Fishmail: Notes from an incompleat angler

May 15th, 2002

Note: most of these columns were written between 2002 and 2006, and many of the web pages referenced within them no longer exist. Apologies: I'll probably get around to fixing the broken links eventually.

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing". So, famously, begins Norman McLean's A River Runs Through It, and it seems an apt sentiment for the first of a series of Sunday columns. I am not a religious man, as will become abundantly clear; nor do I have the abilities of Norman McLean, either literary or piscatorial. But in common with many of the visitors to this site, I am tragically well-acquainted with the religious fervour which fly-fishing – indeed, any sort of fishing – can induce in otherwise sane, logical men and women.

Fear not: this is not going to be one of those "why fly-fishing is like religion" articles. True, there are many inviting parallels and many a metaphor just begging to be mixed. Fly-fishing is full of holy trinities (bonefish/tarpon/permit grand slam, anyone?), holy grails (in my case, a wild six-pound brown trout) and, in ideal circumstances, really rather a lot of red wine. I could go on, and on. But one of these parallels seems to warrant a little more attention than any of these. Fishing, like religion, provides an inescapable backdrop to people's lives – a texture based around principles of faith above all else.

My faith has been seriously tested this year. Two trips in search of wild trout, to New Zealand and Ireland, have cruelly but inevitably exposed my weaknesses as a fly-fisherman. Like God, trout sometimes seem to appear only when you least expect them and have given up all hope that they really exist. So it was this week on Lough Corrib, where even the most hapless fishing dunce might reasonably expect to pick up a fish or two during mayfly season.

Ireland is a land where religion has caused some difficulties in the past, a place where different faiths conflict and collide with the immeasurable subtlety and unpredictable violence of currents in a mountain stream. And here, I learned how troublesome one's faith in something as ethereal as trout fishing can be. For five days, I endured wind and rain and cold, and caught not a single Corrib fish. I could have followed the devil and resorted to dapping – an undoubtedly noble and skilful art which the fly-fishing snob in me cannot help but see as nothing more than a kind of low-gravity worm fishing – but my resolve was strong. My reward: nothing but sunburn. A few of these beautiful creatures boosted my flagging hopes and boiled lazily at my flies, but the subtext of their message was this: you're not good enough, and we're not that interested anyway.

Sean comprehensively wins the 'stupid hat' competition in IrelandAnd so I wore the dunce's hat – the special one reserved for those of us who really couldn't catch a cold. (It is significant, I think, that I have not actually had a cold for several years now). And eventually, the hope and desire evaporated into a sort of numb acceptance; maybe there really wasn't anything out there. And that, of course, is when I started catching fish.

Nothing mystical about any of this, to be sure. Most fisherfolk have had more or less identical experiences, caused by any combination of inclement weather conditions, impatience, incompetence and plain old bad luck. The faith that we hold in so many aspects of fishing – that the knots will not give way, that the fly is not swimming upside-down, that today, upwind really is the place to be – can evaporate as quickly the mist from a lake. The mist will be back again the next morning, of course: and despite periods when it seemed that my catching a fish was about as likely as a visitation from the Virgin Mary – and there have probably been more verified instances of the latter – I keep doing this, and I cannot see a time when my larger faith will ever lapse.

In the weeks and months to follow, Paul will have his faith seriously dented as he wonders whether this column will arrive on time or not. Mine will undergo a further battering next weekend as I determine whether or not the legendary farmed rainbows of the Test really are stupid enough to take one of my home-made flies. I hope you will have enough to come back and read again next week. There won't be many Sean-goes-fishing stories. There will be absolutely no 'how-to' articles (not least because I don't really know how to do anything that even a five-year-old fisher doesn't know already). All I know is that like God, fishing gives some of us an awful lot to think about – and I plan to do my thinking out loud, however irreligious and irreverent it may be.

Next week: The unbearable lightness of co-polymer.

Sean Geer ( is a freelance journalist and author. He specialises in ritual humiliation by fish on four continents - most recently in Ireland, where he became the first angler in history to not land a mayfly-caught trout on Lough Corrib in the middle of the mayfly season. A retired seahorse conservationist and self-taught zen origamist, he is currently writing a novel about sex, death and the meaning of fish.

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