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Fly Fishing with the Buddha

by Hayden Mellsop

“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” – Dalai Lama

With these words, the Dalai Lama has once more thrown into doubt and confusion my sense of myself as a compassionate caring human being who happens to enjoy fly fishing. I have spent many years as a guide both here in Colorado, and in my home country of New Zealand. Fly fishing for me is a way for me to relax, make a living, and celebrate the beauty, intricacies and inter connectedness of Mother Nature.

Of the many aspects that keep me coming back to the river, rod in hand to ‘try my luck’ as the saying goes, the principal one is that you never know from day to day how the fish will respond to your advances. This serves as a constant reminder that despite the fact that we can read all the books, espouse all the theories and buy all the gear, ultimately we are interacting with and delving into rhythms and cycles of nature of which we have scant knowledge, and that is the way it should be.

Following a recent fishing trip down the Arkansas River with a couple of buddies that produced plenty of laughs, multiple empty beer cans but few fish, I mused on my blog about the correlation between Buddhism, which teaches us that attachment is the root of unhappiness, and the importance of focusing your attention on the process rather than the result when fishing. If fishing becomes a numbers game, and success or otherwise is measured in the amount of fish caught, then a fisherman is setting himself or herself up for disappointment. If catching a fish is the only point, then you tend to miss the beauty and privilege of your surroundings. You miss the darting, swooping flight of the swallow as it skims the surface of the river, eating insects smaller than your eye can detect in its non-negotiable daily quest to eat its own body weight in food. You miss the sound of the river, and the flight of the ephemeral mayfly, twelve months under the surface as a nondescript nymph, and twenty four hours above, a beautiful, delicate winged creature, unable to eat but with an urgent need to procreate.

Right around now, the Dalai Lama entered the debate. One reader responded with the observation that torturing another living being for entertainment and amusement was hardly in keeping with the tenets of Buddhism. I was sliding down a slippery slope from torturing a fish to potentially torturing another human being for gain or amusement. While I laughed off this last assertion, the first one opened a can of worms I have done my best to ignore for many years.

Several years ago, I was fishing a small stream high in the mountains on a sunny, late October day. Stands of aspen were stripped bare against the coming winter, save a few trees clinging here and there to their last pallid leaves. Ice had already formed along the north facing banks of the stream as the day warmed to one of those October classics: brilliant, clear and breathless. As the sun climbed higher, the fish came onto the feed, aggressively taking anything that came their way, surely sensing the onset of winter, and the enforced slumber it entailed. Survival or otherwise would be a direct result of calorie intake over the next few weeks. I was filled with the beauty of the occasion, the privilege of its experience, and an admiration for the hardiness of the fish, adapted to survive in such a harsh place.

And yet also I was filled with a sense of remorse, bordering on guilt. For who was I to intrude on this struggle for survival, my agenda no more pressing than a day’s entertainment? Against the odds, these perfect creatures survive in a place without benefit of fire and shelter that would see me dead by Christmas. And here was I, messing with them like The Almighty with Job as they went about their business.

I came away with no great answer, no single justification. As I advance in years, the black and white surety of youth has slowly been replaced by a realization that more often than not life is composed of a myriad of shades of gray. I find I can generate many reasons for my continued pursuit of fly fishing: it fosters an active participation in organizations and causes that enhance and protect our natural environment. Many species would be otherwise extinct, many rivers dry and sterile without the advocacy of sportsmen and women. Fishing is a way for me to open my children’s eyes to the wonders of our natural world, its fragility and our responsibility to act as its stewards. And I believe I am a better adjusted, more likeable and balanced, and therefore a more productive human being as a result of my time spent near water. I fish with barbless hooks, and try to be adept at quickly playing and releasing a fish, in most cases without having to handle it. This is in contrast to the English fly fishing tradition, which holds that is is far crueler to release the fish only for another angler to perhaps put it through the same stress the next day. Better to quickly put it out of its misery and into the pan at home for supper.

And so I continue to fish, and continue to acknowledge my imperfections. For as the Buddha himself once said: “What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?”

Hayden Mellsop is a Salida resident, born and raised in New Zealand, and feels at home matching his wits with creatures with a brain the size of a pea. You can read more about and by him at

One Comment

  1. Jon Osborn Jon Osborn August 10, 2010

    A very good article, Mr. Mellsop! It’s the journey, not the destination that counts.

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