North Branch Zen Retreat

No Fish Allowed.  Whitewater Rafting Permitted.

Readers may recall my October 2012 post featuring UPENN professor’s Paul Hendrickson and his 60 second lecture on “Why Fly Fishing is a Zen Experience” . I like the topic and completely embrace the notion that one can, and should, use an activity, hobby, sport…as a vehicle to achieve a Zen state. It can be something which requires concentration such as fly tying, or even a reflex response such as breathing. Misogi No Kokyuho (Japanese) is an old Shinto meditative breathing drill and is commonly practiced by martial artists as “Ki Breathing”. In Zen, one’s strives to achieve a “mind without mind”, or Mushin no shin (more Japanese). One is not a mindless zombie (though I can be at times), but in a state of complete awareness, without distractions and free to perform the task at hand. This is probably a state one actually achieves everyday, without the hippie “Zen” label; if you are reading this post with total concentration, then you are practicing mushin no shin – no shit.

So, why all the chatter about zen and fly fishing? And there is a fair bit of it on the internet. Well, I’m not completely buying it and here’s why: In fly fishing there are tons of distractions to obstruct you from achieving the desired Zen state, the main one being the fish themselves (huh?). I admit that fly casting on a stream, the complete concentration it requires aerializing line, shooting line, fly presentation, drift…all of it puts me into my happy Zen place. I am reminded of the wise quotes of the Skagitmaster himself, Ed Ward: “The casting is very mesmerizing. Once you get out on the river, and get into the zone of casting, working down the run, it’s almost Zen- like out there. It’s inner peace. The closest thing I have to being in a church is being on a river. That’s where I like to be. That’s my cathedral.”  Well said, Skagitmaster.

That’s all well and good until you hook a damn fish and have to break your rhythm, fight it without looking like a bag of ass, and then, without killing it, bring it to hand (unless you plan to slay it for the grill, pan or camp sushi station). Yeah, fighting the fish, which is “conflict” and not very Zen-like anyway, could be a chance to practice more mushin no shit (oops – meant “shin”), but in the process you’ll probably get excited and cocky (ego is evil!); You might be yelling and looking around for your buddy, who has the net, and a camera (CHAOS. It’s bad too!). You should be striving to be the humble, selfless angler – the better person.  Piece, brother.

D Loop on the N Branch“Be one with the fish”, right? Bullshit. Fish have no capacity for cognitive thought, in fact have no grey matter, just a brainstem, which commands basic functions such as seeing food and then eating it (I apologize if this characterizes my fishing buddies – or men in general). I suppose they are in their own mindless zone, but it’s not THE ZONE – the fish isn’t seeking to improve it’s mind, body and spirit.  Well, I don’t think so but I could be wrong. What if they are the superior beings and we’re the idiots. Yeah, I don’t think so.  We can make nuclear bombs, iPhones and shit.

Screw the fish! Who needs them? They just ass up your Zen thing every time. Freakin’ Rican, Elmo and I spent three days on the North Branch Potomac this Spring and got completely skunked, not even a bump. And now you know why I used this post to validate our trip, though fishless ( Yes. I am shameless).  I walked in the door all smelly and unshaven (normal) facing the obligatory question:  “How was the fishing?  Did you catch anything?”  I didn’t lie, I could have, but said “No fish are left in the river anymore.  There must have been a fishkill or something…the weather was great. What’s for dinner?”   But, we were better men in the long run, completely recharged and at peace (until we hit traffic on I-270 and spent a half day at work).

I may just throw away my net and dispense with the hooks all together.  Oh, and a big F’n thanks goes to the Army Corp of Engineers for mistaking anglers (there were many) for whitewater kayakers (there were none) and keeping the levels above 900 CFS – that was supposed to be scheduled!  I enjoy risking my life and skating streamers on sink tips.