Fishmail: Performance anxiety

April 6th, 2003

There is a wonderful passage in the late Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which he describes the correct way to learn to fly. The trick, it seems, is to throw yourself at the ground and miss - to just sort of forget what you're doing at the critical moment approaching impact. This actually seems like excellent advice for learning to do just about anything that involves extreme difficulty (or, in the case of flying, apparent impossibility) - and it sprung to mind last week on the first serious fishing expedition of the new season.

Imagine my predicament. It is the middle of the day at Grafham Water, very sunny and extremely windy - conditions in which most sensible trout fishers would be holed up in the nearest waterside pub, perhaps even contemplating golf as an alternative to flyfishing as a way of spending idle hours. Instead, I am struggling to acquaint myself with my latest high-tech toy, a 9'6" Loomis 7-weight, under the gaze of two of England's best stillwater fishermen and casters. Paul and Henry have long since given up fishing, and are instead idling on the bank talking about whatever the fishing equivalents of Jedi knights talk about on such occasions. I am trying to cast a fly out to the deeper water where there might conceivably be a fish - a good 25 yards away, tough enough for me even with a rod I know well.

All the while, I am panicking slightly. I am mildly hungover and definitely trying too hard, and I am worrying about my observers' reaction to my efforts. My worries all seemed horribly familiar. Is my stroke long enough? Am I shooting too early? Is my rod long enough for this situation? I am by now used to such assessments in other areas of my leisure time, but my experience of these things by the waterside is, as yet, limited to one uncomfortable episode in New Zealand. The fact is that however much I do this, I still don't really like being watched.

It's easy to get caught up in this sort of anxiety. Those of us who frequent the Sexyloops bulletin board are by now used to the fact that there is an awful lot of analysis of technique thereabouts - enough to induce piscatorial impotence in those of us who are less gifted in the rod department than some of the board's more experienced contributors. There are technicians and artists and scientists there, all involved in deep and perhaps even meaningful discussions of loop size and graphite modulus calculations and flyline anatomy; and sometimes, it is easy for me to forget why I am here in the first place. Relaxing in front of Paul and Henry on Friday was difficult, because I was making life hard for myself; acutely aware of the fact that Henry taught Paul to cast, and Paul taught me, I was for a short while driven as much by an effort to live up to hierarchical expectations as the desire to catch a fish.

And then, all of a sudden, something changed. I think that what happened was something akin to Douglas Adams' ground-missing phenomenon; instead of trying to do something hard, I just forgot to think about it - a Zen thing, I suppose. The casting didn't get any better, or any worse for that matter, but it just happened anyway as my brain switched into another mode. And I caught some fish - quite a lot of fish, really, certainly by my standards. It was one of those wonderful days when, for whatever reason, you feel as if you know what you're doing. I worked out where the fish were, and even how to catch them, without even having to ask Paul. I felt like a kid able to keep his bike on two wheels without stabilisers for the first time.

This feeling is wonderfully self-perpetuating. It suddently seemed blindingly obvious that the fish weren't that bothered about what you put in front of them, as long as a) you actually did that and b) you then fished it slowly. They were hungry but lazy - a condition with which I utterly sympathise, which might well be why I was able to work out what they were doing. By the time we were catching fish on dries under a truly exquisite sunset - not bad for the first week in April, by any measure - I had completely forgotten about rod stops and haul timing, even to the point where I couldn't really get annoyed with myself for catching the rushes behind me every so often. It seemed, suddenly, as if I had learned to fish by forgetting how to cast.

There will be worse days than this in the months ahead, for sure. But something changed yesterday, and it had nothing really to do with the technicalities of flyfishing. It may not have been a world-class performance, but it was certainly nothing to be anxious about. Some things, it seems, really aren't worth worrying about after all.

"Can I ask is he (Paul), in some way, even very remotely, related to Saddam Hussein? Perhaps his great-great-grandmother, whilst out one day prospecting for sand eels on the Euphrates river, strayed too near a Bedouin fishing camp? My suspicions are raised by the genetic similarities. There appears to be an unrepressed urge to distribute images of the ever benevolent Paul to all and sundry. I feel it is only a matter of time before we are accosted with giant sized images of Paul on every street corner". - Craig Worthington.

Now I'm worried - Paul ;-)

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.

Return to whence you came
Return to home page