Casting a fly rod and wading through a cold-water stream can be spiritual experiences. It is an art form to cast a fly correctly. Using an eight to nine foot rod, a fluorescent line and clear leader and tippet, the fly fisher casts the fly out on to the stream. One can learn the basics of casting in a few minutes, but it takes practice to drift a fly correctly and to lure a trout to the surface.
I was first inspired to take up fly fishing after seeing the beautiful casting in the film “A River Runs Through It.” Being a self-taught kind of person, I went to the local fly fishing store in St. Louis, bought a fly rod and reel, and started casting in my front yard (without a hook!). Over the years, I picked up tips here and there from other anglers. Even after bringing dozens of fish to the net and releasing them, my casting skills are intermediate at best. The perfection of the fly cast is a life long pursuit.
Patience is required to cast a fly. In the traditional shadow cast, the fly line travels back and forth, in front of and behind you, until you release it forward. The angler waits for the fly line to extend fully behind him and then flicks it forward gently onto the stream. The fly fisher then watches the fly patiently, waiting and hoping that a trout will rise. Grace happens in fly casting when the cast unrolls in a slow uniform motion on the water and the fly lands ever so gently on the stream.
After the fly drifts down with the current, the fly fisher casts once again. Fly fishing is not like watching a bobber on a lake. For hours, the angler engages in the graceful repetition of the fly cast, in what could be described as a form of meditation. In Eastern religions, a mantra is used to enter a higher spiritual state. Buddhists chant the syllable “Ohm.” In Jewish meditation, the spiritual seeker chants the Hebrew letters that make up the name of God, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hay.
Like mantra meditation, the casting of a fly rod allows the angler to let go of the everyday and access the spiritual side of him or herself. Often I am so busy casting, focusing on my line and how gracefully (or not!) the fly lands on the water that I fail to realize that three or four hours have passed. In the meditative state of fly casting, my being and senses are focused on the fly line, and I lose track of time and place.
Along with casting, wading in a cold-water stream can also be spiritual. The fly fisher wears boots and neoprene waders up to the chest, allowing him or her to walk into the river. Waders are necessary to bring the angler closer to the trout and to keep the fly fisher warm. Wading in a river is like snorkeling on a coral reef. During one snorkeling trip in the Red Sea in Israel, I took a moment to reflect on my surroundings. Looking up from the water, I saw the sky and the shore. Lowering my head and snorkel mask down in the sea, I entered a new world, filled with the whites and pinks of the reef and colorful fish swimming all around.
When wading in a stream, the fly fisher enters a new world as well, that of the river. Moving around becomes more of a challenge, as we feel the strength of the current and the slippery rocks below. We are visitors in a new realm where we do not quite belong, a fascinating place of water, rocks, plants and trout.
A wading staff, a three or four foot long metal pole, helps the angler to navigate the foreign world of the river and maintain one’s balance. A wading staff also gives the angler more freedom to explore the stream. When I became the rabbi of my congregation in Connecticut, I heard about the great fly fishing on the Housatonic River.
On my first trip to the Housey without a wading staff, I could walk only five or ten feet off the shore before the current became too strong and I feared losing my balance. A month later on a return trip, wading staff in hand, I crossed the river from shore to shore, up and down the river. That day on the Housey, I did not catch a single trout, but I reveled in the freedom of exploration.
Perhaps the most powerful wading staff in history was that of Moses. After the Israelite slaves fled Egypt, they stood at the shore of the Red Sea, trapped between the waters in front and Pharaoh’s approaching army behind. At God’s command, Moses lifted his wooden (wading) staff and the sea split in two, allowing the Israelites to cross through on dry land.
When on the opposite shore from where I started or in a deep pool, I sometimes wish that I could lift my staff and split the waters like Moses. Yet I remain content with my metal wading staff, and the freedom to go well beyond the shore, into the world of the river.