Brian Shea never learned the lore of sports, but rather the lore of trout… and that’s been more valuable over the years.
American men today are told their roles in society are complicated, but there is among us one unspoken truism that persists. From boyhood, we are expected to associate ourselves with sports in some way, even as only fans. When meeting another man for the first time, it remains customary to raise sports in conversation sooner or later. The assumed common interest accelerates the tribal bonding process in the absence of previously established similarities. Group kinship is further established if rival team loyalties are discovered, bringing an element of competition into the exchange.
In the many such conversations I’ve had, my sports-loving contemporaries often don’t realize that many of my female friends are rabid sports fans and would be much more interested than I was. They understand that I’m one of those strange members of a strange American cult who doesn’t care about team sports. There aren’t many of us and we’re viewed the way a marine biologist examines an albino tuna. They recognize the basic morphology, but know this tuna doesn’t look like the others. There’s nothing wrong with it, mind you. It’s just… different.
When you’re raised by two music majors, you are left to your own devices where sports are concerned. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve enjoyed many a Super Bowl party, particularly Super Bowl XVI, where I spent the evening in the kitchen with the wives who weren’t screaming at the television right there with the best of them. I got exclusive access to everything that came out of the oven. Our conversations ranged from food to film to books. I was the lone male in a room of a dozen engaging women with good food punctuating some very stimulating conversation. For a man who abhors physical labor, loves good cuisine, and enjoys the company of women, it couldn’t get any better.
But despite not knowing the right number for ESPN on my TV channel list, I am not completely immune to the appeal of sport if I define the term liberally. Growing up in rural New Hampshire, my playground was the forest bisected with rivers. Their waters were darkened by tannins leached from the surrounding trees and cooled by last season’s snows. When your hand passes through the surface film, the shock of cold teaches you that you have entered a realm not governed by human laws. Here, Nature decides whether you are worthy of knowing her secrets. Deep in the pools, the outlines of boulders are just barely visible, hiding creatures that watch you from the darkness.
One of those creatures, the trout, emerges from the water in open defiance of the mute browns and grays of the river bottom. When your fishing line tightens and pulls a brook trout to the surface, the water erupts in a silver splash, followed by the brilliant oranges, greens, and whites of the trout’s side as it turns over. It is a timeless sight, as old as Nature itself. But the wonder and hope of seeing it again never leaves the imagination of even the most experienced fly fishermen. For the rest of our lives, when we pass by a body of water, some part of us is squinting through the surface glare, trying to locate the shadowy silhouette of a trout.
While my friends got fitted for hockey skates and football pads, I taught myself to cast a tiny hook wrapped in fur and feather, hoping to place it within a twelve-inch patch of water twenty yards away. Unlike conventional fishing, which relies on the weight of the bait to be lobbed into the water, fly fishing uses artificial imitations of insects so light one can scatter them with a sneeze. The angler must manipulate the line, not the fly, sending it into circling loops above not unlike a lasso, snapping the line forward at the last moment to gracefully, and hopefully quietly, unroll on the water’s surface to present the artificial fly to a discerning trout below. Insects constitute the core of a trout’s diet, and the fly fisherman spends a lifetime studying the color, size, and shape of insects favored by trout whose tastes can vary from one river to the next.
Trout are also extremely sensitive to pollution and temperature, requiring pristine waters to survive, no less prosper. As a result, the successful fly fisherman typically finds himself in waters clear enough to drink and lined by bright green forests dripping with last night’s rains. The roar of the river drowns out the noise of civilization, leaving one alone with his thoughts and the hope that he can coax a speckled trout from its shadowy lair.
When I return to work, I find myself staring blankly ahead during meetings in which managers use sports metaphors to articulate their strategic vision. Noted football coaches are quoted to inspire the room of sleepy bureaucrats. Because I don’t speak football, I usually must ask a nearby colleague for a translation or otherwise whisper the words of writer Dorothy L. Sayers, who said “the facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.”
Nevertheless, I flirt with cliché when I admit that fly fishing has taught me unexpected lessons throughout my life and career, at least when I let myself remember them.
Fly fishing novices are often intimidated by the technique used to cast the line in swirling loops, worried that they will tangle it in a tree or miss their intended target. But the truth is, one can master a basic cast with fifteen minutes of instruction. I am more than a few grey cells short of genius, but taught myself to fly cast before the age of YouTube and without a teacher. I quickly learned, however, that beautiful casts are useless when sent over empty water.
The real challenge to fly fishing is not technique. It is Nature herself. When you clear the tree line and the river lies before you, knowing where the trout are hiding is a craft mastered by hawk and bear after millennia of trial and error.
Like all prey, the trout has also studied the rhythms of Nature in order to survive. They are practical creatures, spending most of their lives in a space of water no larger than a bathtub. Whether it’s behind a submerged boulder or an undercut bank, the trout instinctively finds the one location where the current is slow enough to allow it to hold without becoming exhausted, that channels food close enough to avoid needless travel, that is cool enough to support its precise metabolism, and that provides sufficient cover from all who hunt it. The successful angler must do the same, but from above and using only visual cues. The moods of a river are difficult to decipher; technique and academic degrees will do nothing to reveal them. You watch, you listen, you allow the natural confluence of biology and physics to show you what to do.
I trained for my career much more formally than I ever did for fly fishing. I had the right experience. I had the proper academic degree. Metaphorically, I had taught myself to cast and now stood on the bank, supremely confident that a trout lay behind every rock and I had the credentials to catch it. Such reliance on technique is seductive because it is quantifiable. It can be measured. Surely it trumps the unpredictable and seemingly anarchic impulses of Nature.
But sitting in another office meeting discussing how to realize yet another strategic vision, interpreted through quotes from another noted football coach, I am again confronted by the biology and physics of Nature. The men and women around the table have resumes as good as mine if not better. They have the requisite academic degrees. And yet, by the tenth football metaphor, no consensus can be reached. Personal rivalries, misplaced pride, fear of failure, and even the fear of success all conspire to overrule logic and common sense, resulting in a stalemate.
For years, I avoided taking into account the unruly human factor in decision making. Collective decisions should be free of personal or emotional considerations. I was frustrated when they stood as the only barrier to success. But with time, I learned that my office was, like any other organization, a human enterprise subject to human foibles and passions that drive events no less than policy or propriety. In most cases, they are decisive.
In the years since, I have watched successful managers assign delicate tasks to subordinates with a keen grasp of diplomacy. I have seen them assign tasks requiring boldness to the bold. Similarly, I have seen poor managers fixated on resumes sabotage success by failing to account for the untidy and inconvenient forces of human personality. In the end, all you can do is watch, listen, and allow the natural confluence of biology and physics to show you what to do.
While I buy my fishing supplies at the local sports store, I’ve never considered fly fishing a sport, per se. Kicking the heads of fallen enemies across a field evolved into what we now call “soccer,” but fishing descends from what amounts to harvesting for food. It has few tales of glory passed down to future generations. It carries little risk of physical injury. It has no measurable effect on my testosterone levels.
At the same time, most of my sports-obsessed friends don’t look like they’ve run across a field clutching a ball in many years. As Douglas Hartmann, PhD, reminds us, the less physically competitive a man is, “the more sports can become a means toward achieving those ideals, at least in his mind.” For most modern Americans, sports shape the spirit of the man, not his body.
And while fly fishermen are typically of a different temperament than the average American sports fan, I think in our own ways, we both enjoy not being completely understood by non-believers. NFL widows roll their eyes at arguments over who the best defensive end may be in the NFL, and I roll mine as well.
But when I return home from a day on the river, sun-burned, scraped by brambles, bruised from tripping over river rocks, and covered in insect bites, my wife rolls her eyes in the same way. “Why do you enjoy this, again?” she says. And I have to admit, it makes me smile.
I could provide her with any number of answers, but it wouldn’t help her understand it any more than I understand the explanations given to me as to why football is interesting. Perhaps football offers my friends a prism through which they can once again glimpse the vigor of their youth or the companionship they forged as players chasing victory together. I still don’t like football, but I would not presume to judge the motivations of those captivated by it. In its own way, it allows them to stay connected to a part of themselves that is immune to change, as it should be.
I suppose fly fishermen are equally attracted to the timeless and unchanging progress of the river’s journey to the sea. It is a reliable comfort to again hear the rushing water grow louder as you approach it, resurrecting the happy anticipation you first experienced as a boy and can now relive all over again. Perhaps football fans experience the same rush of adrenalin when they enter the stands, the gaping green valley of the stadium opening before them, the sound of cheering thousands hitting their chests all at once. As they take their seats, a fisherman is on a river somewhere, casting his line in acrobatic loops above, feeling the rise of the same anticipation in his heart. But for both, the final destination is in himself and only he can completely understand the need to get there.
More than one hundred years ago, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow told us as much in his epic poem, Tales of a Wayside Inn. The story’s protagonists are a group of men whose travels all brought them to the inn located in Sudbury Massachusetts, where it still stands. I learned to fish not far from there. The men came from very different lives but joined together around the fireplace to tell tales of their respective adventures. By morning, they had become friends and lamented their need to part ways. But as their lives diverged, Longfellow united them for all time in the small trout stream that flowed through the inn’s grounds. In a confluence of physics and biology, the poet shows the men their very natures:
As in the well-remembered brook
They saw the inverted landscape gleam,
And their own faces like a dream
Look up upon them from below.