Fly Fishing 101

Adrienne Callander speaks with Michael Steinberg– fly fisherman and prof who teaches, writes and does what he loves.

The sides of the brook trout are sprinkled with dots and dashes of red, orange, yellow, and the occasional blue. Its belly – especially in the fall – turns to bright orange, while its upper back is dark green or even black, providing stunning contrasts.

The first time I held a brook trout, I thought that an artist had painted all the colors of a fall Appalachian forest on this one small, living palette. Yet the camouflaged back of this fish makes it almost invisible in a stream. It is not until one is pulled from the depths of its icy, dark pool that we can see and truly appreciate these small masterpieces.

– Michael Steinberg, The Brook Trout as Icon1

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There is a collection of fly rods in the corner of Michael Steinberg’s office. They stand at attention, faithful dogs waiting for the masters who will let them out. They have eaten and snoozed and want no more of indoor comforts. Out! Let’s go out!

Each spring, Steinberg offers a course on the literature of fly fishing. In the cold rainy months of the Southern winter, he meets with students in the classroom to discuss the assigned readings, but at the first hint of good weather, they head outside. In the South, winter is short, so the class spends the majority of the semester on the water. Here in Tuscaloosa, waterways abound.

Steinberg and I sat down at Taco Mama on University Boulevard on a bright October afternoon to discuss fly fishing and the importance of an overlooked art.

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I was always a fly fisherman. I started as a kid in Missouri. I’d fish on farm ponds, rivers, creeks. I taught myself. My dad, a conventional tackle fisherman, had a fly rod – I’m not even sure where he got it – I played around with it and it kind of stuck with me. Even as a kid, it represented for me a precise level of skill.

I gave it up for a long time; I didn’t have time or money. I went back to it after graduate school. I’d have conversations with students about fly fishing. There were photos of fly fishing on my door. We like to teach what we like. I like to fly fish. Offering fly fishing. . . people would say that’s not very rigorous. You’re just teaching fly fishing. But, sometimes, you need exposure to something new to make sense of other things in your life. Sometimes, students need classes that completely get them out of their environment.

Fly fishing makes students more observant, more productive, more mindful of what they’re doing. There’s so much to be aware of – insects, wind, vegetation. Fly fishing is delicate. Fly fishing requires a fine, precise set of creative skills: casting, reading water, identifying insects. I’ve met very few dumbasses who fly fish. A sign of a good fly angler is that he cares less about the size of the fish than that he brought something to the surface. Fishing allows you to peer into an unknown world, into the unseen.

In early American culture, fishing was “the work of idle hands,” non-productive, akin to card playing, but there’s a whole creative and financial world surrounding fly fishing. We talk about the literature of fly fishing; there is a connection to the personal, to science, to the creative.

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Beyond creative inspiration provided by the brook trout is the fact that its presence tells us a great deal about the health of the larger environment. The brook trout is an indicator species for streams, lakes, and watersheds in largely unspoiled conditions. This association with clean, intact environments is another reason the brookie has developed a dedicated following among fly anglers. When I have a brook trout in my hand, I know the water in which I am standing is close to pristine.

The Brook Trout as Icon 2

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There are few activities in my life where I’m not thinking of food, sex, my family, the bills. But, when I’m on the river, I can go all day without eating, without thinking of my children. In some ways, it is very selfish because in that moment I don’t care what my kids are doing, I don’t care where my wife is.

There’s a quote from The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: “When one pays attention to the present, there is great pleasure in awareness of small things.” There is great pleasure in noticing the details. I like sitting at dusk or dawn and just listening to things. Zen is about the here and now and I think that sums up fly fishing. If you’re not focused, you’ll miss the wind, the trees behind you, the fish rising up. The rocks are slippery, the current is rushing. You have to be mindful.

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Professor Michael Steinberg teaches Environmental Literature, Arts and Science of Fly Fishing, Sporting Conservation, and Field Study in Belize in New College at the University of Alabama. For his forthcoming book on brook trout, Steinberg fished in every state and province from northern Georgia to Labrador. The book is about conservation in each state, but also a personal journey about Steinberg’s link to northern Maine, and to his family.

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1 The American Fly Fisher: The Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. 40(2):15-18.
2 The American Fly Fisher: The Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. 40(2):15-18