Is fly fishing a hobby, sport, or ritual? To answer this question, one must first have a working definition of what ritual is. According to my understanding of his article, Jennings asserts that ritual contains three key elements. First, that it is a pattern of action, something done in the same way over time. Second, that pattern of action is the symbolization of what is known or manifested through myth, this is the way we understand and explain our world through myth not science – it is symbolic. Finally, ritual is a means of transmitting and gaining knowledge (111-113). To these criteria, I would like to add inclusion, the knowledge is shared by sharing the ritual, it is through the experience of sharing the knowledge and the ritual acts, that it is through the experience, the participants gain a bond, and a sense of community. I will use these three components for defining ritual to determine if fly fishing is in fact, a ritual.
Some people may try to argue that fly fishing doesn’t qualify as a ritual, that it is a skills-based activity that lacks a deeper meaning, a myth, but to authors like Snyder, fly fishing isn’t just a ritual, it is an entire religion, which is the myth. He argues that there is a spiritual component between man and nature that exists in the act of fly fishing. He points out that “fly fishers around the world frequently describe their experiences of fishing through the use of terms such as religious, spiritual, sacred, divine, ritual, meditation, and conversion. Further, drawing upon religious terminology, fly fishers will refer to rivers as their church and to nature as sacred” (Snyder). As an avid river lover and fishing enthusiast, I lean toward Snyder’s assertion that it is most certainly a spiritual experience that fits all the criteria to qualify fly fishing as a ritual.
Pattern of action
Ritual is a pattern of action. It includes repetition, but not all repetitions are rituals. The action can occur for multiple individuals, like high school graduations or weddings, or it could occur multiple times for an individual like a ritual before a football game for a team or individual. A ritual must also have symbolic meaning, the actions need to have meaning based on myth, not science. Brushing your teeth every day is a pattern of action but we do it because we know, based on scientific evidence, not just beliefs, that it will help our teeth from decaying, so brushing your teeth is a pattern of action that is not a ritual.
Fly fishing is a pattern of action. Fly fishing is a delicately balanced sport, a mixture of scientific and mythical movements. Each flick of the wrist is done with a finesse from repetition and rhythm, the fisherman consistently attempts to improve his technique through repetition. There is a slow, meditative quality to the actions, a sort of grace in the technique that adds to the mythology of fly fishing. It is a sport, a pattern of actions filled with meaning and symbols that makes it a ritual as well a sport.
Symbolization of what is known or manifested through myth
In order for a pattern of action to be a ritual, it must also have a symbolic component, it is something based on beliefs, not proven fact. While those beliefs may also coincide with proven fact, they are based on what is known through myth, not science. The actions are driven by the ritual and the symbolism of the actions, such as studying the life cycle of a mayfly to connect with nature and learn more about your ritual, not strictly for the sake of data for future practice of the sport.
What is the myth of fly fishing? Snyder’s article is a great example of the myth of fly fishing, that it is a type of religion that connects the participants to nature in a deep spiritual way. Fly fishing is certainly a symbolic structure that leads to a knowledge of nature. To become an adept fly fisher, one must learn about the fish, the insect life, and the river and apply this knowledge to the growth and improvement of their ritual. I think these components of fly fishing not only show that there is a myth for fly fishing. The belief is that fly fishing connects the participants to nature, to a higher power, and helps them feel connected to their world, it is not about catching fish for food or competition, it is purely a way to “construe and construct their world” (Jennings, 112). Since ritual and myths must be learned or shared, ritual need not only be a symbolic pattern of actions, it is a way of transmitting the knowledge contained in and around the ritual.
Knowledge transmission and inquiry and discovery
Ritual is a means of knowledge transmission that encourages the participants to conduct further inquiry and discovery. The participants share knowledge with each other and are led on a path of continued inquiry. Rituals are a process of learning, the participants learn and grow with each time they participate in the ritual. Also, since ritual encourages inquiry and discovery, participants often gather information, like reading articles, studying technique, or other forms of inquiries when not actively participating in the ritual. Many fly fishers also tie their own flies, an extension of the ritual or may practice casting even when they are not at the sacred site, the river.
If the participants cease to practice the ritual in the spirit of the ritual and merely a set of actions, it is because the ritual has lost its myth for the participant and in order for the ritual to have that sort of transitive, sacred nature, there has to be a shift in the ritual for the participant. My grandfather told me about a time when a retailer gave him the opportunity to tie flies for money. He enjoyed tying flies and had so many, so he agreed. After completing a few orders, he decided not to do it anymore, it took the myth out of the ritual. He continued tying flies but never again for profit.
Rituals have a transformative nature and often lead to a change in status through participation. To be a ritual, it must manifest some sort of change, growth, or reflection and in society, it establishes the participants as practicers of the ritual. A person has either never been fishing, been fishing, goes fishing, or is a fisherman or angler. All of these terms are levels of status within the fishing community depending on the amount of experience an individual has had with fishing and knowledge acquisition. With fly fishing, the more a participant experiences the ritual, the more they study techniques, materials, and locations, the more respected they become within the angling community, which is true of most but not all rituals.
Participants in a ritual are sharing knowledge of the ritual with each other when they participate in the ritual. In other words, ritual is taught and it is taught through experience so it bonds the participants with a connection to community. Even when the participants don’t experience the ritual together, just both having the shared experiences bonds them, gives them a shared knowledge. The thing that separates ritual from just passing along knowledge is that it does contain myth, so by sharing the experience, we are also sharing the myth and beliefs. It is more than a shared experience, it is a shared experience that repeated with symbolic meaning becomes an action that unites us to each other.
Ties that bond
With knowledge transmission, there is either learning through shared experience or some sort of mentor situation. Most fly fishers fished when they were little kids, often with an older member of the family, sibling, parent or grandparent. For me, it was my grandfather who took me fishing. I feel a connection to him every time I go to the river or think about fishing. He taught the myth to me. Cutchins writes about this in his article, about how the participants of fly fishing expressed how fishing not only made them feel connected to nature, it connected them to each other, it helped to make them feel oriented in their world.
Fly fishing is definitely an act that bonds individuals through shared experience. First, there is the journey to the ritual site, the river and the shared enjoyment and the acknowledgment of the river as a sacred space. This creates a shared belief that the river is sacred so it should be revered, maintained and protected. Not all people are concerned with the health of local rivers but all participants of the ritual of fly fishing share the concern simply because it is their ritual site, a sacred space, and it has symbolic meaning. Next, you have a belief that specific techniques will help you catch a fish, like a special method of casting or place to fish. Anglers can share this knowledge with each other to establish and maintain intimacy because fishermen don’t share secrets unless they feel a connection to the person.
For me, I can’t go to the river or even think of a fish without feeling a connection to my grandfather. By taking me fishing and sharing the mythology of fishing he shared the ritual that shaped who I am today. I am part of the community of people who go fishing, I wouldn’t say that I am of angler status but I can connect with other fisherman through talking about fishing and our shared experiences. It is an instant comradery that is only shared with other members of the angling community. More importantly though, the ritual bonded me with my grandfather in a way that only ritual can do, it created a shift in my belief system, making fishing a part of my personal myth.
Cutchins, Dennis. “Elitism, Keeping Secrets, and Fly Fishing in Utah.” Western Folklore 63: 189-202. JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 22 June 2014.
Jennings, Theodore. “On Ritual Knowledge.” The Journal of Religion 62: 111-127 . JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 22 June 2014.
Snyder, Samuel. “New Streams of Religion: Fly Fishing as a Lived, Religion of Nature.” Journal of American Academy of Religion 75: 896-922. JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 22 June 2014.