Practicing zen and the art of flyfishing

I was in an area flyfishing shop this spring, eyeing some of the insect selections to prepare for an afternoon of angling on one of my favorite trout streams when I noticed a woman looking over the vast display of bug imitations.

At first, I thought she might well be part of my tribe, that strange herd of anglers who spend perhaps too many days waving fly rods on rivers and creeks.

“What works?” she asked, without looking up.

I quickly realized then she was not part of the fraternity, but merely a curious, perhaps bemused, outsider.

I responded with a short list of some of the insects that were hatching on the nearby streams, and which no doubt sounded like a foreign language to her — March brown, gray fox, caddis …

Her eyes continued scanning the variety of flies resting in the selected rows of bins before her.

“It’s all so zen. Isn’t it?” she said with a smile.

And there it was.

She had summed up her idea of flyfishing — and that shared by others — with a single exotic and mystical word that conjures up thoughts of eastern religion, calm and, perhaps, perfection.

OK. Zen means a lot of different things to people.

I think of peace through meditation, of perhaps looking beyond oneself.

Merriam-Webster offers up the following definition for zen: a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation.

Of course, a mere definition perhaps cannot begin to explain zen.

I left the fly shop and headed out to fish that afternoon, with that woman’s question haunting me.

I like to think I applied some of the zen principles to flyfishing that day.

I spotted trout rising and attempted without success to catch them, applying my many years fly-fishing experience into what I thought were careful, expert casts

I concentrated and I focused but, alas, I came up fishless on that overcast Saturday afternoon.

Perhaps I should have meditated.

In the story, “The River Runs Through It,” it is believed that a kind of grace can be attained through fly fishing. Norman McLean’s story of two sons and their preacher father uses flyfishing as a means of achieving a type of grace or perfection on Montana streams.

It’s a great story, I suppose, but pure fiction.

And perfection, we all know, is impossible — at least in the world as we know it — although on certain days, when the conditions are just right and the trout are taking your offerings at will, flyfishing may seem something close to perfection.

I’d like to blame my inability to catch fish on the stream that May afternoon on the heavy traffic of anglers and kayakers that scared off the fish, or perhaps my leaky waders that left me cold and miserable on a chilly spring afternoon.

Then again, maybe a better attitude would have helped.

Perhaps I was not in my zen — whatever that really means.