Upon learning I am a fisherman, a conversation with a new acquaintance generally goes something like this. New friend says, “What do you like to catch?” I reply, “Whatever is biting.” They smile, nod appreciatively, then lean in and follow up with a benchmark question: “Do you fly fish?”
More recently, people have measured my angler expertise with this question:
“Do you fish from a boat?”
And I shock them with, “I fish from a kayak.”
Why are these two techniques put on a pedestal as a higher evolution of the sport?
Part of the answer lies with Ralph Waldo Emerson. The original woodsy transcendentalist taught us, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
A later outdoor philosopher named Patrick McManus wrote the best berries are at the top of the mountain. Not because they are bigger or sweeter, but because they are at the top of the mountain. River-standing, stick-waving humorist John Gierach wrote about fly fishing: “It is not even clear if catching fish is actually the point.”
Why is fly fishing supposed to be hard?
Fly fishing from a kayak is not the most efficient approach. For starters, fly fishing uses heavy-weight fishing line to cast a feather-weight lure. The technique was invented before fancy spinning reels and computer-controlled baitcasters made it easy to work a heavy lure with light line. Maybe the outdated method should have gone the way of the dodo. But a die-hard clan of enthusiasts keep the sport alive. Waving our fly line in the air to propel a hand-tied imitation of a bug or baitfish is akin to performance art. Fooling a fish with the show brings a satisfaction equal to receiving a standing ovation.
On any fishing boat there is deck space to run up and down the length of the boat while fighting a fish. Elite Bassmaster Mike Iaconelli celebrates each trophy catch by busting out a toprock and windmill on the bow of the bass boat. When fishing from a kayak, you can stand, but you’d better not do any break dancing.
The self-reliant, more difficult journey keeps fly fishing from a kayak at the perceived summit of fishing evolution. There are many poor souls who have never picked up a fly rod and shoved off in a kayak. You’ve seen the bystanders, staring in awe as something they thought awkward and unstable displayed rhythm and poise.
The more complicated process elevates my satisfaction.
For the uninitiated, fishing means chartering a boat once a year to troll in circles and reel in the fish without taking the rod out of the rod holder. Deep down, real fishermen want to get closer to water, if not a little wet.
We want to experience the wave of helpless panic as a fish races upstream, straining the hair-thin leader, or drags you further out to sea on a sleigh ride. We want to be the captain, even if it’s only a single-seater, self-propelled ship.
The fishing experience is deeper, more profound if you’ve tied your own flies, paddled across the lake, portaged rugged trails, and made 100 casts with a handcrafted split bamboo rod. The fly fishing kayak angler makes biscuits from scratch. He chooses the long, messy way when he could just whack a roll of Pillsbury against the counter and call it a day.
The more complicated process elevates my satisfaction. With standard fishing and boating techniques, we might take the catch for granted. In fly fishing, any successful hook up is treasured. When I’m kayak angling, remaining upright can be immensely satisfying.
“I fly fish,” I explain to new friends, “but I am not a fly fisherman, yet.” Similarly, I fish from a kayak, but I’m not a kayak angler. I acknowledge my perceived evolution as an angler remains incomplete. On this journey, I’ll be fly fishing from a kayak.