Aristotle and the Art of Fly Fishing
By Gregory S. Butler, October 2, 2009 in Uncategorized

I have heard it said that fly fishing is the only sport with its own literature. I am not sure what to make of this claim exactly, for I have acquaintances who insist that both baseball and golf have inspired some really fine writing. Fly fishing certainly has one thing going for it that the other two do not: it is a sport that always takes place in the most beautiful natural settings on earth. And I cannot think of any other sporting activity that is so satisfying to people of a contemplative disposition. Perhaps this more than anything else accounts for its allegedly unmatched literary aesthetic.

But while good fly fishing literature certainly evokes this aesthetic, none of it seems to go quite far enough for my satisfaction. Maybe that is because I am particularly preoccupied, both professionally and personally, with the classical Greek philosophic mind, and am so impressed with the tradition’s insights into reality that I have made a habit of noting them everywhere. As I have taught classical political philosophy for twenty years, and been fly fishing for almost that long, I have come to appreciate the unseen beauty of the sport, as it inheres in what I will call its naturalism. I have been thinking about the connections between the classical mind and fly fishing for some time now, even to the point of perhaps bringing my rod with me to lectures on Aristotle. I said thinking about it; I haven’t yet done it. So until then I will take a first step here and lay out the basics of my naturalistic theory of fly fishing, and perhaps follow up in subsequent posts with additional reflections on the theme.

At the center of the classical philosophic tradition is the insight that human beings find their way in the world first by reflection upon the order of nature. Aristotle takes it as an axiom of nature that “every art and inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good” (NE 1094a). The good for human beings, or that which produces best life, is not to be thought any arbitrary choice but rather the telos, or “right rule,” (NE 1103b) that nature herself has ingrained into man. As an integral part of our being, this telos is eminently discernible through the exercise of right reason and the habits of daily life. By the common assent of mankind, we know that happiness is the chief good for man; for “this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else” (NE 1097a). Reason and experience further teach us that the highest form of human happiness is found in the pursuit of the virtues, both intellectual and moral. We know this because no other creature is so fitted by nature for virtue, and because the serious pursuit of it yields the most lasting form of pleasure, “marvelous for [its] purity and enduringness” (NE 1177a). The truth of this insight, of course, can be appreciated only by those who have actually experienced the highest form of happiness through study and habit. Other creatures may fulfill their natures with merely the “necessaries of life,” but human beings are ultimately fulfilled only if they “strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in [them],” for “that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing” (NE 1178a).

I am convinced that there is no possibility of discovering the highest pleasures of fly fishing without at least an intuitive sense of the Aristotelian approach and the conscious exercise of practical wisdom accordingly. In fishing we are not in pursuit of virtue per se, of course. The telos of all sport fishing is simply the catching and landing of the prey; this is the good to which we aim. But success in the sport depends on a certain conformity to nature, just as for Aristotle success in life so depends.

In fly fishing, the first requirement is to enter the world of the trout, the good that by nature attends to this particular creature. This means more than simply wading out into the river. In fact, to enter the world of the trout a good deal of reflection must take place on the bank. What is the water temperature? How high is the river flowing? What is the water clarity? What is the time of day? What insect activity (if any) is present? What is the structural character of the river? Are there long runs and riffles, lots of protruding boulders, deep water pockets, or perhaps a nearby creek confluence? Such questions are an exercise in reason, certainly, as the answers to them will reveal the trout’s likely holding habitat and feeding patterns, as these are by nature “proper to each thing.” But in my case this bank ritual is more than simply an information gathering exercise. It effectively connects me to my prey in a primal, almost spiritual way. I call upon my reason (which, says Aristotle, “more than anything else is man”) as the mechanism by which nature opens up the opportunity for a sort of rhythmic intimacy with the creatures that live below. Once I enter the river, I find such intimacy indispensable, for it creates a heightened sensitivity to the trout and his environment that enables me to perceive things that easily escape most fishermen. You might use the cliché that I become one with the trout and his nature. I sense where to tread lightly as I wade. I sense what stretches can be traversed quickly without spooking fish. I sense where the big old fellows shelter, out of the way of fast-darting yearlings. I sense when it’s time to get surreptitious: on my knees with a sidearm cast. All of this amounts to nothing more than a disciplined and self-conscious attempt at conformity with the natural order, as the sine qua non of reaching the telos. The trout is a gatekeeper of sorts: he will only reward those who unlock the secrets of his nature. And reason in the instrumental sense is not sufficient; in classic Aristotelian fashion it must extend to the point of contemplation and be reinforced by habit.

The principle extends further to the rhythmic art of the cast. The mechanics of casting a fly line well are not a matter of personal preference, just as moral and intellectual virtue are not. Without careful thought and attention to the natural laws of physics, it will be impossible to develop the technique so as to catch a lot of fish (again, our telos). The line must go in the direction that it is aimed, it must spool out the proper distance, it must land in the exact spot (or very near) where the trout is feeding, and must do so by settling the fly on the water as quietly and calmly as nature intended. The action at the tip of the rod, together with the arc of the arm, largely determines accuracy, and these things respond in the intended fashion only upon awareness of the subtle interplay of forces upon the line’s trajectory. If you try to cast a fly rod with your wrist as you would a conventional rod, you will end up with nothing but a big pile of fly line at your feet. If your arc isn’t just right, your fly will either plop on the trout’s nose like a stone or get lost as coils of line drop on the water around it. The trout knows if you can't cast! One can learn of these forces in the abstract from studying a book, but one cannot adequately conform to them without reflection and habitual practice. The process of development mirrors that of the riverbank ritual: reason produces knowledge, contemplation produces awareness and sensitivity, and habit reinforces and perfects what nature demands.

Of course, as in all matters of virtue, you are free to ignore the demands of nature, but she always has a way of exacting her price. Those who ignore nature’s demand to live a life of virtue cannot be “enduringly” happy. And what of the nonconformist fly fisherman? Well, he gets skunked. And that is a price I am not willing to pay.

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Patrick on Mar 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm

I can't help but wonder what the author thinks of hunting. It also takes place in the most natural settings. You have to get into the mind of your prey while conforming to nature, just like fly-fishing. Anyway - this is a good post, but fly fishing isn't the only sport that possesses literary aesthetic.

Gregory S. Butler on Mar 30, 2010 at 10:12 am

Hi Patrick. I am sure you are correct. I would be interested in learning of some good literature dealing with other sports (except baseball), if you have any such information, thanks!

about the author

Gregory S. Butler
Gregory S. Butler

Dr. Butler teaches political philosophy and American government at New Mexico State University.