Voices from the river

Progress before perfection: advice from a bionic angler

I’m trying to improve my health. Still. Again. Since my hip surgery, working out has required considerably more intentionality than I’ve been able to muster over the last decade or so. 

Pain speaks in different terms; the “your legs are sore because you’re making them stronger” motivation of my younger days has been replaced by “your leg hurts because a doctor hammered a titanium ball joint into your femur, and you lost what little muscle you had.” Pain is more honest now, if less optimistic, and I appreciate the louder warnings that something’s broken or will be soon if not attended to.  

I exercise with future fishing in mind, trying to build muscle while reducing the weight load on the hip. Wading the Pit, McCloud, Madison and Rio Grande gorge has never been easy and certainly much harder through a closing time window that I want to be able to fit through for as long as possible. A trimmer belly is required, sound joints and heart. I’d like to think it’s going well. 

Oh, to be young again. Toner Mitchell photo.

Adjusted for pandemic interference, however, my fishing since the operation has gone the opposite direction. I often spurn the long drives for local half-day jaunts. Three to five fly changes are usually enough, the calculus being if fish don’t like what I’m serving, they won’t like anything. My fly boxes are a hodgepodge of favorite patterns with big gaps in colors and bug types, and in seeming accordance with my declining eyesight, the flies I prefer to fish are trending larger than is often called for. Up to my knees in a stream is usually when I realize this, and that I’ve left certain tackle items at home.  

Around surgery time, I grew concerned that this disfunction might be more than just laziness. I worried that I’d stopped growing as an angler, so I decided to take up Euro-nymphing.   

Though it helps to have taught myself nymphing before the advent of strike indicators and dries with droppers, there’s way more to it than just a tight line approach. My curiosity, if not my success, is accelerating. I’m messing with leader designs, and my fly-tying bag no longer lives in the closet. Buying all the gear appears to be the next step; I’m trying to hold out, but my shoulder is starting to whine for a rod longer than nine feet.  

I’m inclined to lump Euro-nymphing in with veganism and branded fitness regimens. Each of these practices demand discipline, commitment, and diligence that most mortals don’t possess in sufficient quantities to achieve excellence. There seems to be an almost priestly suppression of carnal distractions that could lead to other dubiously healthy habits like abstaining from attractor dry flies, alcohol and pie.  

In truth I’ve been holding out for quite a while on Euro-nymphing. Its numbers-driven appeal sometimes still leaves me kind of cold. Notwithstanding my projections (impatience with the pace of my learning curve, perhaps?), the method’s outstanding production potential seems a threat to fly-fishing’s inherent aesthetics. It’s a fish finder on a bass boat, a step towards automation. My Euro-nymphing coach describes the flies as soulless, and I find it difficult to disagree with him. At their most extreme, Euro-nymphs resemble tiny polished robots more than insects 

I’m inclined to lump Euro-nymphing in with veganism and branded fitness regimens. Each of these practices demand discipline, commitment, and diligence that most mortals don’t possess in sufficient quantities to achieve excellence. There seems to be an almost priestly suppression of carnal distractions that could lead to other dubiously healthy habits like abstaining from attractor dry flies, alcohol and pie.  

Dedicated Euro-nymphers, fitness fanatics and vegans can be intimidating, seemingly untouchable. Like wand-waving wizards, Euro-anglers vacuum stream bottoms. Heart-healthy vegans wear the skin and shiny hair of toddlers, usually thin ones. Imagine being an accomplished devotee of all of these practices at once, the peace of mind you’d have and the sleep you’d stop losing. Imagine the killer abs. Yikes! 

To get to places like this, one must give in to the need for certain conditioning. Toner Mitchell photo.

At this point in my education though, I’m comfortable in the knowledge that the Euro-nymphing equivalent of eating two salads for every Dagwood is as far as I will get towards passing a purity test. And to be fair, I’m unaware of any elite Euro-nympher who advocated the pursuit of purity in the first place. That was my imagination talking … my fear. 

Vegetables are good for you. So is the right amount of exercise. As a kid, I once spooled my Pfleuger Medalist with fluorescent yellow Stren and spent a summer on the Pecos bumping the bottom with worms and Pistol Petes. Fishing this way with a seven-foot Fenwick wasn’t as graceful as modern Euro-nymphing, but it sure caught me lots of fish. In case we need reminding, catching fish is good for you too.  

In view of the past year — the pandemic, the election, my bionic hip, etc. — it’s probably best not to sweat how things get done if the effects are good ones. I look forward to breathing again and refreshing lost capacities like giving thanks and reveling in the joy of other people. Call me naïve, but I still believe in the prospect of Americans taking pleasure instead of lumps of flesh.  

And I believe in putting progress before perfection. At this moment in history, there’s compelling evidence that it’s the most we should expect, and way more than we deserve. 

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