All content © Robert Williamson

All content © Robert Williamson

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fly Fishing and Thoughts of Thoreau

"The lesson he (Thoreau) had taught himself, and to which he tried to teach others, was summed up in the one word "Simplify." That meant simplify your needs and your ambitions; learn to delight in the simple pleasures which the world of Nature affords. It means also, scorn public opinion, refuse to accept the common definitions of success, refuse to be moved by the judgement of others."
---Joseph Wood Krutch (part of the introduction to "Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau.")

When I started fly fishing as a young thirteen year old kid, I used a very simple way of angling. I was introduced to it by my father. He was a wet fly fisher who only used a couple of patterns and always fished them down and across. These patterns were hair flies (Fizzle and Rockworm) as tied by the late Franz B. Pott of Missoula, Montana. These flies were tied onto the end of a seven to nine foot tapered leader which was tied onto a floating fly line. The flies were cast down and across stream and them allowed to swing with the current. They were manipulated into the proper seams and runs and then slowly worked upstream with a hand-twist-retrieve. Trout would either hit the fly on the swing or grab it as it was worked upstream. It was an effective method and a very simple method. I used this method for thirteen years.

When I married and decided to take up fly tying as a hobby, I originally wanted to just tie the Pott flies, but as I subscribed to the popular fly fishing magazines and bought fly tying books, a whole new world of fly patterns and fly fishing techniques was opened to me. I tried all the techniques which were new to me, nymphing, streamers, emergers, and dry fly fishing. I spent time using all of these methods and would find myself switching from one method to another during my outings.

Several years ago, I decided to simplify my angling again. I grew fond of dry fly fishing and found that it was my preferred style. With experience I found that at almost every month of the year, I could catch fish on top if I understood the hatch and was on the water at the appropriate time of day.

I have not lived in the woods as Thoreau did, but as I look back on my life, I realize I have spent a great deal of time wandering in the woods. My fly rod has been, and is, a magic wand. I wave it and it carries me to beautiful places. Wave it again and the scenery changes. My favorite rod is a seven foot, six inch paint brush that helps me create the paintings of my mind. Sometimes, it is a pen that helps me write the beginning and ending of my life.

Life is full of rivers to cross. I have for a long time felt I crossed these rivers alone. I prided myself on doing this. I, as Thoreau, sought for solitude:

"I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by the sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to forsee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattern of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since."

I wonder if Thoreau is right? He also said, "I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers."

For years, I believed and pointed out the above quotes as my justification for spending time on solo fly fishing trips. Like I said, I was proud of my ability to wander up streams and creeks alone, to cross rivers alone, and to spend time in the woods alone. I like Thoreau, felt I only needed "three chairs in my house; one for solitude, one for friendship, three for society."

I'm beginning of late to understand better things of solitude, but also of my need to have friends. But that is really another story. What I want to do is get back to my original thoughts on simplicity. I've decided that the pursuit of trout through fly fishing can be very simple, especially, if you are fishing waters that are not what I call technical waters. These are waters with shorter growing seasons, waters that are typically smaller, and where the type of water is more turbid, with lots of riffles, seams, pockets, and sometimes gradient.

In my neck of the woods, this is what I've discovered over the past 30 years (I know, that 30 years just keeps on finding its way into my writing).

December, January, February: Midges. Small nymphs and dries. Hatches occur the warmest part of the day.

March, April: Midges, Blue-winged Olives. BWO nymphs, emergers and dries. Usually between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM.

May, June: Pale Morning Duns, Caddis and Stoneflies. Evening fishing starts to warm up. PMD hatches most afternoons in June.

July, August, September: Hoppers and beetles. Afternoon and evening caddis

October, November: Still some hopper action, Blue-winged Olives are back. Swinging and stripping streamers.

Yes, there is the specific hatch of this or that, which you may have to figure out, but the above is a simplistic approach to most of the Intermountain areas regular hatches.

I wonder if Thoreau ever considered taking up fly fishing? Probably too busy writing about solitude and civil disobedience.


Cutthroat Stalker (Scott) said...


I enjoyed the read. Thoreau is a favorite (I like his essay on Civil Disobedience and his books Maine Woods and Faith of a Seed). And as much as I like him and his thoughts, writing it and living it are a couple of different things (he lived on the edge of the town of Concord, visited people there and had people from there visit him, frequently). His "solitude" was mostly theoretical. (I don't know if you've ever been to Walden Pond, but I was extremely disappointed when I went there. I had hoped for some "solitude" there, but it's pretty much a water playground--swimming, canoeing, etc. The reconstructed cabin is just a stone's throw from these distractions. I know these same distractions weren't there when Thoreau lived there, but it was still something of a disappointment. But I guess it underscored the very thing he was getting at.)

I've often envied what I assumed was his solitude to give me time to think and write. But when given even just a couple of days of solitude, I find myself easily distracted from what the purpose of the solitude was for and become almost a prisoner to those distractions. I'm not sure how to analyze this.

As with most things, I think a healthy balance is good: solitude and companionship can be had together. You just need to find the right doses of each.

Growing up with my father in the navy, I had an easy time making friends everywhere I moved. However, I had a bad habit of just "dropping" the friendship when I moved. As an adult, living in a college town, I made friends during my university years. When they moved away, I left the friendship behind me and moved on. Now, looking back, I wish I had kept in better touch with them.

Every year I have my students read the Oscar Wilde short story, "The Devoted Friend." It's a great little piece that talks about theory and practice: who is the better friend, one who talks well about friendship or one who practices the art of friendship? (Kind of like the theory and practice of solitude.)

Anyhow, I'm really enjoying your ruminations on the theme. I hope you don't mind me butting in with my lengthy comments.

Wildnative said...

Butt in all you want Scott. I value your input. You sometimes see right through me and what I THINK I'm trying to say, which is scary. You bring up an interesting fact of people not keeping up with the friendship after "moving" on. Or as you put it "dropping the friendship." Moving on can mean miles or it can just be in the form of contact. I have, as you probably can tell, been dealing with what some might call a mid-life crisis. Whatever it is, it is a crisis, and I'm dealing with some issues of friendship, what have I made of my life, what do I still want to make of it, and what does and doesn't really matter. I'll expand as I get time. I think Thoreau actually comments on how he could find solitude even with people around. I'll look for the quote and post it when I find it. I also will look for a quote that says, something similar to this, "solitude is to the soul, what fasting is to the body, necessary but detrimental if too prolonged." Thanks again for the comments.

Cutthroat Stalker (Scott) said...


Somehow I missed your response back to me.

Is this the Thoreau quote you were thinking of about solitude with people around:

"I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert."

We can certainly be solitary as we separate ourselves not just physically, but mentally from those around us. I think this quote of his is applicable here:

"What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want most to dwell near to? Not to many men surely...but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction. This will vary with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man will dig his cellar..."

I don't know if this means anything, but thought it interesting: sole, solo, solitude, solitary, etc. all come from the Latin "solus," meaning "alone."

You mention a "crisis" of some sort. That's an interesting word which means a "turning point," either for the better or worse. Another word, which I use when teaching my students about fiction, is "climax," which means the same thing. And yet, the former has a negative connotation and the latter a positive one. Maybe if we re-labeled it a "mid-life climax" it would make a difference in how we thought of such episodes.

Although you're struggling, I hope this finds you well.


Wildnative said...

That's the quote. Thanks for finding it. Don't worry about the struggling I'm going through--I'll eventually throw the hook and swim away fine, infact, I'm a lot more peaceful inside now than I was back in July. Moving upstream and doing fine. I like your thoughts about crisis and climax.

I have always had a hard time with change. I settle into a flow of life and pretty much stay there. I have worked at the same job for 30 years, lived in the same general area my whole life and even fly fished the same haunts.

Someone once said, "If you still no where you are, you haven't gone far enough."

I'll keep swimming upstream until I don't know where I am and then see what the water's like.

Stefan said...

My name is Stefan Schwartz and I am a senior at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. I am an environmental studies major and am doing my thesis on ecospirituality in America and how fly-fishing can be a tool to develop this type of spirit. I'm also looking at how this type of spiritual growth can then manifest itself in environmental activism. I was really taken up with your post on fly-fishing and solitude. I myself am a fly-fisherman, though unexperienced, and I realize that the best way to learn about his stuff is to talk to fly-fishermen who have had these experiences. I was hoping that over the next few weeks, I would be able to schedule some form of an interview with you to tackle some of these questions.
If you are willing, we could schedule a phone interview or I could simply type up the questions in an email and send them to you.
I will continue reading your blog, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Wildnative said...

Thanks for checking the blog. I would be happy to do an interview. I like the email style as it will give me time to think and feel a response if that works for you. Of course, sometimes spontaneous answers are good to. Which ever works best for you is fine with me. Email is

Thanks for the interest. I look forward to hearing from you.