Fly fishing as a spiritual exercise

By Bill Cooper
    I step into the cool, free-flowing waters of my home river at dawn. Immediately above me, on a high Ozark ridge, lies ancient camps of those who came before me. The ridge provides lofty views of the river valley below, which both me and my ancestors enjoyed countless times. At dawn, especially, it feels like God shines a holy beacon of light in this place. It has a subtle strength and gentleness that brings me to a deep place as I begin my day of adventures and immersion into the spiritual realms of flowing water.

    There is much to be said about being familiar with a place. Familiarity creates a comfort zone within us. In the zone our inner spiritual lives melds with the river to create peace, harmony, and tranquility far superior to the state of life in the real world. The river provides an escape from the everyday stresses of life.
    It is pleasantly reassuring to again experience the same rocks, riffles, and deep pools that have become so familiar to me in the last 50 years. I know these features of the river as well as I know my own strengths and weaknesses.
    I know where fish are likely to hold in relation to these familiar rocks and riffles, and runs. I know what time of day they are apt to show themselves in familiar lairs and lies. I know how light and shade affects their feeding habits and the places where they hold. I know how the water fluctuates, and how the ebb and flow affects the fish and the aquatic life they depend on for daily sustenance, an intimacy between the river and the creatures of its waters.
    When the magic of hooking a trout on a favorite nymph pattern on these familiar waters occurs, I succumb to known spiritual inclinations and allow the seams between soul and water to become one.
    I often share these familiar waters with a friend who has known them as long as me. He is keenly in tune with the flows of the river, and likes nothing more than to entertain a client in his drift boat, while casually introducing them to the wonders within her waters.
    His knowledge of the river is inspiring. He knows the aquatic insects that live there, their life cycles, and what stage of their short lives that they are most important to the river’s trout as a food source. He knows more about the river than anyone I know. He knows her moods and how the fishing will be at every stage she can display, regardless of whether the water is running high, or is at its lowest flows.
    His most astounding quality is his keen generosity of spirit, his ability to share his love of the river’s familiar waters with others in a pure, unadulterated manner. He freely bequeaths his gifts to fortunate anglers. Knowing him well is one more example of the grace filed moments that imbue my life as a fly fisherman.
    Together, we have drifted untold miles down these familiar waters, each trip bequeathing to us new revelations about her watery secrets, which casual passersby fail to observe. Observation is a key element of what fly fishermen must be, if they intend to deeply understand the intimate workings of the natural world around them. Seeking knowledge is a continuum, an insatiable curiosity that accompanies the fly angler during every moment of every excursion on these familiar waters.
    Time is relevant to observation and whiles away relentlessly as the fly fisher spends long, contemplative moments staring at what would be rather boring waters to non-angling types. Powers of observation are strengthened by long periods of time spent gazing across familiar waters in hopes of observing insect activity, and in turn trout activity as they slurp unsuspecting insects from the thin film on the surface.
    Keen observations are the tickets that grant the observant fly fisherman entrance into the watery world of trout. Often trout subtly sipping insects from the surface, leave only slight dimples on the water. Perhaps the slight dimple phenomenon is nature’s way of protecting the vulnerability of surface feeders from overhead predators such as eagles and ospreys.
    Observations turn into practical applications for fly fishermen. What they see in familiar waters can then be turned into duplicative efforts of attempting to match the hatch. It is an eternal struggle for fly fishermen to duplicate what Mother Nature has provided with an artificial resemblance. Frustration often sets in as an angler pours over fly box after fly box to find the perfect imitator of what he has observed trout feeding on in the river. Matches are seldom perfect, but close resemblances will often turn the trick. It is then that the ultimate satisfaction sweeps over the fan of the long rod. To have fooled a trout with a bit of fur and feather on a hook completes the spiritual connection between man-kind, familiar waters and the trout that call them home.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award winning outdoor writer and inductee of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Outdoor Communicator. He is the host of the Living the Dream Outdoors Podcast, which can be found on most social media platforms. He lives in rural St. James and can be followed at outsidealways.