It is late May and the temperature is barely above freezing as the Four-wheel drive crushes through frozen pools to reach a remote stretch of the Eucumbene river in The Snowy Mountains. Taking to foot and steeling themselves against the cold, the men stalk the riverbank in pursuit of a hitherto unseen prize – the elusive trout. With rhythmic repetition they form their fishing lines into majestic loops, the almost balletic movement gradually lengthening the line with each pass. Satisfied, the line is sent to gently lie on the surface of the crystal clear water. The moments that follow are pregnant with expectation. When that expectation is unfulfilled, the men draw their lines from the water and begin creating loops again. It has often been stated that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over again expecting a different result. But there is no hint of defeat about their actions, each cast carrying as much promise of a different result as the preceding one. While some may argue the distinction, these are not asylum escapees: they are fly-Fishermen.
“Once you start fly-fishing it becomes like an obsession,” explains Nathan Harper, 36. An anaesthetist in his city-life, Harper has been fly-fishing for eight years. Dressed in chest-high waders and wearing a vest adorned with all manner of tools and effects, Harper and his fellow fishermen look like a mash-up of New York sewer workers and army grunts. “The first trip I went on,” Harper continues, “I spent most of my time fishing the fly out of trees and branches and hardly had it on the water at all.” As if acknowledging the layers of complication that fly-fishing adds to what appears a simple task – catching a fish – Harper cites its complexity as being very much part of the allure. “There’s an inherent cerebral chase when fly-fishing…it’s something you can’t get from any other forms of fishing.”
Surely though, male obstinacy in the face of a challenge isn’t the only reason for an increasing number of professional city types taking to this old-world art? “I think it is certainly time on your own to reflect on yourself and your life,” offers Andrew Ting, a banker, 35, and fly-fisherman for over 12 years. Working the runs in a river, reading the water for ‘fishy’ areas, the entomology involved in choosing the right fly to match a hatch all help clear the mind. According to Ting, “It’s almost meditative the state you get into”. But in an increasingly ‘soft-hands’ world, where more is being asked of men in their day-to-day lives, requirements that perhaps go against traditional notions of manhood, could this adoption of old world arts, and a broader interest in artisan pursuits, be a sign of a quest by modern men to find a ‘new’ manhood? “It takes you to some of the most beautiful places. It keeps you in touch with nature and it taps into something not quite primeval…” – this last statement causes Ting to take pause – “… but natural. Maybe that is the hunter in me?”
On this day the hunter in all of them isn’t finding much success. The trout aren’t ‘on the chew’ and many theories are offered up as to why. No theory, however, is strong enough to dampen the enthusiasm for the task at hand. The challenge, it seems, is to outsmart Mother Nature herself. Whereas the nobility of the act for Hemingway’s Santiago was in the simplicity of the challenge – one man, one hook, one fish – for these fishermen it appears as though the nobility finds a home in the art of making the complex, simple. An act only achieved by mastering myriad variables over many years of dedication. Stuart Clark, 35, a small business owner, and relatively recent fly-fishing convert, agrees. “There’s been a lot of tribulation getting to the point that the sport itself is enjoyable,” he admits. “But it’s a lot different now. It is a different experience.” Sitting at the base of a small gully, the river babbling behind him, Clark gestures around him at the scenery: the carpet of small winter grass tussocks; boulders of granite littering the hillsides; vast, clear blue skies reflecting off the gin-clear water. It is more than nature’s TV. It is nature’s IMAX. “Mostly I’m concerned by thoughts of work…thoughts of money; of the future. This is a place of the present and you get a chance to consider that.”
Perhaps it is this, the escape from the city to the wide expanse of places like the Snowies, that holds as much attraction as the fishing itself. The sense that the confines of everyday life don’t apply, replaced by a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure existence where even roads are an arbitrary constraint – the route seemingly only determined by the terrain, the ability of the vehicle and the balls of the driver.
That the thrill of seeing a trout engulf a fly is an integral part of the experience is undeniable. But the fight is brief and, while the smile of the fisherman is broad, it merely serves as a catalyst to begin the chase again. The brevity of the celebration betrays the depth of the layers that fly-fishing provides its practitioners. For Ting it is “that combination of skill, luck, understanding and knowledge that eclipses all other forms of fishing.” While Harper equates these trips with a broader man-health, declaring that even after a short break fishing “I feel re-energised. My mind is clear and I’m ready for the mundaneness and complexities of modern day life…there is something that energises you about being in a beautiful place…it lifts your spirit.”
While it may seem contradictory to escape the complexities of modern day life by engaging in an inherently complex undertaking, for these fly-fishermen it seems clear that the willingness of the pursuit provides much in the way of re-engaging with the world, themselves, and ultimately the rush and noise of city life. Perhaps the gap between the fly-fisherman and the insane is bigger than a superficial evaluation may suggest.