It is in some ways a dangerous sport too, but less for the fish than for the angler's relatives. Fly-fishermen can quickly become world-class bores. Solitude becomes an end in itself. Spouses bristle at the suggestion that family vacations should consist of two weeks at some bug-infested fishing camp in Forsaken, Mont. Dinner-party invitations trail off as conversation seems to center on the pleasures of fishing nymphs in deep riffles or the relative merits of bamboo and graphite fly rods. Children growl at the proposal that the backyard pool be returned to nature and converted to a trout pond.
To the uninitiated, the sport may seem ridiculously simple: take a long pole ; with a line, attach a fake bug and toss it at some unsuspecting fish. But the disciplines involved in this seemingly simple act take years to master. Novices often quit in disgust or spend hours on the river, pleading to heaven for the strike of just one trout. Eventually, with practice, the casts begin to land right, without a splash, and then one day a trout rises to examine the offering -- and strikes.
With split-second timing, the rod tip is lifted and the battle begun. Since the fly is attached to the line with a gossamer-thin tippet, a fisherman must use the long, sensitive rod to tire the trout as it surges and runs, leaps and sometimes literally walks across the water's surface on its tail. There is no mistaking this magic. The fish explodes again, up through a silver shower of water, shaking its head in an effort to throw the hook. You notice the color. It is gorgeous, almost surreal. The trout's meaty flanks sport outrageous spots of black and orange, horizontal streaks of silver and red. The line rips through the water, sending signals directly to your pounding heart. Your ears ring.
As the fish tires, you draw it close to your leg, remove the hook and hold the trout for a moment, gauging its length before giving it back to the stream. That too is part of the sport. When waters were cleaner and trout spawned nearly everywhere, killing and eating the fish were a more common reward for the catch. But a generation raised on conservation ethics is releasing fish to reproduce and perhaps be caught again. Our atavistic selves relish the hunt, but our better natures understand the need to protect what we cherish. Fly-fishing lets us do both.
After the first catch comes the tough part: waiting for the next one. It can take months of beating the waters before it happens again, and the anticipation can be painful. The novice consoles himself by turning to books. Few other sports have been written about so thoroughly by so many authors, from Izaak Walton to Ernest Hemingway and Tom McGuane. You search for what fathers or uncles in an earlier generation used to pass down over dinner tables or around campfires: secrets of the water, hints about how to read streams and tread them lightly, how to intuit the mysterious nature of the wild trout.
The apprenticeship is not over, not yet. One day some fisherman with a pipe stands in the stream nearby releasing fish and announces that the trout are hitting bugs with an unpronounceable Latin name. You nod but don't know what he's talking about. Then back to the books for a quick course on streamside biology, matching the hatch, figuring out what the trout is eating and which artificial flies imitate those insects. Armed with a little entomology and inflamed with trout psychosis, you start buying everything that countless catalogs offer: stream thermometers, a flashlight for nighttime fishing, hook- sharpening files, dozens of flies no fish has ever seen.
Catching trout comes quicker now; on a good day perhaps six, even ten, get landed. You adopt rituals, preferring certain flies that bring you luck and that your friends use successfully. Gear gets stowed in familiar pockets as your fishing vest softens and fades with age. It is a delicate time, for as the addiction grows, the fish begin to invade your thoughts and dreams. At unpredictable moments the fisherman's mind fills with images of wide water, where brown trout hit large dry flies and pull long and hard.
If the fly-fisherman is lucky, the passion becomes manageable, second nature, like tying knots in the dark or reading a deep green pool by an undercut bank and knowing where the trout are holding and which fly to use. But having gone through the novitiate, fly-fishermen are never the same again. They scan rivers and lakes, seeing water but imagining the life underneath. They concentrate for hours, zenlike, watching thunderheads build and billow above, gazing at streams running over moss-covered rocks, searching for the sight of a trout, that near perfect fish, as it fins and darts, drifts and feeds in clear mountain water. Those visions take hold and simply won't let go.