The dictionary defines a paradox as a statement or concept that contains conflicting or apparently conflicting ideas.
Now, my fishin’ buddy, Sean and I have certainly recognized, and maybe even reveled just a little bit, in the fact that urban fly fishing qualifies as a paradox.
We’re OK with the common perception that fly rods somehow just don’t work in urban waters.
We have grown accustomed to the odd looks, strange questions, or the guy who walks up to us and plants himself next to us so he can give us long-winded explanations as to why flyfishing doesn’t work – even as we are pulling in Bass and Bluegill.
We’ve gotten used to the packs of kids running up to us and staring, the dogs on retractable leashes barking and snapping at our flies, the stroller joggers observing our back casts and yelling in that protective parent way to warn us that they are behind us with a child.
We already plan on giving away wooly buggers and short pieces of tippet in a somewhat self-serving act of charity that buys us a little peace and quiet and we are always on the watch for nefarious characters in the same way that our Alaskan wilderness counterparts always keep an eye out for grizzlies.
Yet, given the realities of our work schedules, our finances, our time commitments and the alternative, i.e., flyfishing only very occasionally, we have opted to adjust to the circumstances and be urban flyfishers.
To that end, we are always looking for new ways to engage, enjoy or enhance our chosen obsession.
Sometimes, paradoxically, new ways even find us.
Consider what happened to my fishin’ buddy, Sean, recently:
A few months ago Sean made an impromptu decision to stop at a small urban pond on the way home from the office to blow off a considerable amount of steam acquired after a particularly grueling business meeting.
As he stood there, in the dark, muttering and grumbling to himself and hurling a Krystal Bugger into the inky blackness, a couple of things happened:
One, his blood pressure began to drop back into the normal range;
Two, he began to catch fish and;
Three, he experienced a heightened sense of awareness that he had not felt before while flyfishing.
Now, I’m not talking about a sense of awareness like, “Oh crap, I’m standing by myself dressed in slacks, shirt and tie in the dark in a (hopefully) deserted urban park griping out loud to myself and waving a very expensive stick in the air… and no one knows where I am.”
No, I’m talking about a “gettin’ into the zone”—that heightened sense of awareness regarding the feel of the unfurling fly line on the back cast, the heightened sense of feeling that same line slide through the guides in a smooth forward cast and even the heightened sense of hearing for the subtle plop of the fly as it lands in the dark forty feet out in front.
Yeah, in that impromptu moment, Sean discovered flyfishing at night.
And therein lies part of the paradox.
Flyfishing is all about catching fish, for sure, but it is also an art form and as such, there are elements to it that one might consider “active meditation”.
I’m not going all mystical or anything. But almost every flyfisherman I know takes a subtle pleasure watching his or her line form a perfect tight loop and then lay out on the surface of the water in a perfect, straight line.
Almost every flyfisherman I know delights in watching for that subtle dimple in the surface as a trout or a wary urban carp quietly sips the carefully presented fly.
And almost every flyfisherman I know breaks into a smile when droplets of water shower in every direction and sparkle in the sun like a million diamonds as the line tightens from a solid hook set.
So, what happens when darkness seems to render all those simple pleasures null?
Well, paradoxically, new types of awareness kick in and new pleasures with our obsession reveal themselves.
Flyfishing in the dark becomes more about feel and movement. It becomes more about perfecting skills that may have grown a little sloppy and it becomes more about appreciating familiar realms in a whole new way.
Case in point: A couple of weeks ago, Sean and I made arrangements to hit a local park where he has had pretty good luck catching Carp and Bass after dark since his epiphany about night fly fishing.
We drove to the target spot and parked under a street light about two hundred yards away from the water’s edge.
The air was mild and still so we only donned light windbreakers and the bare minimum amount of gear. I opted for a lanyard rig and Sean grabbed a small waist pack. We clipped on our nets and we both put on LED headlamps over our TU ball caps.
I choose a five-weight while Sean chose an eight-weight rig. He was clearly more optimistic then me but, then again, he had caught one of the largest Carp he had ever taken on a fly in this park after dark.
We tied on rather large, flashy buggers in the cone of light thrown off by the streetlight then headed across the wide expanse of grass.
My first impression, as we stood there waiting for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, was with the peacefulness of the situation. During the day, this park is loaded with runners and bicycle riders and kids on skateboards and an endless variety of dogs and dog-walkers. Now it was still and calm and a slight ground fog rose from the damp grass.
The water was glassy smooth and reflected the three-quarter moon, the treetops and the lights from nearby businesses. Near the edges, where the water was shallow, little wisps of mist also rose up and blurred the normally sharp concrete lip of the pond. We stood near the edge for a long time waiting and listening. Occasionally we would hear a faint splash but mostly we heard snippets of lively conversation and distant laughter bouncing out of the row of restaurants across the normally busy street.
When we decided to move. It was slowly and deliberately, almost reluctantly, as if we each did not want to break the spell of the moment. Our walking roused a mixed flock of sleeping ducks and mud hens who protested with soft quacks and grunts and moved en masse just far enough away for us to no longer be considered a threat according to some streetwise avian formula we couldn’t figure out.
Then in our usual fashion, we split to the left and the right and began fishing.
My first casts were pathetic, limp tangles of fly line. I kept misjudging the timing of my back cast.
Was I really that dependant on sight for my casting technique?
I shook my head and muttered to myself and was thankful that Sean couldn’t see the mess I had created. Then I took a deep breath and regrouped.
The words of a pilot friend of mine came to mind: “You can always count on your basic training, if you’ve been properly trained in the basics.”
So, I took a deep breath, pulled a couple of yards of line off my reel, gathered it in loose coils with my off hand, positioned my grip on the cork the way I had been taught and actually closed my eyes.
This time, when I made my cast, I could feel the rod load on the back cast, I could actually hear the line move through the air with a soft, smooth whooshing sound, I could tell that the forward cast was smooth and straight and I heard the fly land with a clean plopping sound just like an Olympic high-diver making a clean splash on a 9.9 dive.
I was in the “zone”.
With each subsequent cast, I worried less and less about technique and began to enjoy the moment more and more.
I marveled at the way the ripples of my casts made the reflection of the moon shimmer and sparkle on the water. I delighted in the peace and freedom of being alone in the moment even though we were in reality only a few hundred yards away from thousands of people. I took pleasure in “hearing” my line form a perfect tight loop on each cast. I smiled at the millions of starry diamonds that formed in the moonlight when I made a hard hook set and the droplets of water showered away from my line in every direction. And I laughed out loud each time I saw Sean’s headlamp snap on from across the pond because I knew he was playfully taunting me with a visual cue that he had landed yet another fish
And that’s when it occurred to me, in one of those great paradoxical moments, that I had to step into the dark before I could see the light as to why I love this addiction called urban flyfishin’.