Awareness and flight fishing | Hatch Magazine


There is an absolutely vital element to our fly fishing, which rarely appears in our fishing conversations, or enters the outside media. Now I’m not sure if this is because this particular topic seems so obvious that there is no need to discuss it, or if it is simply too difficult to describe and calculate. Regardless, you will rarely see it mentioned, much less discussed.

What am I talking about? awareness.

From where I am sitting, awareness is the most important fly fishing ability a serious trout fisherman can develop. It is also more difficult to master. And that’s nothing to do with throwing, presenting, entomology, picking flies, or reading water. They are all essential components of the sport. But in my experience, awareness – or rather, lack of awareness – is why so many technically skilled fishermen experience poor to average results.

Let’s start with a basic definition. Merriam-Webster defines consciousness as “the quality or state of being aware: the knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists.”

Dictionary.com describes it as “the state or state of being aware; having knowledge; conscience. ”

When it comes to butterfly fishing, awareness helps us to understand as much as possible about what is happening in our vicinity. It also informs – or should inform – our decisions about where and when to fish, what equipment to use, what techniques and presentations to use, what flies to use, where to walk, how slow or fast to move, what angles to throws make more sense, and when we close things off and call it a day.

So what do we need to know about awareness?

Let’s start with Albert Einstein. Einstein told us: “A human being is a part of the whole of what we call the ‘universe’, a limited part of time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and his feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical illusion of his conscience. ”

Cosmologist Brian Swimme made a connecting point when he wrote: “We live in intertwined layers of connection.”

Naturalist John Muir simply stated, “When we try to choose something ourselves, we discover that it is related to everything else in the universe.”

In other words, everything is related to everything else. And that matters because the world around us affects our singing in big and subtle ways, and because the aquatic landscape provides ongoing data on how to maximize our enjoyment and success. Birds and insects share important information. Likewise the angle of the sun, the direction of the wind, the purity of the water and a thousand other small “stories” that combine to create a three dimensional plan for every fishery we visit.

The more we see and feel, and the more attention we pay to them, the more likely we are to enjoy success. And that’s true no matter how we choose to measure our success (or lack thereof).


hiding rainbow trout

Do you see it? If not, watch the video below to see what you missed (photo: Todd Tanner).

Simply put, it does not matter how good your equipment is, or how much you have worked on your cast or other skills. If you have not developed your consciousness, it is unlikely that you have achieved anything close to your full potential as a fisherman.

Many fly fishermen are convinced that a basic “paint-by-number” approach to our fishing delivers optimal results. As long as we can throw, fix, hook and play fish, we are in great shape. And while there is certainly a core of truth in this belief, it fails in a host of ways.

Would you cross half over this place, or would you cross this place unnoticed? (Video: Todd Tanner).

That puts us in an obstacle. Since very few expert fishermen talk about awareness, and since it is difficult to find relevant articles or videos “properly”, anyone interested in expanding their awareness is left to experiment on their own, or find techniques in unrelated areas and more after trying to apply them to their fly fishing.

I have been fortunate to take a range of awareness classes over the years and help teach some as well, and here is what I can tell you based on my personal experiences.

  1. It takes time, effort and concentration to develop your awareness skills.
  2. While observation and awareness are related, they are not the same thing. Just because our eyes see something, or our ears hear something, does not mean that we are really aware of those things. Awareness benefits invariably from a conscious commitment on our part.
  3. In addition to the use of sight, awareness also relies on voice, smell, and touch… not to mention other forms of cognition that may be more difficult to measure.
  4. We do not need to know where a certain piece of information comes from while we are fishing. Metaphorically, an entire orchestra plays around us when we are in the water. As long as we can listen to music, there is no need to separate the flute from the oboe or the clarinet. What do I mean by that? Well, if I take a subtle form of ascent, it does not matter much if I heard the ascent, or saw its rings sliding downstream, or noticed that a certain fly that was going upstream had suddenly disappeared. The fact that I have become aware of the rise dominates everything else.
  5. There are times when we want our consciousness to encompass everything around us, and there are times when we want to limit (or focus) our awareness in certain specific areas. It is vital to know when to expand our consciousness and when to focus it.
  6. Sadly, there are downsides to raising awareness, and this is especially true for those of us who fish rivers less than pristine. (As Aldo Leopold once put it, “One of the punishments of an ecological education is that man lives alone in a world of wounds.”) The more aware we are, the more we experience everything – evil as well as good – in personal level.
  7. Raising awareness directly leads to increased success. Someone skilled at awareness techniques will almost always fish someone who lacks basic awareness skills, and this is true regardless of who is the best fish throwing or throwing technician.

I must also point out that I know a handful of extraordinary fishermen who have developed their awareness over the years without ever realizing that they are doing so. They see, hear and feel things on a level far beyond the ordinary, but are not consciously focused on improving their awareness skills.

Does this mean they have a special talent, or an unusual talent, or perhaps a genetic predisposition to raising awareness? Your guess is as good as mine. All I can say for sure is that while these people exist, they are the exception and not the rule.

After all, those of us who hope to work on our awareness skills are left with a big question. Where can we go to develop our awareness and make ourselves more effective about water? How do we see more and experience more?

From my point of view, one of the best places to start is with America’s primitive skill community. It is not uncommon for desert tracking and survival experts to consciously shine and convey helpful advice. Another option may involve exploring the practice and principles of “consciousness” while in the water.

Teacher of primitive skills and awareness Tom Brown III on awareness and fly fishing (video: Tom Brown III).

I hope to finally share some concrete suggestions for building your awareness on water in the next section for Hatch Magazine. In the meantime, I’ll leave you thinking about an interesting question attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Gautama Buddha.

“How can anyone ever know if he is too busy thinking?”



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