The Paris Review

The Philosophy of Fly-Fishing

When I was seventeen, I drove to Missoula, Montana, to learn how to fly-fish. The town is one of the best places to fish in the country. Rivers with names like the Bitterroot and Blackfoot crisscross the valley harboring trout the size of walruses. I spent that summer learning to cast and looking for the eddies and pools where fish might be lurking. I tried a thousand different flies and a hundred different rivers, and though I tensed my entire body to be ready for a strike, though I was living with a friend who made his living as a fishing guide, in three months I didn’t catch a single fish. Not one.

Published in 1653, Izaak Walton’s might best be described as a curiosity cabinet of a pious Renaissance naturalist. Framed as a dialogue between a veteran angler, Pescator, and his eager student, Venator, the book came recommended by practiced anglers and seemed to promise some bit of knowledge I was lacking. Next to descriptions of fish like pike (“a solitary, melancholy, and a bold Fish”), and bream (“scales set in excellent order”), were poems by George Herbert. Alongside a cheery round of fishing songs, I found instructions for making fishing line from horse hair (“take care that your hair be round

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