The books on my shelf are admittedly limited. They range from self help books, in such condition that I could probably return them though they are years old, to photography books whose pages are darkened from me thumbing through them relentlessly. I have a couple of books which were given to me and I am highly sentimental about — a first edition copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which was blessed by my grandmother herself — is at the top of that list. Recently though some new titles have appeared on my shelf and they all center around the pursuit for trout, and in particular the pursuit of trout with a rod, line, and fly.
I grew up in Oregon where my Dad and I took trips seemingly deep into the Oregon Backcountry, though more likely just off of the highway, in pursuit of trout and memories. He taught me to fly fish with with a rod that was easily twice my height at the time. Later, in college, I’d make a trip to a local lake twice daily to fly fish for Bluegill and the occasional bass. And so while fly fishing is not necessarily new to me, reading about it is.
One of the books I read recently touched on the beauty of teaching children to fly fish, and I thought a lot about photography after I read it. I’ll attempt to paraphrase something beautiful and seemingly profound now, so bear with me. The book stated that the beauty in teaching children to fly fish comes not from the actual catching of fish, but from the proposition that on any day on the river you may not catch fish. In a world filled with participation trophies the book proposed that on any one day you might actually feel the sting of defeat, and that through that we grow.
Now, as a fisherman, I can tell you that on more than one occasion I have gone to the river and caught nothing. Usually when this happens I lie through my teeth about it, but I can assure you that it does in fact happen.
When you’re on the river and you’re catching fish, a week seems like a day. The last time I went to a real trout stream, the kind you find in the rocky mountains, I had a week like this. On my first day I caught no less than eight brown trout, the kind you write home about. The second day I did as well, and the third to boot. When I think back about the time I spent on that river I remember the largest fish I caught, I remember the times I almost drown, and I remember what it’s like when everything in the universe seems to come together in your favor: the perfect cast, the perfect presentation, and then the perfect trout.
And so while the beauty of the pursuit is certainly memorable I can tell you that one of the things I remember the most were the times where I didn’t catch anything. The times where I casted for hours without a bite stand out. When I think about the fisherman I saw on the river during that week the memories aren’t of pot-bellied men in waders reeling in “the big one.” My memory is instead mostly of people casting. I know other people caught fish, and if I think hard enough I can even convince myself that I saw it first hand, but the most vivid memory is of people casting endlessly.
I’ve thought a lot about that week since then. I’ve thought about how the fishless hours, the ones you spend endlessly casting, seem like they were the entire week. Time seems to stretch on when you’re not catching fish. I’d venture to say it becomes painfully frustrating.
Photography, to me, seems similar to fly fishing. In the streets, when I am roaming around looking for a photo it feels like those hours out on the river and that rhythm of casting endless to open, fishless, water. You cast with the perfect rhythm between ten and two o’clock and the slightly greased line slides through your fingers releasing your fly into the perfect pool, and then, nothing. The line drifts, you bring it from the water as you begin your next cast, release, and nothing. This can continue for what feels like hours.
The thing though about water like that is that if you cast enough times and present your fly in enough different ways, eventually, you’ll have a bite. For every 36 exposures I make there are maybe 3 that are actually interesting, and for every 72 photos maybe one that is good. I’ve yet to make a “great” image so I’ll save this space to tell you how many exposures it takes to achieve that level of Nirvana.
Some of the worst times I’ve had when photographing are when I’m in the same neighborhood photographing seemingly the same scenes. Every alley the same, every street the same as the one before it. I worked on a project for a number of years that focused on a neighborhood in Japan and it seemed like sometimes it never changed. The same stares, the same cliches, the same photos, the same everything. What I noticed though is that if I put in the hours and kept casting/walking that I would eventually be rewarded with a photo, and that often, these photos were some of the best details that I’d previously overlooked.
Similarly, some of the best fish I’ve ever had the privilege of catching have come to me when I’ve been on the water casting for hours. Recently, I fished the Owens River and caught nothing. I spent hours on that river trying every fly in my box. I was pressed for time, so instead of investing in one spot where I thought there might be fish, I’d cast, get nothing, repeat, and then move. When I got home from that trip I looked online at the fishing report for the past few days and saw that someone had caught a monster trout; the kind of trout that no one believes people catch and the kind that is only believed to exist with photographic proof. I wondered to myself what fly he’d been using and how many times he’d moved. I checked my fly box to see what patterns I had and to cast blame on them for me not catching anything but I realized that he’d probably picked a good spot and stuck it out for the long haul, and for that he was rewarded.
The next time I’m out shooting I won’t be digging in my bag for a filter or switching lenses. I won’t be fussing with my phone or checking in. I’ll be thinking about those days of endless casting and how when you stick with it for the long term you’re generally rewarded with a fish or a photo.