Power and Grace in the Fist and the Rod

Trout Fishing in Colorado's Rushing Crystal RiverWe had a fight break out in the broom factory this week. A couple of men lost their tempers and became bullyboys. I fired them immediately.

I went home that night frustrated. I couldn’t help feeling a little responsible for the fight, even though I wasn’t even in the room when it occurred. All our talk about masculinity might have led to the machismo show, especially since not all the boys have been around the whole time—some of the ones who walked in halfway through only know the rudiments of manliness and responsibility, not the compassion at the core.

Anyway, I telephoned the fighters and told them they could have their jobs back with a month-long pay cut if they memorized the following passage from Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It.

 Well, until a man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always overswings with an ax or golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air; only with a rod it’s worse, because the fly often comes so far back it gets caught behind in a bush or rock. When my father said it was an art that ended at two o’clock, he often added, “closer to twelve than to two,” meaning that the rod should be taken back only slightly farther than overhead (straight overhead being twelve o’clock).

Then, since it is natural for man to try to attain power without recovering grace, he whips the line back and forth making it whistle each way, and sometimes even snapping off the fly from the leader, but the power that was going to transport the little fly across the river somehow gets diverted into building a bird’s nest of line, leader, and fly that falls out of the air into the water about ten feet in front of the fisherman. If, though, he pictures the round trip of the line, transparent leader, and fly from the time they leave the water until their return, they are easier to cast. They naturally come off the water heavy line first and in front, and light transparent leader and fly can catch up to the heavy line now starting forward and again falling behind it; otherwise, the line starting on its return trip collides with the leader and fly still on their way up, and the mess will be the bird’s nest that splashes into the water ten feet in front of the fisherman.

Almost the moment, however, that the forward order of the line, leader, and fly is reestablished, it has to be reversed, because the fly and transparent leader must be ahead of the heavy line when they settle on the water. If what the fish sees is highly visible line, what the fisherman will see are departing black darts, and he might as well start for the next hole. High overhead, then, on the forward cast (at about ten o’clock) the fisherman checks again.

The four-count rhythm, of course, is functional. The one count takes the line, leader, and fly off the water; the two count tosses them seemingly straight into the sky; the three count was my father’s way of saying that at the top the leader and fly have to be given a little beat of time to get behind the line as it is starting forward; the four count means put on the power and throw the line into the rod until you reach ten o’clock—then check-cast, let the fly and leader get ahead of the line, and coast to a soft and perfect landing. Power comes not from power everywhere, but from knowing where to put it on. “Remember,” as my father kept saying, “it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.”

At the end of the month, I’ll take them both out to a little stream, and we’ll fish and talk about that bit I bolded above.