Compassionate Fly-fishing

by C. E. Clark


I love to fish. I have loved to fish as long as I can remember. One of the fondest memories I have from early childhood is fishing with my Dad and Granddad. I can think of few feelings that I valued more than the instant I knew that I had a “live one” hooked on the other end of the line from me. I know few people that do not get “hooked” on that feeling. Believe me, I had it stronger than most.

I also happen to be a tackle and gear freak. I love to look at, handle, and own all of the paraphernalia that goes along with fishing, photography, cooking, computers, Japanese shodo (ink and brush writing), and many other things. I take comfort in these things knowing that I can tinker with, and maintain these tools/toys anytime I want.

Fishing is not the only thing I took to at an early age. I began the study and practice of Japanese budo (martial ways) somewhere between the ages of 6 and 7. Jujitsu and judo were first, then came karate and aikido as a young teenager. Along with these arts, I had an early interest in eastern philosophies with major influences from India and especially Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhism. Reading and hearing about these things seemed to be like an echo from my own heart’s knowledge. Even though I was influenced greatly by these subjects, I never thought of myself as a “Buddhist.” If I hooked a tag or label on myself, how could I be anything else? Throughout my journey on these paths, however, I was always a fisherman and a gear freak.

As the years went by, I pursued Zen, budo, education, women, money, and myself among many other things. I fought in a war and survived with minor scars, both physical and mental. I went through many jobs looking for something I could do as my breaths counted down that gave me satisfaction. Somehow, very few things have given the same satisfaction as hooking a fish that would give me a good fight. I suspect that I’m not alone in this feeling. (The money spent each year on all aspects of fishing would stagger those of us not on the receiving end of the profit from those expenditures.) I have always found the time, money, and company, if the mood struck me, to chase this feeling of being on the other end of the line from a fighting fish.

A fine son came along who also loved to fish. Aaron may have gotten it from me, but I suspect he understands the feeling of hooking a fish that I feel. We have spent many fine times together on lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds fishing. He often would experience that feeling more times than I in any given outing. I think I enjoyed vicariously his experience almost as much as my own. Our fishing times were very special to us. Aaron also loved the practice of martial arts from a very early age. He grew up with both martial arts and fishing as cradle languages. He is now a father and I am the proud granddad of a beautiful young lady. I remember just hours before her birth, Aaron said, “ I can hardly wait till we can all go fishing together.”

  I've told you this so that you will have some knowledge of the background for an amazing experience I had recently. Something happened which literally changed my life in profound ways while I was watching the television!


Whenever we could not wet our lines due to schedule conflicts, my dad and I and then my son and I would enjoy watching fishing shows on Saturday morning. One of our favorites is "Flyfishing the West". Beautiful scenery, lots of "gear talk", and we got to see other folks hooking fish! I can remember many years of various fishing shows and their hosts. Some hosts were more likable than others. Some I would not care to fish with and found myself turning off their show quickly.

Early one Saturday morning, while my wife was enjoying her warm covers, I was watching a great fly-fishing trip. It was incredible! Almost like being there in the flesh to feel the cold water through your waders, and experience the thrill of having a strike on a fly that you tied a few days before. Well, thirty minutes went by much too quickly for my taste, so I began to watch the show that came on next. Some fellow that had an abrasive manner with his Latin American guide and seemed like the typical bully type that I had always disliked was showing us how to catch marlin. I normally would have turned the show off, but I hadn’t had enough of a “fix” yet.

I went into the kitchen and got another cup of coffee and sure enough, the bully hooked what looked to be a huge fish. He was elated! His guide and workers on the boat shouted with excitement! Maybe they were thinking of a tip the size of the fish. The camera panned from the host after he had set the hook and methodically began to play the fish. The cameraman zoomed in with the long telephoto lens on the graceful leaping and twisting actions of the majestic fish … and suddenly it happened!

I stopped feeling what it was like to be on the rod end of that line, and I WAS THAT FISH! I felt the fear and rage, the desire to throw that hook out of my mouth, the burning sensations of the huge bursts of energy it took to go deep and then leap high into the air trying to get away from that hook, that line, that pulling at my mouth, the threat of that bully on the other end of this thin connection between us, and the pounding of the blood in my heart. Crashing down into the water, time after time, spinning in an unbalanced way because of the pull of that line, pulling away and then … energy spent, feeling the incessant pull of that line in a direction I didn't want to go … feeling the desire to fight, but losing the necessary energy to continue the battle ….

I was sweating and drained of energy. I could hardly believe what had just happened. I knew, suddenly, that I was not the same as a few minutes before. My wife was coming down the hall into the living room and asked what was wrong. Without thinking I said, "I'll never go fishing again."

Knowing my passion for fishing, she was concerned and asked why. As I related what had just happened, she began to nod her head in empathy. As a practicing Buddhist, she understands the feeling of wanting to uplift all beings and do as little harm as possible. I had thought that I also understood (and perhaps had in some way); but until today, I hadn’t been able to “be the fish.”

   What Compassion Means To Me


Compassion has different meanings to many people. Some think of it as sympathy, kindness, helpfulness, or charity. To me, it means the realization that all beings are in the same condition. We are born, we fight to survive, we feel some pain and some joy, we suffer until we choose not to, and we die. We are also all on the same circle of karma or balancing. I truly believe that all things come full circle. I had suddenly understood and experienced from the fishes’ side that they do not grab that fly or bait by choice in order to have a good time like the fisherman on the other end. They grab it because it is their nature to catch their food that way. Then, suddenly, they’re fighting for their life! Human beings have free will. Which, to my mind, brings along with it the burden of responsible action.

At that moment in time when I saw through the fish’s senses, I changed in powerful ways. I’ve fought in war and killed people while coming close to being killed many times. I learned that fighting for your life is not fun or enjoyable. I know that connection between combatants intimately. Sure there are those who like it, but they are in dire need therapy! I used to hunt deer, turkey, ducks, quail, and pheasant. I tried to always be efficient and thankful for the life of the animal because I was a meat hunter, not for trophies or “sport”. After many years of hunting, I had decided I would rather hunt with a camera because I didn’t really need to kill for survival. These decisions had come years before the fish. Now, I know if it really came down to survival, and I or others needed protein to supplement our diet or our lives were threatened in other ways, I would enter into that fight for survival and kill. But… Never again for enjoyment or what some call sport.


I understand the feeling of intense competition on the judo mat. I was always trying to do my best to win! Some people, while competing, “go to war” and only care about winning, while others are taking part in a competitive sport application of the techniques of martial arts as a test of themselves. Sport should be a mutually beneficial activity. I’m afraid that many people misunderstand the true meaning of competition and have begun to use the definition of combat to justify their need to win at all costs in order to empower themselves at the expense of others. Skillful practitioners of the martial arts can develop energy that totally dominates another being’s will. This power must be used in responsible ways. The practitioner must always understand the difference between the intent of training and combat. Dominating your partner in aikido practice and controlling them in a brutal, uncaring way never leads to quality learning. That feeling has always been repugnant to me (from either side). As a teacher or guide, it is my responsibility to sometimes push a student to the edge so they can desensitize their fear and then resensitize to learn how to make intuitive, creative decisions. This can be uncomfortable for the student and is necessary for growth; however, it should never be done in an abusive manner for the pleasure of the teacher. Unless I’m engaged in true combat to preserve life, I never want to feel another being “fighting for survival” on the end of my arm. I want every breath I spend to happen while taking part in “win - win” activities. Even if it’s true combat, I can do that compassionately without hate, anger, or enjoyment at the other being’s expense. True warriors do not desensitize themselves to the feelings of their opponent. A warrior (physically or spiritually, it makes no difference) must have every ounce of sensitivity possible in order to take in information and make quality decisions. In real combat or war, there are NO WINNERS. Ask any real warrior who has been there.

After some time of thinking about this experience and realizing there were many facets to understanding what had happened and the ramifications to my everyday life, I came up with an idea. This whole thing was not an intellectual, linear, logical concept on my part. It was an emotional experience that changed me in powerful ways. Maybe similar feelings I had before were just preliminary flashes to this experience of oneness with other beings. I’m not sure I know… but I do know this; I still love much about fly-fishing. So, the idea is … I have decided to try “compassionate fly-fishing.” I will engage in my love of the outdoors, the camaraderie with fellow fishermen and fisherwomen. I will still tie a great fly and put all of my energy into studying the hatch, and matching the natural diet of the fish, and everything else connected with the experience that I love. I just won’t use hooks. Many fly-fishermen use barbless hooks to even the odds a little more. I won’t use any hooks. I want to try tricking or fooling the fish into just hitting the fly…. and maybe they might even hold on for a while! However, at any time they decide to… they can quit and thumb their nose at me. I think I can live with that. They may even enjoy the game; and I may also become not quite so attached to my gear… Who knows?

I’m not telling you what you should think or feel. I’m not making value judgments about what you should do. I’m just sharing how I feel about something that may be of interest to you. I don’t know what the relative balance of karma is for you or anyone else. I do know what is in my heart/intent and try my best to actualize it. Every breath I get, I’m thankful for the chance to take part while taking in information, making decisions, being responsible… making my outsides match my insides and uplifting all beings as much as possible while doing as little harm as possible. Just being human….


Copyright 1995- 2010 by C. E. Clark, All rights reserved