In Search of Benevolent Sirens | The Allure of Fishing

John Montesi

PHOTOS: Amado Stachenfeld

LOCATION: John Day River, Oregon

When hooked, they fight with folkloric cunning—depending on the species, a fish may tail dance or dive deep and do its darndest to shake loose from the line. In spite of all we know and every tool at our disposal, successfully landing a fish is always an art form and a minor miracle.

The allure of fishing is a powerful natural force. It draws us towards distant spots of blue on maps, toward rivers and through the woods. There is scarcely a more harebrained or worthwhile venture than placing oneself in the middle of a river with a hint of skill and a mountain of hope. Fishing is distinctively lacking in guarantees. The surface of the water obscures an entire world beneath it—indeed we know more about the surface of the moon than the depths of our own oceans, and the same could be said of lakes and rivers across the planet.
This mysterious energy tugs at our heartstrings until we find ourselves knee-deep in frigid flowing waters, trying patterns time and again until we can hold a fish in our hands. There is a challenging discernment in their tastes, a leeriness of drifts with too much slack or tension, a refusal of any fly a size too big or small for the hatch du jour. We have no way of knowing what the fish sees, but these adept survivors prove time and again that they can see more of their glorious surroundings than we might suspect. Cast too long a shadow and they scatter, lay a fly down just so and they may strike before it ever kisses the water beneath it.
Chasing fish leads us to the best places—worlds which are not entirely ours, surroundings shaped by the waters that fill them, roads less travelled. The surface of the water creates a unique wall between worlds, and everything beneath it is so full of mystery and promise that we will cast time and again with only an informed faith sustaining us. Whether by word of mouth or elusive glimpse of shimmering silhouettes, we believe that there are fish we cannot quite see, and we yearn to see them. This craving is primal, and it extends so far beyond the search for sustenance that it is essential to survival in the same way as all other arts.

On the water, everything takes on a different significance. Rivers wash away our worries and cleanse us of life’s clutter in a way that few things can. You can follow a fly with utmost focus while forgetting the world. Every disturbance of the water must be evaluated, every eddy and hole read. Encountering another fisherman creates a unique conversation in which every word is profoundly plain and endlessly metaphorical. There is always “the one that got away,” and there are “plenty of fish in the sea.” No matter how good or bad the day goes, “there are always bigger fish to fry.” These clichés almost never arise in conversation about what flies work or how the fish are biting, but they are always waiting in the weeds, implying that fishing is an analog for life itself and also the ultimate escape from it.
Those who follow trout and bass know that these animals are preternaturally wise and disproportionately strong. They will lazily and leerily eye a fly before turning away in disgust, breaking the heart of man in a way that only a fish or love can. When hooked, they fight with folkloric cunning—depending on the species, a fish may tail dance or dive deep and do its darndest to shake loose from the line. In spite of all we know and every tool at our disposal, successfully landing a fish is always an art form and a minor miracle.
Fish are benevolent sirens that drive us towards their homes from near and afar. We hop the gunwale and walk out into waters unknown following their tempting, silent calls. The allure of fishing is implacable—it requires such a fundamentally different approach from all other endeavors and promises so little in return. It is an active type of waiting that turns patience from a virtue to a verb, one replete with knot tying and roll casting and a particular attention to nature’s subtle cues. The end goal is imperceptible yet everywhere, lurking just beneath the surface. Success is not counted but felt— this is a game of chess with Mother Nature that always ends in stalemate. And yet, we return as often as we can, and it is never often enough.

Fishing by Travis Lucas