Fly Fishing and Religion: The Fly Line as Connecting Thread


Paper delivered by Kenneth H. Lokensgard, at the 2009 American Academy of Religion Annual Conference. Copyright 2009 Kenneth H Lokensgard

            In 1976, University of Chicago English professor Norman Maclean wrote famously of the relationship between religion and fly-fishing:

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.  We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others.  He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen in the sea of Galilee were fly fisherman and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.[1] 

Maclean wrote this passage in his mostly autobiographical novella, “A River Runs through It.” 

            Maclean is not unique in pointing toward a relationship between religion and fly fishing.  Despite the fact that scholars of religion have largely ignored fishing and other field sports, such as hunting, the association between religion and fly fishing has been made in European and Euro-North American popular literature for centuries.

            Given this historical association, the fact that many consider fly fishing to be potentially religious is plain.  The question is, “why?”  Fishing is not a part of established Jewish, Christian, or Muslim ritual or doctrine, although fish and fishing do appear in the Hebrew and Christian bibles.  Fishing writers have highlighted this fact, as Maclean does, but these writers have spent more time writing about the overall experience of fishing and its benefits.

            Key to understanding why fly fishing has been viewed as potentially religious for so long is the fact that it is necessarily practiced in the so-called “natural” world.  Indeed, Sam Snyder, the one recent scholar to consider the religious aspects of fly fishing, characterizes it as a “religion of nature.”[2]  Snyder’s label is apt, but he concentrates primarily upon contemporary, conservation-oriented fly fishers.  Many historical fishing writers, most of whom were religious in a very conventional, Christian sense, would likely bristle at this characterization.  These writers portray nature more as a setting for religious activity rather than as a focus of religious action.  In nature, they seem to suggest, the fly fisher is partly freed from the most obvious elements of “culture”—elements that the writers consider as distractions from intimate community with the Christian God and elements of its creation, including fellow Christians.  Thus, it is the “connection” to others, which the setting seems to facilitate, that makes fishing religious in the minds of so many authors and their readers.

            Before continuing, allow me to explain just what fly fishing is.  It involves casting a heavy line with a long rod.  At the end of this heavy line is a “leader” of several feet—a very thin line that is difficult for the fish to see.  Finally, at the end of the leader is the “fly,” an imitation piece of bait, hand tied with threads, feathers, and other materials to a hook.  Traditionally, these baits represented actual flies floating on or near the surface of the water, upon which many fish feed.  Over the last hundred years or so, fishing “flies” have evolved to include representations of just about everything else upon which fish prey.

            One of the first clear references to fly fishing in European literature is made by the famous German epic poet and knight, Wolfram von Eschenbach, in the early thirteenth century CE.[3]  In a fragmentary text titled Titurel, he describes the young nobleman and squire Schionatulander catching perch and grayling “with a feathered bait” and rod, while on retreat in the forest.[4]  Notably, Schionatulander is, in a sense, a religious figure.  He is an associate of the Grail seeking knights of King Arthur’s court.  Like many of them, he is a thoroughly chivalrous character and the very embodiment of thirteenth century Christian ideals.[5]

            The first significant English language reference to fly fishing, which deals explicitly with the relationship between fishing and religion appears in the fifteenth century.  In a short essay titled “A Treatyse of Fyshynge with an Angle,” the author describes fishing as a field sport superior to others because it brings good health and other things, as she puts it, “pleasing to God.”[6]

            The “Treatyse” was first published as the conclusion to the second edition of The Boke of St. Albans in 1496.[7]  Authorship of the “Treatyse” is attributed to Dame Julyana Berners.  No clear historical data exist on her, but she came eventually to be described as a Roman Catholic nunnery prioress in Hertfordshire, England, of noble birth.[8]

            The bulk of the larger text is devoted to various types of hunting, a field sport long associated by the European elite with chivalry and morality.  Perhaps it is not surprising, then, to see fishing now described as a sport that is fundamentally good for the Christian’s soul.  Here, I quote a passage to this effect from a modern English version of the “Treatyse” by scholar Sherman Kuhn:

You must not use this aforesaid artful sport for covetousness, merely for increasing or saving your money, but mainly for your enjoyment and to procure the health of your body and, more especially, your soul.  For when you intend to go to your amusements in fishing, you will not want very many persons with you, who might hinder you in your pastime.  And then you can serve God devoutly by earnestly saying your customary prayers.  And in so doing, you will eschew and avoid many vices, such as idleness, which is the principal cause inciting a man to other vices, as is right well known. … Also you should busy yourself to nourish the game in everything that you can, and to destroy all such things as are devourers of it.[9]

Notice the author’s emphasis upon the need to be free from distraction in order to fish successfully and to “serve God devoutly.”

            We see a similar emphasis upon the benefits of the good Christian freeing her or himself from distraction in the next great text on religion and fishing.  This text, in fact, is one of the most significant English language texts on any subject.  This is The Compleat Angler or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, by Izaak Walton.  The book was first  published in 1653, and it has been constant publication ever since.

            Walton, a dedicated English Royalist and Anglican, describes fishing in much the same way that the author of the “Treatyse” does.  He argues that fishing benefits the Christian because it removes him or her from the distractions of financial pursuits and social ambition.  Indeed, Walton’s chief character in the book, a master fisherman who converts a hunter to fishing, proclaims that anglers pity men distracted by such things and “enjoy a contentedness above the reach of such dispositions.”[10]  For the experience of fishing, according to Walton, allows the fisherperson to bond with his fellow Christian fishers and better to appreciate the power of God, as evidenced in the beauty of creation.  Walton’s reformed hunter, surely made a better Christian by converting to fishing, proclaims the following:

So when I would beget content, and increase confidence in the power, and wisdom, and providence of Almighty God, I will walk the meadows by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the lilies that take no care, and those very many other various living creatures, that are not only created, but fed, man knows not how, by the goodness of the God of nature, and therefore trust in him.[11]

It is toward the stream to fish, then, that Walton suggests Christian readers turn to find and appreciate their god.

            The overall experience of fishing Walton believes, represents the perfect combination of “contemplation,” then understood as an explicitly religious activity, and “action.”  It thus forms, for him, the most “ingenuous, quiet, and harmless art.”[12]  The beautiful, distraction free setting in which it is practiced and its generally relaxed nature facilitate contemplation of God.  And fishing, itself, combats idleness, which Berners condemns so strongly in the “Treatyse.”

            With the immediate popularity of The Compleat Angler, fishing literature took off.   Because many of the authors of this literature restate Berners and Walton, and because of our short time together, I skip ahead again through time to look at Maclean’s great novella.  A River Runs through It is the story of MacLean’s family and of the bond the author felt with his strict Presbyterian father and his troubled brother while fly fishing in 1930’s Montana.

            In the story, Maclean tries to “help” his hard-drinking and gambling brother, Paul, by taking him fly fishing. During each fishing trip, the two brothers experience a closeness they are unable to achieve at other times.  Moreover, Maclean himself feels a closeness and a connection with something other-than-human—something we might presume the Presbyterian author associates with God. 

            Maclean says things such as he has “left the world behind” while fishing.[13]  But his trips are not just means of escape.  Indeed, he takes his primary problem—his brother—with him.  Still, the two men leave behind many other distractions that normally prevent them from truly connecting.  During these trips Maclean is able to let Paul know that he is concerned about his welfare.  For Maclean, fishing thus facilitates intimacy between human individuals, as it does for Walton.

            Maclean also discusses his connection to the wider, natural world extensively.  He uses almost mystical terms to describe the intimacy and condensation of this world that he experiences while fishing.  He writes that “poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really the fisherman who experiences eternity compressed into a moment.”[14]  The experience of intimate connection that he feels with the natural world extends even to the fish.[15]  Almost certainly, the fish he deceives and hooks with his flies do not feel as positive about this connection as Maclean does, but I leave the discussion of fishing ethics for another time.  The listener should know, though, that this subject is considered at length by many fly fishing writers. 

            Regardless, the setting and overall experience of fly fishing allow Maclean to experience some of his most meaningful moments: moments of connection to others.  For him, these moments represent actual unity with the wider world, and with reality itself.  The author makes this clear at the conclusion of the novella.  In doing so, he alludes to an earlier discussion with his father about the Christian New Testament verse, John 1:1 and whether words or water were the first to exist:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and the river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under rocks are the words, and some the words are theirs.[16]

 Maclean is never able help his brother to the extent that he would like; in the story as in real life, his brother dies prematurely and violently.  However, as he writes the novella near the end of his own life, he seems able to take solace in the fact that his brother is a part of the “oneness” that he finds while fishing.

            A fourth text to enter the canon of writings on fly fishing and religion is David James Duncan’s 1983 novel, The River Why?.  In this book (now being adapted to film), Duncan tells the story of a young man named Gus.[17]  As a boy, Gus reads The Compleat Angler, which he calls the “family bible.”[18]  He becomes frustrated that Walton’s “God of nature” eludes him, even though he spends inordinate amounts of time fishing.  Gus therefore decides that if he completely immerses himself in the activity about which he is so obsessed, he might at least find happiness, if not God.  So, he graduates from high school and moves to a cabin by a river to fish.

            He fly fishes so hard and so often that he effectively severs contact with his family and peers.  Eventually, however, he begins to notice the landscape beyond the river and his cabin, he meets a young fisherwoman, and he slowly becomes less reclusive.  After beginning to enjoy relationships with those around him, he finally has an intimate encounter with Walton’s “God of nature.”  In a passage that brings to mind the conversion of Paul in the New Testament, Duncan describes this encounter.  Of course, he does so in fishing terms:

Mad with joy, I sank to my knees on the white road, and I felt a hand, resting like sunlight on my head.  And I knew that the line of light led not to a realm but to a Being, and that the light and the hook were his, and that they were made of love alone.  My heart was pierced.  I began to weep.  I felt the Ancient One drawing me toward him, coaxing me out of this autumn landscape, beckoning me on toward undying joy.[19]  

            Fly fishing itself is not a religious experience for Gus.  Yet, once he begins to appreciate the setting and not just the activity of fishing, he opens himself up at last to intimacy with others, including what he jokingly calls in fishing language, “The Whopper” or God. [20]

            Each of the authors whose works I have reviewed make clear that it is not the activity of fishing alone that gives it religious significance.  It is the relationships that one can establish while fishing that do so.  Berners emphasizes the relationship with her god and certain elements of its creation, in this case the game fish that she instructs her reader to protect.  Each of the other authors also emphasizes the relationship with God, whether they use that term, as Walton does, or whether they describe it as something ancient, eternal, and whole, as Duncan and Maclean do.

            Each of the authors indicates that the “natural” world is implicated in this relationship.  Berners feels that a respect for God should compel the fisher to care for God’s creation.  Walton, Maclean, and Duncan seem to feel almost the opposite—that establishing a relationship with the natural world will help one establish a more meaningful relationship with God.  Walton, Maclean, and Duncan differ in their views from Berners, who supposedly lived a somewhat solitary monastic life, in one other way.  The three later authors also emphasize that meaningful human relationships are made possible through fishing. 

            For each of the authors religion is fundamentally relational.  This is no surprise, if the word “religion” really derives from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind.”[21] In each text, the authors or their characters are metaphorically bound or connected to their creator and creation through the fly line that features so heavily in their sporting activity.  The later three authors are also metaphorically bound to their fellow humans through the fly line.  In a sense, then, to contradict Maclean playfully, there is a very clear line indeed between religion and fly fishing.  It is a line, though, that connects, not divides.  Division arises in our daily lives from the zealous pursuit of wealth condemned by Berners and Walton, and by personal obsessions: the drinking and gambling engaged in by Maclean’s brother and even by the single-minded obsessive pursuit of fish by Duncan’s Gus.

            Anthropologist Victor Turner suggests there are essentially two, alternating states in which humans live.[22]  One is the state of social structure, characterized by social hierarchy.  This hierarchy is determined by the positions each of us hold in our families, our workplaces, the wider society, and so on.  These positions are reinforced by our needs for recognition, for wealth, etc.  Such internal and external interests prevent us from truly engaging others.  The other state is the state of liminality, usually achieved through ritual activity.  Simply put, this is when we are free from the things that characterize and reinforce social structure.  In the liminal state, we are able to establish more intimate relationships.  Scholars have used Turner’s theory to explain the appeal of non-field sports, particularly to fans of organized team sports and participants in physically strenuous sports.[23]

            As different as fly fishing is from these other sports, Turner’s theory help us understand the religious significance of fly-fishing too.  For the authors whose works I have discussed here, the setting in which fly fishing is practiced seems to facilitate liminality.  Fly fishers are required to visit those places that are unaffected by culture enough that fish can actually survive.  Today, of course, they might also visit previously damaged fisheries that have been purposefully restored.  This challenges the definition of “nature,” but the fact remains that most fly fishers must fish away from the ecologically damaging centers of culture, and therefore from the distractions associated with life in those places.  As it happens, the clean, healthy places that remain or that have been restored on our planet are what most of us would consider beautiful too.  Berners and Walton attribute this beauty explicitly to God.

            So, in the minds of the authors I have reviewed, the fly fisher practices his or her sport in a setting that enables religious connection.  In this setting, whether alone or with close companions, the fly fisher engages in the generally focused, repetitive activity of locating fish, determining their prey, and casting imitation flies to them.  These activities might help the fly fisher to connect more intimately with his or her fellows, with animals or plants that the fisher might consider as creations or manifestations of a god, and maybe with that god itself.  But it is not the fishing that is essential to establishing these connections.  Rather, it is Berner’s undistracted prayer, Walton’s Christian comradery and contemplation, and the less purposeful immersion in one’s surroundings described by Maclean and Duncan.  All of these things are easier to accomplish, according to the authors, in places where it so happens that the fly fisher is most likely to find fish.

            In conclusion, if religion is relational, if it is about orientation toward others, human and otherwise, as historian of religion Charles Long puts it, then we can understand why so many people have considered fly fishing as a potentially religious activity.[24]  We can appreciate why Maclean claims that religion and fly fishing were not distinct phenomena in his family.  Furthermore, we can appreciate why works dealing with religion and fly fishing, stretching as far back perhaps as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s time, have been so popular among the European and Euro-North American public.

[1] Norman Maclean, “A River Runs through It,” in A River Runs through It and other Stories, 25 Anniv. Ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 1.

[2] Sam Snyder, “New Streams of Consciousness: Fly Fishing as a Lived Religion of Nature,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75, no. 4 (2007): 896-922.

[3] Andrew Herd, “Fly Fishing in Medieval Times,” A Fly Fishing History, (accessed Oct. 12, 2009).

[4] Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival and Titurel: A New Translation by Cyril Edwards, translated by Cyril Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), 366.

[5] Walter Johannes Stein and Irene Groves, The Ninth Century and the Holy Grail (East Sussex, UK: Clairview Books, 2001), 117-123.

[6] John McDonald, Quill Gordon (New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf, 1972), 153.

[7] Ibid., 149.

[8] John McDonald, The Origins of Angling, with assistance from Sherman Kuhn, Dwight Webster, and the editors of Sports Illustrated (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1963), 73-74.

[9]John McDonald, Quill Gordon, 172.

[10] Isaak Walton and Charles Cotton,  The Compleat Angler or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2004), Part 1, 6.  Later editions of The Compleat Angler included a second section, devoted entirely to fly fishing, which Walton asked his friend Charles Cotton to contribute.

[11] Walton, Part 1, 252.

[12] Walton, Part 1, 26, 27.

[13] Maclean, 51.

[14] Maclean, 44.

[15] Maclean 98.

[16] Maclean, 104.

[17] David James Duncan, The River Why? (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1983), 182.

[18] Duncan, 35.

[19] Duncan, 278.

[20] Duncan, 182.

[21]Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “religion.”

[22] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process (New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995), 96.

[23] See, for instance: Joseph Price, From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion; (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001); Pamela Cooper, The American Marathon (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

[24] Charles Long, Significations, Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretaion of Religion (Aurora, CO: The Davies Group, 1999), 7.

2 Responses to “Fly Fishing and Religion: The Fly Line as Connecting Thread”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Dang Ken, I hope you got an A.


  2. kenov Says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I’m working on a version for a journal right now. The whole fatherhood thing sure slows writing down though.


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