A Theology of Fly Fishing

Maxwell Olmstead

November 14, 2001
Theology 1 Theological Analysis Paper
Professor Wesley Wildman and MaryLu Bunting


I have been fishing as long as I can remember. It has been a pursuit, an adventure, a call, a metaphor, a meditation, and a coping mechanism. Being a young boy in the 1960s and 70s, reading Thor Heyerdahl adventures and watching Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic, and astronauts orbiting the earth and walking on the moon on television, the spirit of adventure and the wonder of the natural world were the air I breathed. Moreover, my family was of a religious bent where my sisters and I were more likely to be told to be quiet and pay attention on a nature walk than in church. As opposed to the somehow self-evident holiness of the sanctuary, my parents took on the nurturing challenge of opening our eyes to the apparent and not-so-apparent dimensions of the divine around us in the woods, at the seashore, in the fauna and flora before our eyes and at our fingertips.

My experience of life, the successes and failures, the joys and sorrows, the ever expanding fabric of the my life, has enriched my love of and passion for fly fishing, particularly for trout. But I have also been given pause for thought and doubt. To be frank, I have been downright troubled at times. Questions of ethics and morality have forced their way into my sporting consciousness. I have read voraciously in fly fishing literature. I have lived and fished throughout large parts of the Northeast, Rocky Mountain, and Northern Pacific United States, as well as Scandinavia. I have met people who share my interest but have very different techniques, opinions, and ethics from my own.

I can distinctly remember my boyhood unease and anguish at impaling a worm or a minnow on a hook for bait. This probably sparked my shift from bait to flies at an early age more than anything else. Even worse was my deep regret and guilt when I unwittingly killed a fish which I had planned to release. The unavoidable reality of my sport as a source of spiritual and physical renewal and growth is that it is essentially a matter of life and death for the fish.

Why fly fish? Is it “right” to treat a living creature as a plaything for my amusement? Is that what I am doing? Is my fishing an act of reverence and respect? Or egocentric curiosity? To want to be in touch with and actually feel and see the beauty of these animals and share in their dimension of existence? In our drastically shrinking world can I justify this pastime? Or, is it for the very reason that our entire ecosystem, not to mention the tiny fraction of which is made up of trout streams, is being grossly ravaged for commercial purposes that our attempts at preservation are so obviously justified? Or, is all of this just a cheap and insincere rationalization of a “blood sport” in a day and age that prefers these confined to movies, video arcades, “true crime” television shows, and the overseas news?

In this essay, I will examine two of the more obvious theological questions which confront me when I am fly fishing or thinking about fly fishing. First, as Judeo-Christians do we have a divinely instituted responsibility for the preservation and cherishing of Creation? And second, how does fly fishing help us understand, define and shoulder that responsibility?

By definition, theology is “talk about God.” My readers may feel that equating “talk about God” with “talk about fly fishing” is a stellar example of academic trivialization. There are so many more important discussions, like genocide, microbiological engineering, homelessness, etc. I am merely suggesting that fly fishing is a useful metaphor and vehicle for approaching “God questions” in that this arguably frivolous diversion is composed of three parts; first, discernment: “are there fish here and how will I catch them?”; second, a discerning action: “this oughta work”; and third, a result: success or failure, both of which are completely subjective. At every step, the angler must try to see the obvious and hidden clues to the puzzle, adapt herself to the situation, take action or not, and achieve a result which may be quite contrary to the intention. Evelyn Underhill offers the following definition of mysticism: “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment” (Underhill, 1914: 23). It is this union which I maintain that fly fishing, both as a corporate possibility and as an individual endeavor, aims at in its little microcosm of the larger Creation. But what is Reality and where do we fit?

Let us begin with the communal question of God, humanity, and the natural world. By way of scientific background, it takes millions of years for a trout stream to naturally come into being, no matter what the strict creationist may believe. Geology is generally a very slow process from a human perspective, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and catastrophic floods aside. Erosion must occur to create a drainage. The appropriate mineral sediments must be present to allow for suitable water quality. The climate must be conducive to cold, well oxygenated water. The fish, insects, and other fauna must migrate into the water system and adapt themselves to the environment. And finally, all of these variables need to remain in this delicate balance for the system to be viable. A slight change in aquatic acidity will remove various insects from the ecosystem, thereby initiating a chain reaction of adjustment for all the remaining species. A slight drop in oxygen content will force all species to migrate. Increased water temperatures of only a few degrees will literally suffocate the trout. Change is inherent in nature, but change for the sake of more electricity to power computers like the one I am using right now, or change for more and bigger fish to catch is highly debatable.

It is my belief that, as people of the Book and the Word, we Judeo-Christians must begin a theology of ecology with the Biblical story of Creation and, what is commonly and, I will argue, ignorantly understood as, the hierarchical paradigm of the natural order. Those who appeal for preservation and those who counter for exploitation both turn to Genesis 1 as a proof text. I will argue that the Genesis author makes three points clear, all of which point to one overarching Biblical perspective: Creation is Holy in its entirety. It is the manifestation of the Glory of God, both as a synthetic whole and in its individual parts.

First, from a Judeo-Christian perspective the Creation is divinely established. Whether one believes in the literal interpretation of Genesis that God created the heavens and the earth and the fullness thereof in six days, or that this is a metaphor giving depth and meaning to the scientific explanation of the evolutionary process, people who turn to the Judeo-Christian Bible as a source for their understanding and appreciation of existence, must accede to the claims of Genesis. Moreover, this passage states explicitly that God, having finished and considered the Creation, proclaimed all aspects of it “Good.” God does not proclaim only one aspect of the whole good, or some more good than others. Everything is good as created by God, at least implicitly for the very reason of its divine inception. As the Genesis author summarizes, so should we: “God saw everything that he (sic) had made, and indeed it was very good”(Gn 1:31a).1

I interpret the above to mean that divine establishment imbues all of creation with holiness. Paul Tillich writes, “...holy objects are not holy in and of themselves. They are only holy by negating themselves in pointing to the divine of which they are mediums”(Tillich 1951: 216). That is to say, everything has a quality beyond the purely material and utilitarian. If we begin from the premise that every creature is of, according to, and under the blessing of God, both in and for itself as well as how it relates to the whole of existence and thereby, and for this very reason reflects the Glory of God in itself, every thing serves as a means for beholding the wonder and majesty of God. In the parlance of modern consumer society, everything is not merely a commodity. Every thing has meaning in its divinely ordained “creatureliness.” It is Holy.

The second point is God’s ordained fecundity and the interconnectedness of every aspect of Creation. He calls forth one thing from the other, darkness from light, earth from the waters, and creatures from their natural elements. Nothing exists without some original connection to or emanation from something else. To all he gives his blessing and commands them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the (abode in which you belong).” Both the origin and future of all creatures, not to mention their environments, fall within God’s blessing.

Where does humanity fall in this paradigm? There are two variants of the human creation story. In one, God creates both female and male in God’s own image, “according to our likeness,” apparently ex nihilo but really out of the idea of God which God has of Godself. Some would argue that this is countered by the variant tradition of Genesis 2: 7 in which “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living being.” In either case, the basic presupposition of interconnectedness and organic unity which we have seen with the rest of Creation also informs the Biblical understanding of humanity. At our most basic existential level, we share in the goodness of the rest of Creation, whether we derive directly from God and are in God’s image, thereby Good as God is Good, or are formed from the Earth and are divinely inspired, thereby Good as the Earth is proclaimed Good by God and we have the divine breath within us. We are not separate, above, or somehow in control.

Third and finally, God ordained every aspect of creation for the benefit of other aspects. We can read, and many do, Genesis 1: 28-30 as an incontrovertible command to use everything as we please: “God blessed (humanity), and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” But God also said that every other creature had an equal right to the fruits of Creation: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seeds that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” Notice the author’s repeated use of every, not some, or even most, but every.

Genesis 2: 15-17 supports the position that Creation is for use and not abuse: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden...”” In short, we are one part of whole, all of which is Good, all of which has been blessed by the Creator, and all of which has been commanded to be fruitful and serve the rest of Creation in ways that do not compromise any creature’s generic continuity.

I cannot plead a thorough knowledge of the Christian theological tradition. I would however contend that the “bum wrap” given to Christianity as a religion licensing the detrimental exploitation of nature is focussed more on what Christians have done, using the “fill the earth and subdue it..” language of Genesis as their justification, rather than what the brightest have thought and said. I see the justification mentality as a reflex of what Paul Tillich has labeled “demonic,” confusing a “secondary concern,” i.e., our economic well-being, for the “ultimate concern,” God.
I will cite three examples of a more thoughtful Christian understanding. St. Augustine clearly sees all of creation as a “vehicle for perceiving” God in Book 12, chapter 7 and passim. of his Confessions.

St. Francis of Assisi takes this one step further in his prayer to God and nature, Canticle of the Sun. In the two stanza below, the individual at prayer conceives of aspects of nature through familial metaphors. For Francis, the intimate interconnectedness of Genesis is foundational:.
Be praised, my Lord, by sister water
for she is useful and humble and precious and chaste...

Be praised, my Lord, by our sister, mother earth
she sustains and governs us
and brings forth many fruits and colored flowers and plants.
(McGrath, 2001: 414)

The final example which I will cite in support of a theology of ecology is St. Ignatius of Loyola. He warrants human use of creation, as does Genesis, but only in so far as it brings us closer to God, the very God who blessed all of Creation and bade it be fruitful and multiply. In his Spiritual Exercises, the “First Principle and Foundation” is:

“Man (sic) is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them insofar as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them insofar as they prove a hindrance to him” (quoted from Barry, 1999: 15)

I think it safe to say that Ignatius would agree with Tillich’s understanding of the “demonic.”
To conclude my thoughts on God, humanity and nature, there would seem to be only encouragement for human use and enjoyment of nature in so far as this brings us closer to the God who values all creatures and their environments with God’s blessing.

Having used up all of my space on the first question, let me briefly answer the second: why fly fish?
First, fly fishing requires humility. Although I cannot list the references here, this is a stance before God and Creation which is also Biblically instituted and theologically sound. A large part of humility is the practice of patience. “God’s ways are not our ways,” and neither are the trout’s. On any given day, our strategies and assessments may be either brilliant or seriously flawed. The point is, no matter how much we think we understand why a fish bit or not, over the course of a lifetime experience will indicate that the opposite could equally well be true in seemingly parallel circumstances.

In order to be truly successful , and that is subjective for everyone on each different occasion in the case of fly fishing, we are called to step out of our egocentrically arranged world and submit ourselves in humility to the currents of the stream, the direction of the breeze, the warmth of the sun and water, the life cycle of the insects, and ultimately the vagaries of the trout. The words of the Psalmist are spot on, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Stand in awe before God, whether God in heaven or God reflected and revealed in the trout stream. We should not forget the fishless day nor undervalue the bonanza, as they remind us of that each fish caught is a gift from God. Whether one or many are caught, they are still there, living, eating and, I pray, reproducing. There no firm answers. We may look and guess, or just cast and catch, and the results may be the same. There is a difference between fishing and catching, but, unless we destroy them, the waters and the trout, like God and God’s Word, will always be there to be sought and enjoyed. In this way, fly fishing is like prayer, an act of faith and courage.

Second, we have seen in Genesis that God commands us to savor Creation as the Glory of God. God has given us multiple senses with which to do this and fly fishing offers relish to all. We might argue that bird watching or painting are less intrusive. Standing in the water, hearing the soothing or exhilarating flow over the rocks, seeing the light on the water and the hints of the fish, feeling the joy of the cast, the energy of contact and the wonder of the creature in your hands, smelling the fish and the moldering decay in the streamside vegetation, and, should you so choose, tasting the fish over an open fire which also looks and smells wonderful, you are as close to experiencing the Glory of God in Creation with all your senses as I have been. The totality of the sensual experience almost always drives every thought from my mind, leaving just the immediacy of the moment. In this way too fly fishing is like prayer.

Third, Lee Wulf, one of the most famous and innovative anglers of the twentieth century and an early advocate of catch and release, wrote many years ago that a wild trout is too precious to be caught just once. Fly fishing is must less injurious to the fish than bait, which is usually deeply ingested, causing internal and fatal injury. In my theology, I would change “caught” for “experienced and learned from,” a treasure cherished but not destroyed. In these three points I think that we move towards what Evelyn Underhill understands as the “mystical union” mentioned above.
Finally, any individual person or group of persons which tries to stem the tide of development and exploitation, which works for the preservation and restoration of species and habitat, even if their motivation is recreational and not devotional, is at least inadvertently trying to live up to the interconnected institution of Creation as found in Genesis. In this day and age, no one can just “go fishing.” If you want the fish, or even the river, to be there, you must do something about it. Otherwise someone else will remove them or change them for their own purposes. I believe the preserver has the more theologically sound claim and has been commanded by God to act.


Barry 1999 Barry, William A., S.J. Discernment in Prayer. Paying Attention to God. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1999.

Pine-Coffin 1961 Saint Augustine. Confessions. Translated with an Introduction by R. S. Pine-Coffin.

McGrath 2001 The Christian Theology Reader. Edited by Alister E. McGrath, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Tillich 1951 Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Underhill 1914 Underhill, Evelyn. Practical Mysticism. Columbus, OH: Ariel Press, 1914.

1 All Biblical citations and references are taken from the New Standard Revised Version.