The first time it really hit me was at the end of a long, walk/wade session with four friends, two of whom I had met in person just that morning. There had been breakfast beer. There were laughs. There was a streamside medical emergency. There were fish—lots of fish.
The moment I realized that this is my tribe is captured in a photograph. It may not be obvious to anyone else, but when I look at the picture I snapped at the very moment of that realization, I feel it all over again.
This is my tribe.
This is not my only tribe. The family I was born into, and later created, is a tribe, with its own peculiar rituals and traditions and deep sense of belonging. And I am a member of other loose associations, some including anglers whose members overlap in some fluid, and sometimes complicated, Venn diagram.
But this fly fishing tribe, it is a strange thing that I struggle to understand, not least because many of the people I know who fly fish are either a.) intensely private, b.) socially awkward, c.) fiercely introverted, or d.) just generally curmudgeonly. I am, by turns—and sometimes in combination—all of those things.
We are not, as a rule, joiners. If we were, you’d probably find us in a bowling league or on a softball team somewhere instead of on a stream.
There are exceptions, of course—outgoing, back-slapping, hail fellow well met types—but … I’ll be honest, here: those folks make me a little nervous.
Getting over the mid-life hump
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I turned 50 this year (it still shocks me to write that), which—as it turns out—was much harder than turning 40. At age 40, I could still, justifiably, lay claim to being young(ish). At age 40, there is a reasonable expectation that there might be more tomorrows than yesterdays. At age 40 I had one child, I was single, and I had time to go out on a weeknight and listen to music, or grab a beer.
A decade later, none of that is really true. Now I have a son in college and two young sons at home. I’m married, again, and I’m gone half the year for work. I have more than one doctor. And I’m still all those things (a through d, above) that make joining a bowling league or book discussion group unlikely.
One of the consequences of surviving into middle age is that somewhere along the way you lose some friends, and at the same time it gets harder and harder to find new ones. In 2012, Alex Williams wrote a much-discussed story for the New York Times titled: “Why is it hard to make friends over 30?”
In the article, Williams cites three criteria sociologists have long considered necessary for forming friendships: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. These criteria explain why so many people form their deepest friendships in college, at a first job, or in prolonged, high-intensity situations such as military service or work as a first responder.
As you get older, researchers say, you have to work a little harder to cultivate, and maintain, friendships. As my friendships become more intentional, I would add two more criteria that have become more important to me: shared interests, and—perhaps more importantly—shared values.
What is it about fly fishing?
My friend Jeff Troutman has asked this question of several guests on his Remote. No Pressure. podcast, and it always leads to a pause in the conversation as the interviewee considers, perhaps for the first time, what it is that brings people in the fly fishing community together, sometimes in profound ways.
Perhaps the pause arises from the inherent tension between the love of a mostly solitary pursuit and being part of a larger group, or culture, that engages in that activity.
It seems like most people I know these days fly fish, or at least have a fly fisher lurking in some back room, bent over a vise with a whiskey tumbler at hand, muttering to himself. It sometimes makes me think everyone fly fishes, when of course most people don’t.
The numbers are hard to pin-down, and definitions are squirrelly, too (are we talking about people who self-identify as fly fishers, people who own rods, people who fish every year, or every month?) but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates there are something like 1.5 million fly anglers in the U.S.—a mere 4.29 percent of the more than 35 million anglers who fish every year. (Other estimates put the number of fly anglers as high as 6 million, and the number of anglers in the U.S. at 60 million, but industry sales don’t seem to support that.)
Whatever the numbers, and despite—or maybe because—virtually everyone I know these days is somehow involved in the sport, the fly fishing community is a small place, a three-degrees (at most) of separation kind of world.
My experience thus far is that I have a lot in common—values as well as interests—with most of those people. And my answer to Jeff’s question is that the demands of the sport select for people who are observers, people who value quiet and solitude, people who can set aside ego and exercise patience and live in the moment. Fly fishers do what they do, mostly, for the experiences, not the trophies or the kudos (Instagram likes aside).
The differences between those of us who pursue tiny, bejeweled natives on bluelines and those of us who stalk redfish and bones on the flats or monster brown trout in rivers, are significantly smaller than the differences between any of the aforementioned and the vast majority of Americans whose idea of a good time is a football game on the big screen in a noisy sports bar. Although, to be fair, both things provide the same sorts of conversational frameworks and cultural touchstones that dudes seem to so desperately need just to be able to begin a conversation.
Loose Connections, Real Friends
Social media continues to be a hot topic in the angling world, with an increasing number of people decrying (on social media, naturally) its purported effects on the sport and the fisheries. Whether it’s annoyance at “influencers” and the “pro bro” culture, or concern for all those fish we pose for pictures, some folks wonder if maybe we shouldn’t collectively pull back a bit.
A couple of weeks ago I met Jeff, the host of that podcast, for the first time in real life. Over the past two years I’ve been a guest on the show, we’ve exchanged emails and phone calls and texts, and we’ve kept up with each other through Instagram and Facebook.
When Jeff mentioned he was coming through Texas on business and wondered if I might have time to fish, I leapt at the opportunity. When he rolled into town, it was like catching up with an old friend. We stayed up late sampling whiskey, got up early to fish, and continued a conversation that has been ongoing in virtual spaces over many months.
It is human nature that we present the best versions of ourselves on social media. It’s tough to document the takes we missed, and we only rarely share our more significant life challenges and disappointments publicly. There are exceptions to this, too, of course, and I am in respectful awe of folks who are able to pull that off with humor and grace. Maybe more so of those who can’t muster humor, or are in need of some grace.
So … I don’t presume that someone’s Facebook profile or Instagram feed is a true and complete portrait of that person. But for a lot of people, it’s a good place to start. It at least gives you an idea of what he or she thinks is important.
It just so happened that on the particular Wednesday evening Jeff was due to arrive, I was already booked for a rare dads' night out with some friends from the neighborhood. No surprise to some of you, probably, but not all middle-aged dads have effective support networks or friends they can just let their hair down with and vent to. So that, fueled by some excellent local beer and cigars, is what I was doing from about 6-10 p.m. on a Wednesday.
Jeff was scheduled to arrive between 10:30 and 11, and by 10:30 I was home with the boys (my wife was traveling for business), who were eagerly awaiting his arrival (they also are podcast and music fans). I needed a quick break and a smoke, so headed to the back porch.
"If Jeff gets here before I come back in, here's what I want you to do: open the door when he knocks, and then say: "Who the hell are you, and what are you doing at my house at this hour?!"
The boy's practiced ... I assured them that yes, they really could say that .... okay, got it! On my way out the back door, I said: "Alexa ... play Jeff Troutman music .... Alexa, turn up the volume."
About 10 minutes later, I got up and turned around to go back inside, and through the living room window, I saw Jeff standing with his roll-on in the front foyer, a perplexed look on his face, as my boys quizzed him and his own voice serenaded his arrival.
It. Was. Awesome. And hilarious. If I was aiming for maximum awkwardness, I may have succeeded (#sorrynotsorry, Jeff).
Other first meetings, IRL, are often attended by their own, lower-key uncomfortableness. When my buddy Jess and I picked-up Chris Barclay and Dave Fason at the airport for a week of enforced closeness over 2,500 miles and four states as we chased native trout a year ago, each of us was keenly aware (we all admitted later) that it was going to go either really well, or really badly, and either way we were going to be stuck with each other for the next seven days.
Unsurprisingly, it went really well.
Loose Connections, Real Friends
Not being a joiner by nature, and with a work schedule that doesn’t lend itself to regularly scheduled events, I don’t make it to many of the meetings of either of the FFI-affiliated fly fishing clubs I belong to. The F3T stop in Austin always seems to occur on a weekend I am on the boat, and as much as I want to go to that Saturday presentation at my local fly shop, a boy’s baseball game (or the Scout campout, or a fishing trip, or … something) takes priority.
So I rely a lot on the loose connections formed through social media. They are, in a way, stand-ins for the “proximity” the social scientists say is necessary for a friendship to take root. Add in some planned (or unplanned) opportunities for interaction, and sometimes those loose connections grow into real friendships.
The nature of the sport itself, and the places where we pursue it, take care of that last thing, the setting that encourages us to let down our guards and confide in others.
Community, and Solitude
Thinking about this last weekend, on a Sunday, I revisited Fly-Fishing: The Sacred Art by Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer and Rev. Michael Attas. I learned about the book from an episode of Remote. No Pressure.
In the chapter called "Common Ground," Mike Attas (an Episcopal priest as well as a cardiologist ... which makes him an expert on both heart and soul, I guess) writes:
We have instant "friends" via social networks. We text, tweet, and e-mail instantly. While these phenomena certainly enable us to cast our nets wide, they do not fill the places in our hearts and souls provided by deep encounters with humans who love, understand, and care for us. True community breaks down walls, encourages human growth and potential, and provides a safety zone when we are broken and hurt ... paradoxically, we also seem to need periods of solitude. We need time alone to listen to our hearts, interpret our needs, understand the role we play in creation, allow ourselves to heal from the toils of the world, and renew our spirits.
Again, modern life doesn't encourage true silence and solitude. We are victims of noise pollution and sensory overload. We are always "doing" when we need more "being." We need to be still, to rest our weary bones, and to step out of all of the many demands that life places on us.
No activity that I know of satisfies both of these needs as well as fly-fishing does. Good trips are most often taken with longstanding, close friends who share a love of this sport. On these trips, we not only share travel and the time on the water together, we solve all of the world's problems at night after the mandatory fishing stories are told.
There is a ritual pattern to every trip I have taken. We fish hard all day. We spend time on the river dealing with the inner issues, while solving the technical issues of the fish and what they are feeding on. Then we return to the cabin or lodge. There, the barriers come down amid the telling of stories and the sharing of our inner lives. We talk not only about fishing, but children, work, politics, longings, desires, dreams lost and found. We have drinks and smoke post-dinner cigars as the evening draws to a close ... There may be periods of silence and reflection. Listening is just as important as talking, and I've found anglers to be among the best listeners. We tend to take our lives seriously and yet with humor and joy, so the periods of time back at the cabin are among life's richest treasures.
The Bottom Line
I find nothing to argue with in what Rev. Mike wrote, but I would add that stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, taking a chance on converting a loose connection into a real friendship, offers the same (or even greater) rewards as those fishing trips with longstanding friends. Sometimes one thing becomes, over time, the other, but it takes a little courage to get going.
I get to test my theories again this week. Friday, I’ll meet up with a couple of guys from the Dallas area to fish one of my home waters. It’s a trip that has been rescheduled several times, something we’ve been talking about since at least last fall.
I’ve never met either of the gentlemen, IRL, but—after seeing what they celebrate on Instagram, and with a long string of emails and DMs and phone calls behind us—I’m pretty confident they will become friends.
And if I’m wrong? Well, we all got to go fishing. And: I’ve fished with jerks before, but never the same jerks twice. But I’m willing to bet—a day of my life, anyhow—that I’m not wrong, that—as has happened so often in the past—I’ll merely be discovering more members of my tribe.
Photos #4 (fly tying) and #8 (two friends walking) by Merrill Robinson.