I’m twisting my thumb and forefinger around a strand of waxed beige thread, lacing a tuft of bunny fur into the fiber. The thread hangs from the curved shank of a fishhook. As soon as the fur is in location, I wrap the string six times around the shank, and it starts to look like something: a creature. I look down at my workstation– grizzly hackle, brass beads, bucktail, tinsel Mylar, marabou, peacock herl, copper wire, chenille. This assemblage of chances and ends is about to take on a brand-new kind.
I spent my early years wandering around a series of ponds in southern Michigan. Fishing was how I connected to my world. Nobody else in the family fished, however my parents indulged me– even when I asked to be homeschooled for a year as my fascination was peaking. I committed some of that time to book learning. The rest of the time I spent at the ponds, where I was learning other lessons– about ecosystems and watersheds, weather condition and the seasons, predators and victim. I was learning more about life cycles and die-offs, fragility and resilience. While in pursuit of the sunfish and bass that populated those murky bodies of water, I was home.
At times, my equipment sat inactive. I didn’t fish a single day while in college. Then I worked a summer job in Wyoming directing river journeys and uncovered fly-fishing in the streams that coursed through Yellowstone National Park. I was hooked all over once again.
2 things occurred: Donald Trump and the fly-tying vise my wife provided me.
After moving to New Orleans, I discovered a rubble-strewn swoop of the Mississippi River, together with its surprise catches and eerie riparian encounters. This became a brand-new, astonishing type of house: alligators in the shallows, grass shrimp skittering over my toes, water moccasins playing around my fly line, the stain of the river on my skin that took days to clean off.
I had never ever had an interest in connecting my own flies. It looked like a lot of fuss that required extra tools and materials. Easier, I always thought, simply to purchase them. In 2016, two things happened: Donald Trump and the fly-tying vise my wife provided me for Christmas.
In the instant days after the election, I felt shock and shock. In the weeks and months that followed, an unfamiliar kind of helplessness cleaned over me as the brand-new administration began attacking everything from climate science and national monoliths to its own EPA. For eight years, it seemed, the country had been on a course to react to the climate crisis that defines our age, a crisis of our own making. And now … I established the fly-tying vise one winter season day and began clumsily covering thread around hooks.
Soon I was collecting stray loon feathers from the beach and deer hair from the woods, envisioning them taking on freshly animated kinds in my fingertips. I discovered myself gravitating back to my workstation at the end of each excessive day of political upheaval to work it out.
Tying flies, I soon discovered, can’t be hurried. It’s not something you do while multitasking. Each little product and each layer on the hook takes its own time to come together. For a while it looks like nothing, or just an amorphous lump of various things, and then you pull the thread tight and the fly pops to life as a minnow or a tiny insect larva, suspended in the air however ready to swim. Concentrating on a few cubic centimeters of intricately arranged materials– this is a space in which I can dwell.
My response isn’t an intellectual one; I am acting on muscle memory from years of discovering in the fantastic outdoors. The act of fishing is just a small part of exactly what makes it so crucial– bundled into this time are countless hours of waiting, observing other animals, and populating delicate landscapes. Connecting flies has actually ended up being another way to engage with other types and vulnerable environments. It’s about returning to exactly what formed, and continues to form, my deepest-held dedications. It’s about getting back.
This post appeared in the January/February 2018 edition with the headline “Zen and the Art of Tying Flies.”