Anything Fly Fishing

Surface Tension

6 Mins read

Seasoned anglers respond ironically to the commonplace misconception, among non-anglers, that the sport “must be relaxing.” For one thing, anglers understand that beneath this observation lurks a less polite, unspoken one: that fishing is idle, pointless, or in Samuel Johnson’s famous words, a matter of “a stick with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.” But, to me, a lifelong and avid fisherman, these unspoken, ruder views are only half-wrong. Is fishing idle and pointless? Sure!—and therein lies its beauty. But is it relaxing? Hardly! In fact, what anglers seek out, again and again ad-infinitum, is not relaxation but its opposite: a very particular kind of tension.

Just to be clear, there are certain kinds of tension evoked by fishing that we all try to avoid, that our doctors would advise us to avoid, that turn our gills red and our language blue. These include accidents and mishaps, as when the only thing you hook is yourself, or when your buddy shouts, just too late, “watch out for that drop-off!” There’s also nothing relaxing about big disappointments: “I could have sworn the guy in the store said this lake had fish in it”; or in technical troubles, as in the not-so-slow leak in the kayak, or the bird’s-nest tangle of leaders, or any other moment that finds its analogy in the words, “Yes, of course I can see that huge trout, but look, I’ve decided to hook this huge tree instead.” And finally, there’s Mother Nature herself, in dramatic mood, conjuring thunder and lightning out of a clear forecast, or vindictively unleashing that bane of fly fishers: flies—the real ones, that bite. We all have a vault of memories of this sort, which for our mental health we prefer to keep locked. (This necessary repression is the reason such bad experiences crowd our nightly dreams—or am I speaking only for myself?)

So please, let’s turn from these dispiriting examples to the kind of tension—call it nervous hope, or trembling anticipation—that we seek whenever we return happily to the water, and of which, I hope, we all have a personal trove of instances. Foremost among mine is the first fish I ever caught on a dry fly. I was about fifteen, vacationing with family friends on the island of Benbecula in the Scottish Hebrides, and sent out by them, on our last evening there, to try my luck in their local loch. On this late summer evening the wind had dropped completely and the surface of the water, which had been covered in white caps during a gale earlier in the week, was now beautifully, dismayingly, millpond calm. Wild brown trout were rising everywhere, their mouths sending out sudden, small ripples on what otherwise would have passed for a mirror reflecting the fading sky. For half an hour, as I crept around the treeless, rocky shore, my every cast turned happy, surface-sucking fish into sulking bottom-dwellers. But then, at last, my fortune turned. I experienced, in the very last of the light, that wonderful alignment of intention and motion that announces success before it’s achieved. (Whether this special experience is essentially athletic, or poetic, or spiritual, I’ll leave up to you.) I’d stalked my rising fish, made my back-cast with that heavy old split-cane rod, and then knew, as I propelled the line forward, that my tiny gnat (or dun, or white moth—my memory fails me in these crucial details) would not so much land on the water as pause weightlessly above it, like gossamer, before dropping delicately to rest, exactly over the trout’s nose. There was a moment before the nonchalant trout sucked in that fly, and in that moment lay the very quintessence of the tension I’m trying to describe, and which I remember half a century later.

Of course, such matters are subjective—a source of passion for fishing fools like us, but bemused indifference to Johnson and his ilk. But reflecting upon them brings to mind a much more objective form of tension, which fly-fishing folk can celebrate, too. I mean the surface tension of water. The physics of this phenomenon quickly eludes me, but we can attribute to it the evolution of the myriad insects that depend on it, either by scuttling across it, water-skater style, or by using it for support in order to breathe, or to hatch, like mayflies. It also catches and holds up all manner of ill-fated terrestrial bugs and other wee beasties—frogs, mice, snakes—whose movements are signals to the fish below. Without this viscous film, and the buoyancy it provides, our tiniest midge, our mightiest green drake, and everything in between, vanishes. Opening our fly-boxes we’d be left forlornly fingering a beleaguered collection of overused streamers. But this would be the least of it. How our aquatic ecosystems, and our lives as fly fishers—as human beings—depend on that happy horizon where the water tenses at the touch of air!

So in talking of one kind of tension, the emotional kind evoked by the anticipation of action, I’ve drifted into the topic of surface tension, a physical phenomenon. The first is temporal, and occurs inside us; the second is spatial, existing in the world beyond us. But these two forms of tension are so often connected in the experiences of fly fishers that it can be hard to distinguish them. Exhibit A would be the example I’ve already given, of that formative dry fly of mine giving a wild Scottish Brownie a kiss on the snout. I held my breath; the surface tension held the fly.

But again, for most of us, recalling how often our own tensest fishing moments have been focused on the surface of the water, Exhibits B-Z come readily to hand. I was once fishing the Pacolet River in South Carolina, reeling up a good-sized bluegill which had taken a wooly bugger in a slow, deep river pool. It approached the surface, performing small, indignant spirals as it came, when a big, dark shape suddenly materialized under it, opened its enormous mouth and swiped inaccurately at the bluegill before disappearing, all in a matter of about a second. This was probably a large catfish, but could have been a lunker of a largemouth, in which case the species was never more aptly named. No matter the fish; my heart rate jumped as the river’s surface roiled. As soon as the water settled again and I’d released the bluegill (wishing it the best of luck down there), I half-doubted what I’d just seen. The only remaining evidence was in my pulse.

When fish rise, the very motion of the water’s surface, and the way that surface is shifted or broken, is determined by its physical properties, right down to the spherical formation of droplets moving through the air. When we say we’re “reading the water,” it’s the surface tension that provides the page, and the current that adds the lines. Fish, be they tiny trout or titanic tarpon, come up to write upon it. They make it swirl, or dimple, or they slice it or tear straight through it; this is the energy-field where we engage them, and where they engage us.

Once, fishing from the bank of a large pond, I cast a popper, and as it approached the end of its airborne arc a 3lb largemouth leapt up to meet it with such alacrity and gymnastic coordination that the fly was safely in his mouth before it ever hit the water. The fish must have seen it coming and thought that the friendly thing would be to go out and greet it. It’s true, as philosopher John Locke said, “There are fishes, that have wings, that are not strangers to the airy region.” But this was a large-mouthed, wingless bass, surely perverting the generally accepted rules of angling—one isn’t supposed to pull fish from the air. Certainly it had never happened before, and has never happened since. But it’s another instance in my fishing life of the water’s exploding surface producing an intense emotional reaction, and the two becoming one in my memory over time.

In this case of the proactively leaping, my excitement was almost after the fact. This was an instance of action preceding tension, since I had a fish before I anticipated one. Something like the opposite happened much more recently: I watched a green anole swim the breadth of a wide, slow river, which I knew to be well-stocked with bass. Alone and looking frail, it created steady, provocative little bow-waves, and the farther out it swam the more fishy-looking appeared the depths below it. My tension on its behalf rose as I watched. But it made it all the way, pausing on the sunny rocks opposite to collect itself, and perhaps to think, “Again, I risked everything, and for what?” Meanwhile my thought was, “Indolent fish! I’ll have to get my fly down deep.” This had been an instance of all tension, no fish. How many hours have I watched my own fly in that fish-free trepidation?

There is no end to these images in the memory, moments when the filmy divide between air and water, where one world meets another, becomes the site of our tensest moments. The water’s surface tension can seem the rippling skin of life itself, and sometimes makes our own skin tremble, too. Maybe knowing that we evolved from watery creatures helps explain our desire to reconnect with them as we do, at one end of a stick. Is it too fanciful to imagine that when fish breach that surface—not for food or to evade predators or shake a hook, but for absolutely no apparent reason—they are expressing a corresponding desire to reject the limits of their own realm, and feel the tension of that momentary escape?

Idle thoughts, no doubt. Call me a fool, but I think perhaps it’s time to put down the pen, and pick up that rod—or stick, if you prefer. Those who’d like to, please come too. The rest of you can just relax.

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