Why would you stand out in the river in January and freeze to death all for a trout that you’re going to release minutes later? Why would you brave triple digit heat to slop around a muggy pond for carp? Why would you travel halfway around the world just for a chance to catch a new fish? If it’s not even for food, then why put yourself through that?
Often, the fly-fishing laureates–those that describe this crazy compulsion– refer to the escapism in fly-fishing and disconnection from the daily grind. In our current age, it's easier than ever to sink deeper into the couch and live a digital existence where experiences can be condensed down to complex strings of 1s and 0s. Surely, the same person who doesn't understand the depths of your fishing habits still has their own escapism in the likes of Netflix, the NFL, etc...but those avenues look so drastically different from fly-fishing. But even as fly anglers, we often regurgitate the common "escapist" tag to describe fly-fishing, accepting this cliché unquestioningly.
Is fly fishing really escapist?
Fishing isn't about escaping from reality, but focusing on reconnecting to an existence modern European-based societies have turned our backs on. Don't misunderstand me, I appreciate our modern world: medicine, sofas, the internet, what's not to like?... But the vast majority of humanity's time on Earth was spent evolving to serve a different day to day life than we live today. Early hunters had to learn, watch, observe, fail, as they tracked deer, bison, all kinds of species with distinct seasonal patterns and behavioral intricacies. They paid attention to prey tendencies, learned how their bows reacted to arrows, in addition to thousands of obscure details that eventually added up to hunting success. I'd imagine early hunters congregated around campfires to discuss and refine tricks to using their bows or traps, and I'd wager that these conversations were eerily similar to modern discussions amongst hunters and anglers. In these ancient pursuits, paying attention to details used to matter more: eat or starve. What is comparable in modern life? Paying close attention to details in emails? Nah, we have spell check. Needing to be observant while driving? Nah, we have automated alerts now. So how can we find an outlet that satisfies what are brains are wired to do? For catch and release anglers today, it's not about blood, but about taking advantage of that same brain pathway, accessing deep evolutionary tendencies: understand, interpret, and problem-solve against an indifferent and ever-shifting natural landscape.
The hunt was sacred and the animals were worshipped. But these days, the reverence for most wildlife has been pushed aside as a special interest. Considering this ancestral viewpoint, is it really so weird that I have a trout pattern on my hat? Why is that same reverence and passion so bizarre now (outside of the fishing or conservation community)?
In the modern age, it's just a hobby, misunderstood by most, obsessed over by few. Yet each day, humanity faces greater challenges through the extirpation of nature; increased pollution, less wilderness, darker days, brighter nights, and ever creeping urban expansion. We are actively forging a world that looks less and less familiar. Why go outside when you can watch National Geographic from your ergonomic couch fully stocked with a Costco supply of Cheetos?
Is it really so strange to want to put that aside and allow ourselves a chance to briefly drift back to an older, more ancestral way of being? It was once survival, but now it's ascribed "meditation." Meditation?...really? Quieting the mind from all the city noise isn't meditation...This again speaks to how foreign and removed the modern world is from our ancestral roots. The brain is more predisposed to hunter-gatherer tendencies than it is to favor any modern indoor existence. It is also highly adaptive and can be tricked quite easily, if we're not careful.
"We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology" - E. O. Wilson
We all could use some Rx-nature.
In fact, doctors are starting to prescribe nature as treatment. Is it possible that this urban jungle we've built (to our our own standards) isn't actually a setting that is conducive for humanity to thrive? I'm utterly (and sarcastically) shocked. Only in very recent history, kicked off by Silent Spring in 1962, have we started to acknowledge that humans don't know what the Hell we're doing! We make short-sighted decisions that bite us in the ass later. The laundry list of conservation issues has a direct link to earlier human tinkering, as first highlighted in Silent Spring surrounding the consequences from extreme over-application and overuse of pesticides. But it's not just environmental issues where we see this short-sighted decision making. Facebook outgrew MySpace by 2008 and finally, only after a decade, did we first start seeing research about the downsides of social media for mental health. We do this all the time, its been the same song and dance with vaping (2020s), plastics (2020s), opioids (2010s), fast food (2000s), cigarettes (1990s), seat-belts (1970s), etc... We, in modern western societies, embrace new creations and only ask for forgiveness after we learn that using our shiniest, newest toys yield unexpected consequences.
With how quickly technology evolves, the target is constantly moving, muddying the waters and obscuring our abilities to learn from the past. We're already onto the next thing, diving in head first. Now fully submerged in the digital age, the further we get from experiencing and engaging with the natural world, the more likely we willingly overload in digital substitutions that produce as many quick hits of dopamine as our brains can manage. In reality, we are fighting against our own predispositions and getting closer to losing ourselves. Don't let Wall-E become a roadmap for your life.
No, I'm not suggesting we burn it all down. Just because something is natural doesn't make it inherently good, that would be a fallacy. In fact, nature doesn't care about us, exhibit: one recent pandemic. Indeed, technology has advantages for us; like increased longevity, expanded education, and even more sophisticated problem-solving. But certain natural phenomenon do provide a host of proven advantages that we can scientifically justify. Beavers can manage waterways better than any engineered system of dams and levees, wetlands can filter out heavy metals from acid mine drainage, even bacteria can manipulate our emotions, just to name a few. So I'm simply suggesting that we should all re-insert ourselves into the non-built world with extra vigor, it takes a concerted effort these days.
Our modern society IS the escape, and things like fly-fishing are what we what we do to escape the escape. How backwards have things become that we prefer to see it the other way around?