What am I talking about? consciousness.
From where I sit, awareness is the most important fly fishing skill a serious trout fisherman can develop. It is also difficult to master. And this does not take away anything from casting, presenting, entomology, flight selection, or reading water. They are all essential components of sports. But in my experience, awareness – or more accurately, a lack of awareness – is the reason why so many technically skilled hunters experience poor to average results.
Let’s start with a basic definition. Merriam-Webster defines awareness as “the quality or state of cognition: the knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists.”
Dictionary.com describes it as “a state or state of awareness; the possession of knowledge is consciousness – awareness.”
When it comes to fly fishing, awareness helps us recognize as much as possible what is happening in our immediate surroundings. It also informs – or should inform – our decisions about where and when to fish, what equipment to use, which techniques and presentations to use, what flies to use, where to wade, how slow or fast to move, and which casting angles make the most sense And when to wrap things up and call it a day.
So what do we need to know about consciousness?
Let’s start with Albert Einstein. Einstein told us: “Man is a part of the whole we call ‘the universe’, and it is a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and his feeling as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness.”
Cosmologist Brian Swim made a related point when he wrote: “We live in interlocking layers of interconnectedness.”
Naturalist John Muir put it simply: “When we try to pick out anything on its own, we find that it is related to everything else in the universe.”
In other words, everything is connected to everything else. This is important because the world around us affects our fishing in large and subtle ways, and because aquatic landscapes provide consistent clues about how to maximize our enjoyment and success. Birds and insects share important information. So do the angle of the sun, the direction of the breeze, the clarity of the water, and thousands of other little “tidbits” that come together to make a 3D chart of every fishery we visit.
The more we see and feel, and the more attention we pay, the more likely we are to enjoy success. This is true no matter how we may choose to measure our success (or lack thereof).
Simply put, it doesn’t matter how good your equipment is, how hard you work on casting or your other skills. If you haven’t developed your consciousness, it’s unlikely that you’ve reached anything close to your full potential as a hunter.
Too many flycatchers have been convinced that a basic “paint by the numbers” approach to angler fishing produces optimal results. As long as we can cast, fix, hook and play fish, we’re good to go. And while there is certainly a kernel of truth to this belief, it falls short in countless ways.
Have you walked half of this spot, passed it, or crossed it without noticing? (Video: Todd Tanner).
Which puts us in trouble. Since very few expert hunters talk about consciousness, and since it’s hard to find relevant “how-to” articles or videos, anyone interested in expanding their consciousness is left to experiment alone, or to find techniques in unrelated areas and then try Apply it to fly fishing.
I’ve been fortunate to take a number of outreach classes over the years, and to help teach a few of them too, here’s what I can tell you based on my personal experience.
- Developing your awareness skills takes time, effort, and focus.
- While observation and awareness are related, they are not the same thing. Just because our eyes see something, or our ears hear something, doesn’t mean we are really aware of these things. Awareness always benefits from conscious commitment on our part.
- In addition to using sight, awareness also depends on sound, smell, touch…not to mention other forms of perception that are difficult to measure.
- We do not need to know the source of a particular piece of information while hunting. Figuratively speaking, there is a whole orchestra playing around us when we are on the water. As long as we can hear the music, there is no need to separate the flute from the oboe or the clarinet. What do I mean by that? Well, if you pick up a cryptic soaring model, it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve heard the spike, seen its loops gliding downstream, or noticed that a particular fly riding the stream has suddenly disappeared. The fact that I realized the climb trumps everything else.
- There are times when we want our awareness to include everything around us, and other times when we want to limit (or focus) our awareness to certain specific areas. Knowing when to expand our awareness, and when to focus on it, is vital.
- Unfortunately, there are downsides to raising awareness, and this is especially true for those who fish less than pristine rivers. (As Aldo Leopold once noted, “One of the penalties of environmental education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”) On a personal level.
- Increased awareness leads directly to increased success. Someone well versed in awareness techniques will always outperform someone who lacks basic awareness skills, and this is true no matter who is the best escort technician or hunting technician.
I should also point out that I know a handful of Extraordinary Hunters who have developed their consciousness over the years without even realizing that they do. They see, hear, and feel things on a much further level than usual, but they haven’t consciously focused on improving their perceptual skills.
Does that mean that they have a special talent, an extraordinary talent, or perhaps a genetic predisposition to heightened awareness? Your guess is as good as mine all I can say for sure is that although these people exist, they are the exception rather than the rule.
At the end of the day, those of us who hope to work on our awareness skills are left with a huge question. Where can we go to develop our awareness and make ourselves more efficient on the water? How do we see more and experience more?
In my opinion, one of the best places to start is the Primal Skills Community in America. It is not uncommon for experts in the field of tracking and survival in the wild to excel in awareness and providing helpful advice. Another option might be to explore the practice and principles of “mindfulness” while on the water.
Primitive Skills and Awareness Thom Browne III Instructor on Awareness and Fly Hunting (Video: Tom Brown III).
I hope to finally share some concrete suggestions for building your awareness about water in a follow-up article for Hatch Magazine. In the meantime, I’ll leave you thinking about a wonderful question attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Gautama Buddha.
“How can one know anything if one is too busy to think?”