Many anglers at least pretend to aspire to perfection in the things they do, even though they may not be able to pin down exactly what perfection is. Most of us don’t have the slightest inkling of the consequences should one actually attain such a state of being but, still, we try. It seems we learn well through repetition, doing things again and again until we get them right, even if it takes all day, a whole year, or even the rest of our lives. It’s okay. We’ll get it. Practice makes perfect.
Dump a box of flies I’ve tied and you might wonder if that box had been left open beneath an electric bug zapper. With mismatched wings and appendages all akimbo, my flies sometimes look like abstract mockeries of the imitations they are meant to represent. Most will catch fish, passing muster with the trout, but when people look at my flies, they tend to pat me reassuringly on the shoulder and say, “It’s okay. You’ll get it. Practice makes perfect.”
In June I will take some of those flies – big cream colored emergers with deer hair wings that, the way I tie them, appear to be engaged in a mighty struggle even when sitting perfectly still – and I will row to the far end of the lake, where drakes ascend like fairies and trout gather to gobble them up. The rises are rhythmic in the lingering twilight and as dusk settles in the pace picks up. I spy splashes in front of me and I hear splashes to my rear and to the sides, like I am surrounded by fish, and I find myself trying to cover them all. Turning awkwardly and throwing backhand, badly, as well as dumping line to the fore, I will sometimes shuffle and cast a full 720 degrees before finally taking a seat to assess the situation more closely.
When I do, the splashing stops, making clear that 50% of the fish I was casting to have moved along, most likely scared out of their wits, and (just like the last time this happened) the other 50% were imaginary fish, conjured up by striking the water behind me with a sloppy back cast. I will sit and wait and think, and when the fish return I will pay attention to what I am doing. I will get my back cast up where it belongs, and I will be back in business. It’s okay. I’ll get it. Practice makes perfect.
Of course, by the time I realize the fish are taking small dark spinners coming down, not big pale duns rising up, and that my fly is all wrong, it is too dark to change. Someday I will figure out those masking hatches and spot them early, but it’s okay. I’ll get it. Practice makes perfect.
The thirty feet surrounding one guy I know are a very dangerous place when he has a fly rod in his hand, especially when he’s fishing from the dock. Innocent bystanders yelp in pain and his peers curse as he flails away. When called to account for his actions he just shrugs and says, “It’s okay. I’ll get it. Practice makes perfect.”
He is persistent, I’ll give him that much. He has been practicing for years.
The hazards of these waters are familiar to me, and easily avoided, even when heading home after dark, and I have docked enough boats, at all hours, to know the drill. When the boats are pulled at the end of the season I see dents in their bows, along with gouges on their under sides, and I know the same is not true for others. I have even watched, more than once, as someone motored out of sight behind one of the islands, only to come back, rowing, with their damaged motor up, for everyone to see. Some people can navigate the narrow, winding course through those rocks with ease, but one man I know hasn’t made it through once in five years of trying.
I growl at him for dinging up the boats and while I replace his broken propeller for the umpteenth time he paces back and forth saying, “It’s okay. I’ll get it. Practice makes perfect.”
Sometimes an evening is so nice, so nearly perfect, I won’t even fish. With a sky so clear it almost doesn’t exist, a breeze as soft as the papery flutter of mayfly wings, so comfortable it feels the boundary between air and skin has disappeared, I often do nothing but sit and watch. Trout swirl in cool water and ephemeral forms take wing while swallows wheel overhead and waxwings hawk bugs from the trees. Owls hoot, deep in the woods, and the coyotes begin their nightly patrol, trading yodels with the loons. The first stars appear, along with the last remaining bats, and families of ducks come in for the night, streaking black against the sky. I see their silvery wakes as they splash down in the coves and if I am lucky I might see a meteor or two before heading in (not skunked, because I didn’t fish) for the night.
At those times, when everything seems just the way it should, angling becomes more than simply a recreational activity. Surrounded by nothing of our usual lives, if only for a few hours, angling gives us the opportunity to see and experience something bigger than ourselves, if we allow it to happen. The scenery, and everything else, is there whether we fish or not, but if it weren’t for fishing, most of us wouldn’t see those things at all. There are some who don’t register what is right before their very eyes as they fish, even claiming to not give a fig about sunsets and scenery and such, but those people are half blind, unable to see, and not to be trusted.
Sometimes, the bigger something is all I see, so I sit and watch, not even wetting my line. From the teeming soil on the hillsides to the clear waters that issue forth from their slopes and the sheltering sky above, life goes on as it has, forever, without us – or perhaps even in spite of us – and as I watch I sometimes wonder if it can possibly get any better.
Life and death, the cycles of the seasons and a million other things happen even when we are not looking and they will occur long after we are gone. Over and over, year after year, the world beyond ourselves has experience but there is no practicing to make perfect out there. Every day is a test. Maybe even the final exam. Human judgment of the results means nothing, at least not for long, because our ideas of perfect can’t last in a world subject to so many variables, constantly changing, never static.
The flies I tie don’t really look like they’ve been set on fire and stomped out. They never did, but they are certainly more pleasing to look at than when I first started tying my own. There is plenty of room for improvement, but I am getting better.
My back cast only occasionally creates false rises behind me these days because I remember to stop my rod and watch my loops and my line. I still put fish down when I forget what I’m doing, feel too confident, or get plain lazy, but the whole lake doesn’t shut down any more, cowering at my approach. I have also remembered, a few times anyway, to look at the water and watch the fish to see if they are taking little dark spinners among cream colored duns. I even once remembered to bring some small dark flies along.
Perhaps, some day, the dock will be a safer place when my friend fishes and folks will no longer run his one-man gauntlet, diving for cover in a boat and shoving off as fast as they can, before someone gets hurt. I suppose, after five seasons of witnessing the mayhem he creates with rod in hand, it should be considered progress that the casualties this year were all treated on site, using only basic, common, first aid materials. Maybe, one of these days, he’ll catch a fish.
The rocky shoals behind the spruce-covered island will probably always wear stripes of boat paint. It’s just too tempting a passage to not try. Many will attempt it, and some will succeed, but I’ll keep a stash of spare props on hand until a certain someone understands the implications of running a trolling motor with a three-foot shaft into two feet of rocky water.
We like to say, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Most of us can do that. But what about the third try, or the thirtieth, or three hundredth? What about the unintentionally crippled flies that continue to drop from my vise? What about casts that slap the water behind and snag small children despite hours of repetition? Or guys who run into the same rock more than twice? Is it okay? Will we get it? Does practice really make perfect?
Even imperfect anglers such as myself catch fish and sometimes it just all comes together, complete with pleasant surroundings and conditions to match. Every so often, a cast lays out nicely, the correct fly lands without a splash and is taken. Another fish fooled, caught and released on a dreamy summer eve, and at moments like these –apart from everything, yet in the midst – it becomes clear to me that perfection is not necessary to catch fish and, no matter how often I have heard or said otherwise, practice does not make perfect after all.
The practice of perfection does.
Author - Ken Hall lives in Vermont and works for a 100+ year-old fly fishing club, which means he spends a lot of time watching other people fish. Using the pen name Quill Gordon, he creates content for the blog “The View from Fish in a Barrel Pond”.