Jan 11, 2010

Evolution of an Angler or Art on the Riverbanks

A River Runs Through It - This makes me smile

Rebecca, The Outdooress, recently wrote a  blog post that provoked some thoughts I need to write about.  This might get wordy, but please bear with me.  She closed an article about her first fly fishing trip by summarizing

"Someday I’ll get to the point when I can slice a line through the air as quietly and involuntary as the act of breathing. Someday I will perform art on the riverbanks."
Such a statement likely sums up the thoughts many have when they decide on a hobby. Whether it is fishing, soccer or crochet, everyone dreams of “performing art.”  I am guilty of similar thoughts; especially when I started fishing, but even more recently I’ve dreamt of the day I can perform art on the riverbanks.

Rebecca’s comment caused me to pause and consider if I’m any closer to being the expert angler I’ve dreamt of becoming. I’m relatively young and haven’t yet logged as many hours on the water as many of my fellows, but I can truthfully say I know more about catching fish than most average citizens of this world. But am I an expert? To understand, you have to know just how I got here.

Humble beginnings

The Great Gar Harvest of 03

I began fishing, really fishing, when I was in college. One summer, a friend and I fished many times each week, much to the chagrin of our girlfriends. We had a favorite spot in the backwaters of the Illinois River where we’d throw crankbaits for hours and land a few fish. Sauger were the main target but many other species filled in as bonus material. I can recall also catching a few northern pike, many sheephead, one particularly large brown trout and countless gar. That year was also the first time I laid eyes on an Asian Carp, a Bighead. This too was the summer I spent an afternoon learning how to cast fly line using a friend’s Grandpa’s bamboo pole, a skill that would come in handy six years later.

Good times catching fish

But this was just the beginning. This was a time when I wasn’t yet dreaming of mastery. My friend and I were just out having fun, getting sun burnt and occasionally a little drunk. The summer ended and I carried into the fall semester just a mild interest in fishing. My college was seated in the middle of a smattering of great fishing opportunities and even had a lake on campus. To this day I regret not making the most of my time at Southern Illinois University.

Maybe there is more to this

Sometime later, while fishing solo on the Illinois River for catfish, I struck up a conversation with an old timer. He lived just down the street and we walked to his garage to check out his home-made aluminum boat and some tackle. We talked for a while and he showed off a tackle box stuffed to the gills with Slug-Go plastic worms; I made a mental note.

Fad baits

A couple weeks later I hit a farm pond armed with a bag of Slug-Gos - four inches long, in the Arkansas Shiner color I believe. My hot tip had not come with any instructions for use, so I started experimenting. I noticed it didn’t sink fast and was heavy enough to throw unweighted. I noticed irregular motions resulted when I jerked the rod tip and, most importantly, I noticed it caught fish. The first fish I caught on a finesse worm came when I cast a Slug-Go from shore onto a pile of weeds. The bass exploded through the green curtain and inhaled my lure. We caught many fish that day, and I remember our jubilation like it happened just yesterday. We were onto something good.

Thus began the period in which I realized fishing was more than throwing a crankbait and reeling it in. It was about presentation. It was about weather fronts. It was about water temperature.  It was about to get complicated.  I soon amassed such a collection of gear that I outgrew my tackle box. Then I outgrew it again. Then I needed another rod, rigged and ready with a different pattern. Then I outgrew my tackle box again. This was the period when I realized I had much to learn about catching fish. I now had my first inklings of what it meant to be an expert.

Every angler’s accessory of necessity

Fast forward a couple years. I bought a house almost five years ago, with the house came lots of room, a garage even. So I did the first thing any angler would do in my situation: I bought a boat. This is note-worthy because buying a boat opened my eyes to lakes I had never dreamed of fishing. Suddenly my choice of location wasn’t limited to bank access sites. The Illinois River became a thing of the past as I discovered local treasures such as Banner Marsh and Snakeden Hollow.

The Good Ship Clif

My first boat was no chick magnet. I bought it from a coworker for $75, and he threw in a noisy trolling motor and an ancient dead battery. The boat was a two man bass boat - an heavy old fiberglass model with swivel seats mounted to milk crates. The coworker had gotten it for free after the previous owner unloaded it on the interstate at about 65 mph. With some fiberglass patching, a new camo paint job and a couple Skoal Bandit stickers, he resurrected the beast and fished that boat for a few years…but along came two kids. Baseball and soccer practice left him little time to fish, so when he heard I was in the market he spoke up.

New boat, not yet christened

I’ve since traded The Good Ship Clif for a bigger one, and I am now weighing my options for yet another. However, she’ll always hold a special place it my heart; for she was the distinction between two of the three major periods in my fishing career - a transition from “learning” to “technique perfection.”  Technique is often the difference between a skunking and catching fish, and I pride myself on the ability to land fish when others struggle.

How do I work this thing?

In October 2008, I borrowed my father-in-law’s fly rod and went fishing with it. I didn’t have much to work with other than the single afternoon's practice so many years ago. It was a dismal day of fishing but it was a splendid day of fishing just the same. It was the start of my fly fishing career and I had much to learn. I soon started to pour over the web in search of information. I found many fellow anglers who, in writing about their experiences, provided mountains of information.

As close to art as you can get

Fly fishing, and subsequently fly tying, was a perfect fit because I had become bored by my fishing hobby. There had to be something missing and I decided fly fishing could be it. Fly fishing represented a new challenge, many new lessons waiting to be learned. Fly fishing fixed my problem and seemed like the next logical step in a soon to be illustrious fishing life. However, after I started fly fishing, my yearning for something new was still alive and well as evidenced in an April 8th, 2009 post. I wrote the post about how the experience, not fish, was important. I wasn’t entirely wrong about these things, but I now know the act of fly fishing itself was not what I missed and it was not about seeing a musk rat.

Lunkerhunt goes on line

My first blog post is dated June 13th, 2006. I started my blog as a way to share fishing pictures with my fishing friends and that is all it was for two and a half years. If you read the first two years worth of entries, you’ll agree my primary objective was not to create an interesting blog (a particularly good example is dated July 12th, 2007). You’ll also agree that I’ve caught some big bass and I’ve probably packed on a few pounds.

You can see how happy this fish has made me.

In December 2008, I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to devote some time and effort to blogging. I created an account to track visitor statistics and, most importantly, from that point forward I blogged much more often and put some effort into authoring interesting, coherent and relevant posts. Blogging became less about showing off fish and more about creating the art I was looking for.

That day in December ranks highly on the list of pivotal moments in my fishing career. Needing good blog material is a good way to find myself in situations I wouldn’t otherwise find myself. These situations grew me as an angler, a writer and a person. In certain ways, my blog now drives my actions instead of just documenting them.

Where the grass is greener

Last season I joined a private fishing club. The intentions were good, private water is where you go to catch big fish. Right? While often a true statement, it turned out to not be true for me but that isn’t what mattered.

Joining the club, and having little to show for it, opened my eyes. I saw the error of my ways. Up until now I only wanted to catch big fish. I still would like to catch big fish, but I’ve discovered there is more to it. Some people like to get out and see the world, others want to spend time with friends and others just like to get outside. Joining this club was the catalyst I needed to kick me out of the “technique perfection” phase and into an “endless” phase.

The endless phase

In my professional life, I long ago learned the value of a good challenge. Without a challenge we mortals stop learning and we cease to grow. For me, a lack of professional challenge also results in low productivity and apathy. Challenge forces me to learn and develop my abilities. After a period of hard work, I usually manage to complete challenges but I have not learned everything I want to know. That is where the next idea walks in the door and the cycle continues ad nauseum. It took me a few years to make the connection between my need for professional challenge and my need for a challenge in angling.  Really, this cycle holds true for most things if life outside of professional development and fishing; I'm a little disappointed in myself for not seeing it sooner.

Get it?

Thanks to Rebecca, I’ve put a lot of thought into it over the past few days and I’m now ready to officially recognize the next phase in my fishing life. This phase has been unofficially ongoing for a while and I haven’t realized it. This will be the phase when I decide to learn about fishing. I will learn by getting out and doing, getting in over my head a digging out.

As an example, while it might seem uninteresting to say “I want to catch a six pound bass,” or “I want to win the tournament,” I would argue it is a worthy challenge. Catching a six pounder or winning a tournament is no easy task and both will take either a dedication to the craft or just dumb luck. When most people say they want a six pound bass they’re usually counting on luck. During one of my early phases, if you asked me about my fishing dream I would have given you a similar line about big fish. If you ask me now, you might hear the same answer but between the lines I've said something else.

If it never ends, when can we see the art?

I’ve realized my entire fishing career has always been about learning. The common thread among the phases I shared with you has been learning. When I first started out, it was learning how to work a reel. Then I learned about finesse presentations and how valuable a boat can be. Fly fishing and tying provided much to learn about, and blogging helped to facilitate the lesson. I won’t say it’s the final lesson, but now I know I’ll never be an expert; I’ll never perform art on the riverbank.  There is always much to learn.

The next step

I’m not really sure where it goes from here. I’m thinking of buying a kayak. I’ve been playing around with the idea of using only light tackle and targeting big fish. We own some land that doesn’t have one but could use a pond, and that pond would need to be managed to grow big fish. I’ve never been ice fishing. All of these represent the next big challenge and I'm not sure if I want to bite off anything else.

Cold fishing

For now, I think I’ll continue to learn about fly fishing and fly tying, I’ll still go out and try to catch lunkers and you can bet I’ll blog about it. That is all the challenge I need right now.


  1. Hey Clif. I liked your story. The part about learning. There's an old saying that goes something like this. "If you don't learn something new everyday, you've wasted that day". I try to live by that and you seem to also. I looked at a Kayak, but a float tube met my needs better, but I've got to tell you, they have some really neat Kayaks especially designed for fishermen. I look forward to seeing what you decide on.


  2. Clif~ thank you for sharing your thoughts and evolution in fly fishing, I really enjoyed it. I've started leaning on that word lately...evolution...because it seems we all flow down a natural evolution, unique and individual, but always changing.

    And, for the record, I have no doubt that if I were standing down the river from you, watching you cast into the water, I would indeed see you performing art on the river..........

  3. Hi Clif,
    Excellent post, makes me consider my own perspective.
    Regards, John

  4. Shoreman, I like the idea of float tubes but I want to be able to enjoy ice out fishing. You can bet I'll keep you updated.

    Rebecca, art is in the eye of the beholder. Your eye would see cursing, splashing, violent back casts and a small amount of blood. Art? Maybe.

    John, everyone's perspective is unique. Don't think too hard, you'll end up writing a book like me.

  5. Very nicely done. I enjoyed every word - especially sitting in the airport awaiting my next flight. I KNOW I've got an eloquent, introspective blogpost bottled up inside me, but right now there's just too much crap between the post and the execution to bring it to fruition.


  6. Wolfy, I hope you're going some place warm and fishy.

  7. I say both, evolution and art. Anyone that shoots line as well as you is making art. And anyone that can make art on the water is closer to being an expert than they think. Ask any humble expert if they've reached the pinnacle of their fishing career and the first thing they'll say is, "No, I'm always learning something new." Superb post.

  8. Dave,
    You should know more about my line shooting than anyone, having stepped into the danger zone on a least a few occasions. Next time please remove all finger rings and wear ISO approved safety glasses.


Clif reserves the right to delete your comment if he is so inclined, but he is a pretty liberal guy so post away and see what happens.