Rediscovering the spiritual pull and solitude of a cherished sport.
Many men go fishing their entire lives without knowing it is not fish they are after. —Henry David Thoreau
I am not sure if it was repeated viewings of the movie A River Runs Through It or the scotch, cigar, and retriever-laden lifestyle afforded by fly fishing, but when I moved back to New York City in 1996 after divinity school, I felt a primitive pull towards the water and fly fishing in particular.
Armed with my fly rod, I would find some bushes and peer out into the lake in Central Park. And you know what? I couldn’t see the Manhattan skyline at all.
My journeys exploring every legal spot where I could cast my line for saltwater stripers or freshwater bass and bluegills took me to a range of places throughout New York City, including the Hudson River, Gateway National Recreation Area, Central Park, Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn, Van Cortland Lake in the Bronx, Oakland Lake in Queens, and even a few spots on Staten Island.
Along the way I encountered the full range of urban wildlife, taking care to avoid the barrage of baby strollers, dodgy tourists, and onlookers with their way-too-curious pets. (Unfortunately for the fly-fisher, some dogs view a fly rod as a toy and want to get in on the action.)
Casting & Controversy
I came to understand that fishing was a controversial pastime, at least in New York City. Every time I cast my line into the water, someone would demand that I stop. I would let them know that fly fishers, as a group, are environmentally conscious. We adhere to measures such as crimping our hooks so as not to hurt the fish along with care to release the fish after we reel them in.
Certain New Yorkers felt the need to get really close to me. It’s like they were still riding the subway at rush hour. Casting takes room—at least eight feet. It can be hard to find eight feet of unoccupied space in New York City.
I grew to love the grittiness of fly fishing in New York City, and as I explored the solitary nature of the sport, the Zen-like activity of fly casting transported me to new places. I spent considerable time by myself fly fishing. I learned how to be alone without being lonely.
I would get lost casting back and forth, back and forth, and then reeling my line in whenever I would land a smallmouth bass or, more likely, a lone sock, a candy-bar wrapper, or some other piece of urban debris. The forward and backward motion brought to mind my version of the Jesus Prayer, where I breathed in, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God,” and breathed out “have mercy on me, a sinner”—a meditative practice that was uniquely my own and how I connected to God at that time.
Rediscovering the Spiritual Meaning of Fly Fishing
After 9/11 I stopped both fly fishing and attending church. Traveling with my gear proved to be too problematic after the Department of Homeland Security classified fly-fishing gear as a potential weapon. Also, I was traveling too much to take advantage of either fly fishing or any church groups.
Fast forward to 2021, and I’m now residing in Portland, Oregon, a place that fulfills my deep inner need to connect intimately with nature. For a while, paddling a kayak appeared to speak to the backward and forward nature of my prayers, though my praying had become more meditative, with silence replacing the words of the Jesus Prayer.
This past spring, I was gifted a fly rod from my local Buy Nothing group. In mid-May I took it with me on a two-week road trip exploring the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon.
I stopped at Steamboat Inn, a historic retreat along the North Umpqua River, an area known for world-class fly fishing. The steelhead were not running, but I decided to go with the flow and fine-tune my casting skills. Within minutes, I felt an acute grounding sensation that all would be right in the world.
After a short jaunt to Crater Lake and the Oregon coast, I returned to the South Umpqua River. There the fish of choice was shad. I noticed I was the only woman on the water and one of the few fly fishers in a stream of bait fishermen. But I ventured forward and cast my line, only to get skunked again. The next day, I caught a smallmouth bass—not the biggest or the best, but at least I was back in the game.
After I put down my rod, I sat on the hot rocks. I let the sun warm my body and listened, trying to hear what this water wanted to teach me. While I didn’t walk away with any transformational message that day, I felt grounded with a peace that passes all understanding, a sensation I hadn’t experienced since I stopped fly fishing.
During my exodus from institutional Christianity, I realized that while I had spent considerable time inside church walls throughout my life, the water was where I truly worshipped. As I reflected in my book The New Atheist Crusaders, the water has talked to me ever since I was a kid. Here’s how, as I relay in that book, the water saved me:
My mom’s side of the family has a place up at Prudence Island, Rhode Island. No matter what happened, the Narragansett Bay would say something to me, and somehow, I felt better. Rivers, lakes, and oceans are kind of like people. Each one has a unique personality—a slow brook trickling over my feet, a river moving faster than a freight train, savage waves slamming against a rocky beach, or the gentle ripples that form on a quiet lake. They’re all different, and they’re all saying something. But we’re all too busy running around and acting busy to hear what’s really going on. But if you listen, you’ll learn plenty. Believe you me.
Right after my dad died, I went up to Prudence, and let’s just say my family wasn’t acting very supportive. As usual, they were all drunk and cracking rude jokes. Yeah, I was laughing, but mainly ’cause I didn’t want to cry in front of them. But I went down to the ocean and bawled my eyes out, and the waves told me everything was going to be OK. Eleven months later, I was back up at Prudence, because my mom had just died. This time my family was acting even worse. They were actually blaming dad for killing mom, you know, dad being an alcoholic and all.
Not the kind of stuff you tell someone who was just orphaned. But the ocean saved me, again telling me I was going to get through this. And I have. I’m starting to see why Jesus was a fisherman—makes sense to me.
As I encounter deadly forest fires, incomprehensible temperature spikes, and the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, I’m reminded of the necessity to keep casting…forward and back, forward and back, forward and back. Keeping time and in tune with the rhythms of nature. It will continue to ground me and keep me sane and centered.
Stay in the deep with the spiritual meaning of water.
Authors note: Portions of this reflection from The New Atheists Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail used by permission of Thomas Nelson. My fly-fishing and water reflections originated as a result of my work with the late Gary Austin, founder of the legendary LA based improv troupe The Groundlings.