Beginner’s Mind Fly Fishing

I have often told beginners: fly fishing is as simple or as complicated as we want it to be.

Fly fishing can get complicated really quickly. It seems like the more we learn the more we realize how much we don’t know. I remember my first evening at the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in Livingston Manor, NY. The instructors spent the first four hour session on Friday night getting the students “up-to-speed” with fly fishing nomenclature and casting mechanics. At the time I had been fly fishing for over ten years. I left that sleepy, log-cabin schoolhouse in the Catskills wondering what I had been doing on the water all those years. As I drove back to my motel in Hancock, down through the moonlit and rolling ridges of the Springtime ravines, I had serious questions about what I was doing at the school.

That night I doubted my ability to improve. In just one short class the instructors had already dumped out enough information to fill what felt like a week of material, learning, and practice. The next day wasn’t any better! In fact, by the end of the weekend I had already been bombarded with so much information I felt as though I did not know where to begin my practice. Enter Yoda or should I say: Joan.

Most of us know Yoda, the little, green, Jedi master who admonished Luke to “do or do not, there is no try” in The Empire Strikes Back.* Yoda’s advice comes after Luke fails to use the force to raise his sinking X-wing from the swamps of Dagobah. Yoda, small in stature, stands calmly as he performs the feat and raises the sunken star-fighter, much to the chagrin of Luke.

Joan is Yoda.

Joan Salvato Wulff is a consummate teacher even if you don’t consider her personal fly fishing accolades, which there are many. She spoke to our class during lunch on Saturday, halfway through the first full day. Much like Yoda, she offered sagely words of advice and an inspirational demonstration to us. As always, her timing was impeccable. Of course this was only after we had several hours of ego-bruising exercises and practice. It is at this time during the course that many student flaws and bad practices become clearly exposed. The instructors ,then, go about their work discretely. Carrying out the terrible task of pointing out these misinterpreted, maladroit movements. As a study of human behavior, and purely for the sake of scientific observation, it is quite a scene to watch the seemingly simple act of casting a fly flatten egos and shatter facades. And, yes, at times, there are tears shed.

What did Joan say and do?

Well, while we sat on the porch of the little log cabin school house she told us that many of the struggles we will face in learning to cast better are in our own heads. They are precepts and concepts that we hold on to that limit our ability to learn. One of the most powerful and hard to break is our ego. She was fond of reminding us to “forgo the ego” or to “subjugate the ego” so that we can more freely practice without fear of failure. She then proceeded to cast the backing out of a eight and a half foot, six weight fly rod. She then asked us if we thought that was impossible because of her size, strength, or age.

Come to think of it: I wonder if Joan has ever watched Empire Strikes Back?

The point here is simply this: when we practice the art of fly-casting or when we fly-fish, we will often find what we take with us. If we bring our ego, or unrealistic expectations, then our experience will be limited. It will be limited by those preconditions, our preconceptions. This is where we stop learning, this is where we hit the wall, get stuck in a rut, or worse: lose our passion. Unbeknownst to us we often try to make progress by making the same mistakes (definition of insanity). This is where a master, like Yoda or Joan, can show us a way past ourselves and towards good practice. Towards learning new techniques, towards a beginners mind.

Now that might sound like a convoluted way to say: K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid. But it is not always easy to spot, on our own, when we have made life harder on ourselves. Fly Fishing is fun, it can be complex. You can find whatever you are looking for in the sport. The good stuff happens when we are in the moment, on the water. No expectations, no egos. Listening to the water with a beginner’s, open mind is where the complexity dissolves and we make progress. It’s as simple or as complex as we want it to be.

As just another fly-fishing themed blog adrift online (in a sea of grip and grin kitsch) this particular platitude is remarkably useless anywhere instagram hearts, profile pic likes, and cover image comments are the metrics for success. This is not to condemn social media and “sharing” (apparently an altruistic term). Rather, the opening truism could be a type of mantra for focus on the water, a helpful guide for good practice.

Happy New Year and tight lines.

* If you don’t know Yoda or what I am talking about then you should treat yourself to one of the greatest space epics of our time and watch some Star Wars. Start with Episode 4 and go from there, episodes 1-3 will just ruin it for you.


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