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Five Things Writers Can Learn from Fly Fishermen

Five Things Writers Can Learn from Fly Fishermen

There is a pecking order among fishermen. It’s an iron-clad hierarchy. Inviolable.

At the very bottom of the pyramid is the guy who uses a bobber. What is sporting or even interesting about sticking a worm on a hook, tossing it into the water, and then sitting there waiting for the bobber to move? How…inelegant.

There are only three people who should use bobbers: six year olds, 87 year olds, and Huck Finn. But most guys who fish bobbers just sit in the boat and drink beer.

Next on the list are the guys who use lures. It’s a giant step up the ladder because it at least it requires skill in the presentation and retrieve. Many fine and respectable men fish with lures.

But there is group of men and women who live and reign from the top echelon of the fishing hierarchy. The Aristocracy of Anglers. They glance down their noses through Maui Jim bespectacled eyes at their lesser brethren.

They are fly fishermen. I am one.

Yes, we are an arrogant lot. But not without reason.

In every way, fly fishing is more difficult than other forms of the sport. Casting with a fly rod is an art form that takes a lifetime to master. The flies we use are small and the line is fragile which makes landing a fish an arduous task. And even after the fish strikes, it takes patience and finesse to work the trout to our net because we fight not just the strength of the fish but the power of the river in which we’re standing.

I am neither a consistently good fly fisherman nor a consistently good writer. But in both arenas, I occasionally land one that’s worthy of hanging on the wall. There are parallels between each pursuit . The same principles that help a fly fisherman catch fish can help a writer engage, entertain, and potentially persuade an audience.

Five Things Writers Can Learn from Fly Fishermen

Learn the basics before getting your line wet. 

Most new fly fishermen make a mess of things their first time out. I did. I spent most of my first day on the water untangling my fly line and cursing.

But then I picked up a great beginners guide called The Curtis Creek Manifesto: A Fully Illustrated Guide to the Strategy, Finesse, Tactics, and Paraphernalia of Fly Fishing. It gave me the basics of the sport that I desperately needed. Plus, it’s written comic book style, which is just my speed. My next time on the water was a much different experience. I actually enjoyed myself.

Writers should prepare in the same way. Take a course or pick up a book on writing so that when you sit down at the computer you have some tools at your disposal.

There are two books in particular that I highly recommend: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craftby Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Both are outstanding resources on the craft of writing that I refer to regularly.

Learn from a master.

I typically hire a guide when I fish new waters. He already knows the river and can take me to spots where he knows there are fish. And I learn something new from each guide.

When I fished the River Glass in Scotland last year, I hired a guide named Wes Burnett. We were fishing for salmon which required a 15′ rod, which was a full six feet longer than the rod I use most. It required a vastly different technique.

I watched Wes work his magic as he showed me how to roll cast with a fifteen footer. It was invaluable.

When it comes to writing, there is no substitute for reading. Read a lot. Voraciously. When you come across a page or paragraph or sentence that is intriguing, ask yourself what the writer did that made it so.

William Faulkner said it best, “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”

Good advice from a master.

“Match the fly to the hatch.”

Trout eat thousands of insects or insect larvae daily. They hide behind rocks and dart out into the stream to swallow the bugs as they float downstream.

“Matching the fly to the hatch” simply means you tie on a fly that resembles the insects that the fish are actually eating.

In a similar way, a writer must give his audience what they truly want. Ironically, though, an audience doesn’t always know what they want. Who could have predicted that so many people wanted to read about a young wizard with a weird scar or an angst-ridden vampire who falls in love with a teenaged girl? Yet millions of readers darted into the stream to eagerly consume what J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer served up.

Surprise the fish with an attractor.

When the trout won’t bite on a fly that matches the hatch, savvy  fishermen tie on an “attractor fly.” Attractors are goofy-looking flies with bright colors and weird patterns. They don’t resemble any insect in the water but they can be lethal. Why? The element of surprise. Trout will strike at an attractor out of sheer curiosity.

Want to make your writing irresistible and memorable? Surprise us! Inject humor in the midst of drama. Pull an image or character into your story that is utterly unexpected.

No one does this better than Anne Lamott. She strings together a series of quirky images and then connects them in startling and delightful ways. Here’s an example from her book Bird by Bird:

“…if you’re at all like me, you’ll probably read over what you have written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written, lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your first drafts are….You may experience a jittery form of existential dread, considering the absolute meaninglessness of life and the fact that no one has ever really loved you; you may find yourself consumed with a free-floating shame, and a hopelessness about your work, and the realization that you will have to throw out everything you’ve done so far and start from scratch. But you will not be able to do so. Because you suddenly understand that you are completely riddled with cancer.”

Tell a fish tale.

A fisherman relishes telling his stories, spinning them larger than the lunker that broke his line. I believe sharing stories aloud with other people makes you a better writer because you get immediate feedback about what works and what doesn’t.

So, spin a tale over lunch with a friend. Observe what parts of the story worked and which parts fell flat. Tell the story again to someone new. Did the rough patches go over better this time? Repeat the process until a tight, well-spun story emerges.

One Final Book Recommendation

If you enjoy both good writing and fly fishing then I recommend you read Norman Maclean’s marvelous book, A River Runs Through It. It is a humorous and poignant coming-of-age story set in Montana about two brothers growing up in a strict religious home. It was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt. The cinematography was stunning and the movie was pretty good, but so much of Maclean’s elegant prose was lost in the transfer. My friend Tom Doyle gave me the book as a gift and said, “Maclean is a remarkably tight writer, with no wasted words, and a rhythm to his story. It left me awed.” When I read the first paragraph, I knew that Tom was right:

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”

 Read it. Savor the writing. And learn from a masterful storyteller.

Questions: What has helped you become a better writer? What books on writing would you recommend? Post your ideas in the comments below.

(Photo Credit: Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash)


  1. simonyost

    Great post Greg.

    Bird by Bird has help not only with writing but creating in general. It is a challenge to look at any kind of blank canvas, paper, or Photoshop file. Also, I think I need to learn how to fish…

    • Greg Lhamon

      Yes, Simon, you need to learn to fly fish. It’s an incredible past-time. Plus, trout live in beautiful places.

  2. tadoyle

    I am so glad that you like that book as much as you do. And as much as I do. Thank you for mentioning me. . . . . Maclean edited that book for years, and it shows. I would bet that he spent most of that time cutting, deleting and economizing.

    • Greg Lhamon

      I really do like it. It’s in my top 5. Less than 150 pages and yet never once did I sense its brevity short-changed the story one bit. I wish Maclean had written more. Thanks Tom.


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