I spend quite a bit of time fly fishing. Nearly all of my free time, actually. Over this previous weekend, I fished for 27 hours between Saturday and Sunday. My knees are still paying the price for the 10 miles of hiking and wading I did.
Countless more hours are spent writing about the sport, tying flies, patching waders, ordering rods, or shooting the bull in fly shops across the West. I put 45,000 miles on my old Camaro in one year, and 40,000 of those were fishing miles.
I’m blessed, certainly, to have the opportunity to live a deliberate life. To do what I love as often as I’m allowed.
Yet recently, I’ve noticed a shift in my attitude towards fly fishing. A normal week involves at least two nights on the local rivers surrounding my home here in Utah. Last week? I didn’t fish until Saturday. I’m not complaining – just pointing out a departure from the normal run of things that’s given me serious pause.
I’ve lived the trout bum lifestyle to its fullest the past three years of my life. I’ve seen a lot of the American West, parts of the South, made lifelong friends, and created memories that will last with me through all of time. However, along the journey, there’s been an emptiness that I couldn’t aptly describe. Despite the limited professional success I’ve enjoyed in the fly fishing world, I’ve spent many a long drive or lonely night in a cheap motel feeling rather incomplete.
How could that be, I wondered? I’m living the life. The ultimate trout life – a new river every weekend, new rods every month, relationships with people like Tom and Gerri Morgan to Bob Selb and Jack Dennis. Half of my trips are paid for, and the ones that aren’t are all tax write-offs because I make my scant living scribbling away the little I know about fly fishing in the hopes people read it and maybe even like it.
I had it all, right?
There was a stretch of time in which I didn’t spend a single weekend at home. I think I was gone six weeks – it’s all a blur of trips to Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming, at this point. I just remember coming home, finally, from Wyoming with the worst sunburn of my life and reveling in how great it felt to be in my own bed on a Sunday morning.
That’s when I noticed the shift in my attitude towards fly fishing. Don’t get me wrong – I still spend more time than I should daydreaming about it, thinking of new flies to try, fish landed and lost, and all the places I haven’t yet explored. But it was over this past weekend, while my best fishing friend Mysis Mike and I chased cutthroat for two solid days, that fully I realized why I felt incomplete.
The fly fishing, the traveling, the writing, the humble success I enjoyed – it was all for me. Nothing I did made an impact on the life of another. Sure, the lodge reviews I did for various magazines brought in new business, and I’m sure a few of my gear reviews helped sell some waders and rods. But did that leave a lasting, positive impact on the world around me? Did it make a difference for someone else? Had any of my work, up to that point, done anything besides advance my own writing career?
No. It hadn’t.
It was all selfish. It still is, honestly. I haven’t visited my parents since Christmas, because I’ve conditioned myself to think that unless I’m driving 4 hours to go fly fishing, driving 4 hours isn’t worth it. In the past two years, I’ve spent more time with Mysis Mike than my own father.
I’ve realized, finally, that a life lived for your own self interests is not really a life lived at all. You can live a trout bum lifestyle – travel the country, surround yourself with successful people, tell story after story of big fish getting away and being captured. You can seek the next biggest adventure, turning over every rock looking for another thrill. You can hope that tomorrow’s caddis hatch will be better than today’s, that the odd emptiness you feel while lying in a cheap motel bed is just hunger, that the big brown you spotted at dusk will be in the same spot the following evening, ready this time to eat your fly.
In short, you can hope for a lot of things that benefit yourself. And you’ll find short-term enjoyment. I enjoy the absolute hell out of what I do, but everything I just described contains a fatal flaw, a “hero’s fallacy” if you will.
It was all for me. None of it was for anyone else.
That realization caused me to make some changes these past few weeks that will alter the course of my career. Fishing writing will continue, because I do love it. Fly fishing is as much a part of who I am as physics are a part of Stephen Hawking’s existence.
The decisions I’ve made will enable me to live life as I believe God intended for us to live it: in the service of our fellow man. Sure, right now that service might amount to me stopping on the water to help a struggling angler, or taking one of the dozens of people who’ve been begging me to teach them fly fishing out for a day, but it’s a start. A small step in the right direction, but life is just that – a series of small steps that suddenly put you right where you were intended to be.
In all honesty, I think that’s the essence of living a real trout life. Look at all the folks who’ve lived a “trout life” over the years. Lee Wulff’s life was dedicated to fly fishing, and if you doubt the impact he made on the lives he touched, just ask Jack Dennis to tell you a Lee Wulff story. Tom Morgan has MS, yet with the help of his incredibly loving wife Gerri (the couple are two of the most amazing people I’ve had the fortune to meet in my life) still produces a handful of the world’s best fly rods every year. I had a conversation with Tom last December, during which he praised my abilities as a writer. It was unexpected, and I was honestly surprised Tom had taken the time to read anything I’ve written when I mentioned during our first chat that I wrote for a living.
That was a small compliment, but it’s meant so much to me. To know that Tom Morgan, one of the fathers of modern graphite fly rods, thinks I’m a good writer is a thought that buoys me through the rough times. Ask any writer – the rough times seem to rarely cease.
And then there’s the countless old men who, upon seeing a young kid struggling with his dad’s borrowed fly rod, set aside their gear and pass on some wisdom and instruction, helping the kid land his first fish on a fly.
I was the recipient of such surprise service. I can’t count the anglers who’ve stopped during their own day of fishing to give me a hand. From the guy who gave me his last San Juan worm on a day when it seemed like worms themselves were hatching, to Ryan McCullough’s willingness to tie 98 flies, half of them size 24 or smaller, and ship them from Germany to Utah, to Mysis Mike’s continued instruction in the art of landing fish in a wobbly canoe, I’ve been lucky to cross paths with folks truly living a trout life.
I don’t think any trout life is complete without service. Without thought for others. Without an effort made to leave the world a better place than you found it. Because in the end, the fish we’ve caught don’t matter. Rather, it’s what we do off the river that matters most.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you can subscribe to the Trout Life and receive future posts directly in your inbox. Subscribe by clicking the button below.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and novelist from Utah. His debut novel Learning to Fly is due out late summer 2016. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram @Spencer_Durrant, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/spencerdurrantauthor