Zen and the Art of Fly Fishing
Courtesy of Guy Turck

Follow this link to access the original article, Zen in the Art of Fly Fishing, from Guy’s personal web site.


I know how to make virtually any beginning or intermediate fly fisher improve immediately. And without a single casting tip, such as keeping the wrist firm. Or without any hints on tactics, such as mending early in your drift. In fact it doesn't require any physical changes whatsoever, and yet has the potential to dramatically improve your on-stream results, whether it be getting your fly to the target more often, achieving a better drift, or hooking more fish. It is, in a word, focus. And the lack thereof is responsible for more missed opportunities than any other single factor in fly fishing.

We now tend to use modern colloquialisms for what singularly used to be referred to as concentration. I like the word focus because it most accurately evokes a feeling for the state of consciousness I am referring to. It seems to me that the modern conception of concentration implies a willful act (that of concentrating) on a singular point of interest while "being focused" refers to a similar state of being, but in a perhaps broader sense. But thats just my interpretation of modern day language. Whether you prefer the word concentration or focus, it matters not. For the purposes of this column they are one in the same and will be used interchangeably throughout.

I'm in the Zone, Man, I'm in the Zone

Focus is sometimes called "being in the zone." "The zone" is a state of consciousness you enter into whereby your total awareness converges on the task at hand. That task may require the assimilation of stimuli from a number of various sources (for example, knowing where all four of your teammates are on the basketball court at the same time) or it may require you to concentrate on a single point of interest for a while when you determine it is in your best interests (for example, the front rim during a foul shot). You may well vacillate between a singular interest and a broader awareness. At the same time irrelevant stimuli (such as the screaming crowd) are filtered out. Whatever you do, it is imperative that said task be the most important thing in the world to you at the time.

Focus does not involve thinking and cannot be forced. You can only allow it to happen. In other words, if you are concentrating on concentrating, you are not concentrating at all.

To put it all in plain English, too many fly fishers are simply not paying attention to what they are doing! Their thoughts are on the last fish they missed, the stock market, the last fish their friend missed, the bond market, a fish they hooked and lost ten years ago, whatever. Their mind is everywhere but in the present, the here and now. As a guide I am often regaled with someone's "greatest day ever" fishing story while the storyteller is missing copious opportunities and perhaps an even greater day because of their constant chatter and corresponding lack of focus.

I once had a client spend over half an hour on a yarn about a bowl of soup he once enjoyed. I'm not making this up. In the meantime he was missing fish after fish yet complaining he hadn't gotten a big one yet. Sure enough, a well-endowed cutthroat finally gobbled his fly and ... well, I really don't need to tell you what happened next, do I? Other than what immediately followed was total silence (as I choked back the urge to scream).

Concentration and/or focus is a form of meditation where all but the task at hand is allowed to fall away. Responsibilities and worries are temporarily forgotten. The passage of time goes unnoticed. I often have clients who cant believe how quickly the day is passing. I view this as a good sign. They are, at the very least, absorbed in the act of fly fishing which, to me, indicates a desire to learn, a very good starting point.

Chill Out and Take a Deep Breath

Over the years I have found that proper breathing is of great benefit in helping one achieve the proper focus whether it be on the stream, the golf course, or on the sharp end of the rope as the leader on a rock climb. Focus requires a relaxed (but not limp) body, in conjunction with an alert mind. As tension insidiously creeps into the body one has the tendency to hold ones breath. If time permits, three slow deep breaths will melt away the tension. It also helps tremendously to exhale just before performing an athletic act, such as casting a fly rod. As the last bit of air leaves the lungs, make your move. This critical moment is when the body is most at rest and tension free.

Another technique I can relate helps me focus on my target while casting, which translates into more accuracy. If you've ever been a baseball or softball pitcher, this will come naturally. Pick out a target, and keep your eye on it until your fly arrives there (please read this sentence again). If you do not allow your focus to waver from your target, it is truly amazing how the mind will make the muscles hit the mark with pinpoint precision. With good casting technique and practice you will eventually develop a feel for nailing your target simply by focusing on it. I like to think of it as willing your fly to the spot.

Im reminded of a story I heard long ago which illustrates the importance and depth of concentration required for achieving pinpoint accuracy. The two best archers in the village were to test their skills against one another by attempting to hit a fish which had been hung on a somewhat distant tree. When the first archer was asked what he saw, he replied he saw a fish hanging from a tree. When the second, and ultimately victorious, archer was asked what he saw, he replied, "I see the eye of a fish."

The moral of the story for the focused angler is that when choosing a target, choose one which is just big enough for your fly to land upon. Don't merely cast to a pool where you know a fish lies, cast to a one inch square within that pool. Focus on that one inch square. Be precise in your aim and your cast will be precise as well.

Capitalizing on Your Opportunities

I dont know how many times well finish a day on a river and feel that while it was a slow day overall, had we capitalized on the opportunities we were presented, it would have turned out pretty well. This is because it is difficult to maintain focus on slow days when strikes might be separated by thirty minutes or so. But over an eight hour day, thats sixteen strikes. Land half those fish and its not a half bad day.

Air traffic controllers know this. They don't work eight hours straight because its impossible to maintain the degree of vigilance necessary to perform their jobs at the level required. While lives are not on the line when fly fishing, there is still a lesson to be learned. Focus is difficult to maintain for long periods at a time.

When fishing is slow and your attention is wavering there are two things I like to do to help keep my mind in the ball game. The first involves visualization. After a long period of inactivity most anglers will miss that first strike when it finally comes. To help prevent this from occurring, try visualizing a fish rolling up to eat your fly as it drifts along unmolested. This keeps your mind alert and your muscles in a state of readiness so they will react faster when the take eventually does come.

It may sound obvious, but another good idea is to develop the habit of always paying attention to your fly when it is in or on the water. I have a rule for myself in this regard. Never leave a fly in the water unattended. If I want to look at the scenery, or take a drink of water, or perhaps watch my fishing partner, I take my fly out of the water. Why do that when I might actually get lucky by leaving my fly on the water? You know the old adage, you cant catch a fish without your fly on the water. The reason is this ... I want to develop the mind set that when my fly is on the water I am going to be paying attention to it at all times. It has to do with habits. I readily admit that I dont always follow this rule, but I try to.

Perhaps you're skeptical at this point. The notion that concentration alone will make you the next Lee Wulff overnight might be stretching it a bit. You're right. It won't. But you will improve. With practice and good fundamental casting technique, you will get successively closer and closer to your target, ultimately willing your fly to the spot. By paying attention to surface currents you will get better drifts because you will instinctively know when to mend. And by not letting the mind wander you will hook more fish because your mind is alert. Putting it all together will still take time and practice, but your improvement can begin immediately, if you let it happen.