Featured | Voices from the river

Is it good … or bad to obsess?

Boxes full of fishing flies.

Fly fishing is arguably the ideal pastime for someone with obsessive tendencies. Inches matter on the stream, as do thousandths when it comes to spools of tippet or fly-tying thread. A guy I once fished with said he never saved leftovers from home-cooked meals; it was a sanitary thing. Sure. 

I remember thinking he probably ironed his underwear before putting them away, but not before taking a moment to admire how well he folded them. So I wasn’t surprised that his fly tying desk was fit for a museum. The spools, tools and colors resonated with an aesthetic intuition I could only admire. It was a deeply satisfying feeling, yet also quite eerie. I wanted so badly to grab the hackle pliers off their keeper and lay them at an oblique angle in the not quite center of my friend’s work station. 

People who know me could find many ways to describe how clutter and chaos tolerant I can be. My mother might recount instances of me forgetting to empty every fish from the back pouch of my vest, how she dug through piles of discarded clothes to locate the offending smell. To this day, my waders aren’t hung but thrown, and though I consider myself to be a pretty solid fly tier, it is only because I stick to what I can get away with, tapered-bodied but fuzzy nymphs, dries with stacked tails, upright hackles and limited frills. I’d just as soon learn another language as attempt to tie anything so intricate as a Copper John. 

Back then I kept all my tying stuff in a multi-decked organizer box with drawers and removable trays. Now I keep it all in a canvas duffel. I also keep an 800-dollar 5-weight in a tube without a cap.  

I know that finally, because I’ve gone through several phases of pretending to be the other kind of angler, the guy who could recite genus and species of the rarest mayfly. During one phase, I noticed how my engineer friend in Alaska labeled his fly boxes with the types of flies they contained. “Steelies.” “Attractor Dries.” Perhaps believing that such a tactic might elevate my game, I wrote “eggs” on a box in which I kept all of my glo-bugs and beads. “Eggs,” said my engineer friend as he regarded the transparent plastic box. “You don’t say?” 

Meanwhile, I nurtured many obsessions that I’m proud to say have been vindicated by years of experience. I can’t stand it when my mends don’t lightly pop off the water, so I’m never without line cleaner and replace my fly lines the second they go bad. And while I often say that, with proper form and timing, one could throw a perfectly fishy cast with no more than a broomstick, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to even try to prove it. To my frustration, several of my childhood fishing buddies have dropped thousands on destination fishing trips yet continue to fish the same old gear. 

Gus on the Beaverhead. Toner Mitchell photo.

“But I’ve caught tons of fish on this rod,” they’ve protested, to which I’ve responded that they’ve also not caught tons of fish that they should have. Speaking of lost fish, there’s always the Anal Andy spouting off about the latest hot fly, the knot you absolutely must use. I’ve been, and in some ways, still am that guy. 

I’m also the guy who can no longer muster the juice to view preseason fly tying as a religious mandate. Time was I would make a list — Renegades, Z-wings, Humpies, Secrets, ants, Joe’s Hoppers, hare’s ears, Buggers, worms — and would smile bigger with each filled row in my fly boxes. Back then I kept all my tying stuff in a multi-decked organizer box with drawers and removable trays. Now I keep it all in a canvas duffel. I also keep an 800-dollar 5-weight in a tube without a cap.  

It seems I’m reverting to my original sloth, and my excuse, so far as I need one, is my son. His existence on earth not only reshuffled my priorities but simply consumed time, much of which I’d planned to offset when he came of age to tie all our (my) flies. Good eyes, nimble fingers, it made sense. What didn’t make sense was the possibility that Gus might not ever like fly fishing. Up until this summer, he’s been a musician, a skier and a soccer player. 

Now that he might actually be into fishing (Thank you, COVID-19), it occurs to me that my pendulum might be due for a swing back to the more attentive, i.e. obsessive side. If his nascent passion is to become real, he can’t — as he is currently being taught — leave the tags on his knots or entire dropper lengths of tippet tied to the flies he returns to his box. He’s caught a ton of fish this summer, and I would bet a thousand bucks that he couldn’t name a single fly pattern he’s caught them on. That’s on me. I guess I’d resigned myself to such details never mattering. 

A new obsession? Toner Mitchell photo.

As we all know, every little thing we notice while fly fishing — everything we can name, describe, or get frustrated by — does matter. It’s how we develop our own personal styles, even emotions, and how we invent techniques and strategies. It’s how we decide what to read, what to study and perhaps major in, and whom to vote or not vote for depending on how they feel about a toxic pit mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. At least that’s how it happened with me, and hopefully, how it might happen with Gus.  

If I can only stop being such a slacker. 

Toner Mitchell is TU’s water and habitat coordinator for New Mexico.