy connecting more with nature, they love the challenge, or are intrigued by the art of it. As more people are drawn to fly fishing unique stories are playing out. What messages are being sent when an angler is wading and casting through urban waters, pursuing a ‘lesser’ species like gar or panfish, or that the angler is not even white or male? (full disclosure, I am a white male).
It is interesting and exciting watching more people take up the art of fly fishing and crafting it with their own perspectives. The skill, creativity, and beauty of fly fishing can be a form of art to deliver a variety of stories and messages: protecting our threatened public lands, connecting deeper with nature, calling for more accessible natural spaces or representation in the outdoor community, wanting to restore neglected habitats, rehabilitating fish species, or just wanting to catch a fish on the fly. Like a paintbrush or camera, a fly rod is another way to express yourself and gives a voice to your perspectives.
At times, while on the water, I think about what I am doing as art, it is hard not to. Watching the fly rod flex and unbend in the air, the line rolling out, the simplicity of my click-pawl reel seated next to the cork, its all aesthetically pleasing. Most other times I only want to fish. However, those are just my opinions on the matter and I would like to hear what you think, is fly fishing an art? Maybe fly fishing is an art if it is art to you.