The Trichotomy of Fly Fishing

I woke up this morning, coffee was ready, my lunch was packed and I was out the door early with a day on the water ahead of me. Driving to the river, the weather was warm, clouds covered the sky, traffic was scarce, and the parking area was empty. Could this be the perfect day? As I made my first drift, I heard the echoing roar of wind swirling down through the valley toward me. Dang, the weather has another plan.

The ancient stoic teachings of Epictetus say that the dichotomy of thought is such that one should not dwell on the things we cannot control but focus on the things we can. I won’t say that I am a practiced stoic, but I am curious, which recently led me to a podcast on the topic. In this podcast, a modern-day stoic, Professor Bill Irvine says “There are also things that you can’t control in the sense that you don’t have complete control over them, but you have partial control over them.” The trichotomy of thought. While listening to this podcast, I began to think about how well the idea of the “Trichotomy of Thought” related to fly fishing, and most things in life, but at this moment, specifically fly fishing.

Looking back at the seemingly perfect way to start the day that was intruded upon by the wind for example. I could not control the weather, but I can control whether or not I go fishing. The third school of thought then says that I can’t control the wind, but I can control myself in the way that I deal with fishing in the wind. By continuing to fish in the wind, I can make a better angler out of myself, which would please the stoics in their journey to create a better self. So that third thought is essentially experienced here, which is truly what makes a better self, especially in fly fishing.

You can read all the books, watch all the movies, and still not be able to catch a fish. It is the experience of being on the water in all conditions, the trial and error, the failures, and the successes that will develop those great fishing skills.

This trichotomy of thought can be applied to most situations in fly fishing. For example, you creep up to a riffle and spot a big brown trout feeding aggressively, and just know that it will fall for a decent stonefly presentation easily. As you ease into the correct position without spooking the fish and check over your rig to be sure it looks to be the right one, an eagle swoops down over the river and spooks that big brown back into the pool below. Dang. The initial response might be to get angry or frustrated but think about the words of Epictetus. 1) You can’t control nature and the way the eagle spooked that fish, so no need to be angry. 2) You did control yourself in finding and approaching that fish successfully. 3) You can’t control whether the fish comes back or not, but you do know the chances are good and you can choose to spend some time watching and waiting for another shot at that fish when it returns to that prime feeding lie. You only have partial control over number 3, and your experience there is what builds improvement.

So in an effort to build a better self, or in this case, a better fly fishing self, it is important to remember the “trichotomy of thought” and to focus on that time spent on the water. Every moment there can be a learning experience that will better your skills as a fly fisher. There will always be aspects of a day of fishing that are out of our control, and many that are in our control, but the real important aspects are the ones only partially in our control that will prove to be the experience needed for continued success on the water. Really, you just have to be there, and that is the best part.