Five Laws of Fish

First Law of Fish

Fish in the river shall remain in the river unless
acted upon by an outside force. Force of nature.
Failure of dam. Flood. Famine. Kingfishers.

Fortune favors the bold, but bold fish find hooks
driven home. Talons in back, flopping through sky.

Cold fish, warm fish, cod fish, fried fish, god fish.

Fish, an object of affection and will remain
so over time, in shapes and symbols which
alter in sunlight and shade. To fish or not to
fish is no longer a question, but a modifier.

Yes, today. Yes, tomorrow. Forever, yes. Fish.

Yes, today. Yes, tomorrow. Forever, yes. Fish.

above “These days I keep trout so rarely that I forget how good they can taste. These nonnative brookies are from an alpine lake in Oregon’s Cascade Range where people are encouraged to harvest them as they were introduced decades ago.” Photo: Justin Bailie

Second Law of Fish

When entering a fly shop, enter slowly with arms down
and palms facing forward. Do not make any sudden movements
or fire random questions at employees behind the counter.

Friend, you have three questions, choose them carefully
and do not waste them jumping down the rabbit hole of fish
you caught one time or where you have been or how full

of prowess and stealth you are. When your lips move
do not face forward like a Sphinx or Cheshire Cat. Though
you may be like Alice in Wonderland at the sight of row

upon row of rods and bin upon bin of flies, listen carefully
to what is said and left unsaid. Even if you do not understand,
listen carefully, for time is a river, and once on the river

you shall unfasten yourself from time. Where have you
gone? What are you? If you drink of the Kool-Aid
you might feel bigger or smaller, but trust what others see

as you are the same size as everyone else. I repeat,
you are the same size as everyone else and so do not think
your head will break through the ceiling or you must wrestle

with each size 24 midge for your very life. Just smile pleasantly
as you will be asked what you need, and given more than
what you think you will need. There is no wanting when you cross

the threshold, for you are entering a fly shop, and it should be
as entering gates of pearl and whalebone. Before you,
three questions. Beyond you, the heaven of moving water.

Before you, three questions. Beyond you, the heaven of moving water.

above “The coolest thing about the bins in eastern fly shops is that many of the flies are completely different than their western counterparts. This shop, on the banks of the Farmington River in New Hartford, CT, was loaded for bear with beautiful bucktail-style streamers.” Photo: Copi Vojta

Third Law of Fish

In heavy crowd, or empty street, in pitch and floe of each rotation
of Earth, of Earth round sun, of sun in spiral and swirl

of which be unafraid to show up to, and love which never dies
a natural death, and the living which go on how and in the peculiar

ways they want. To be wrapped up in the very essence of it—
this thing in front of our noses so close we cannot see except for

looking over vast distances; mountain tops, airplane windows,
the edge of sea. Find what you love and let it kill you

in minutes and hours and days and weeks and years.
If you are so lucky as to be unafraid of living, let love be the thing

on which you spend your breaths, and money the thing
you spend on love, and love be how you stay alive

after you have caught your final fish, and folded in, and slipped
away. Let love be how you stay alive when you are gone.

Let love be how you stay alive when you are gone.

above The further you go, the closer you get. That means 60 miles deep on a gravel road in northern Montana is just the beginning of the journey. Photo: Justin Bailie

Fourth Law of Fish

When the road before you is cast in darkness
and sky is thick with clouds, wait for a break of car
light or starlight or the soft rich glaze of moon.

And if the river that carries us carries us far past dusk
but the river is comfortable as a wide gravel path
carry on. If it is by feel and feel alone we cast

out into the sound of rising fish. If it is by touch
we must set the hook and be led by fish instead
of leading. If it is by sound we navigate the depth

and stroke of oars, then listen and row.  In the end
this life is more a surrendering to the things we love
than a conquering. Fish are better shared than caught

and eaten alone. Where each fish is a way of speaking
without words. Where each river we choose to fish
chose us instead, and words fall in tumbling liquid light.

Fish are better shared than caught and eaten alone.

above “Zac Mayhew and John Huber enjoy a moment on Idaho’s Silver Creek. The season opens there at the end of May—that means brown drakes. They were no-shows on this evening, so we hung out and had a few beers instead of fishing.” Photo: Nick Price

Fifth Law of Fish

A blind man and an armless man have planted a forest
in China. Two men paralyzed from the armpits down
and one man from the waist, set sail up the northwest
coast in a race they know they won’t win.  A woman
trapped on the side of a mountain in Kurdistan
for 10 days sits in a bivouac as armed men take shots
from below. A woman from the slums of Bangladesh
climbs the highest mountains of all seven continents.
And you, what have you done? Written another poem
about fish.

Your lifestyle centered around fish is familiar as breathing.
Your job is fish. Whether you give someone a fish or
teach them how to fish, your job remains the same. It is
not to make value judgements about whether someone
deserves a fish. It is not to criticize them for not knowing
how to properly wade in a river or row a boat or cast
a sad net over a pair of oceanic eyes. And it is certainly not
to stand around puffed up like a bird debating the relative
efficacy of fish charity vs. fish education while someone
goes hungry.

For as much as some days you would deny it, you are
part of a devastatingly human family. You fight with fists
of emails and phone calls demanding progress or a stay
against regress. You march. You pray. You protest. In
southern Wyoming after heating a can of chili and frying
sausages over coals you fall asleep in the back of your dusty
car. One friend falls asleep in the bed of a pickup. Another
in the cab. Someone under the boat trailer. You are a first
stanza and a last stanza, boots and waders forever wet,
fingers forever cracked, but your job is the middle stanza.
Your job is fish.

Your job is fish.

above “Trout love ants, especially in the North Cascades of Washington state. An ant is tangy on the human palette and I like to think the fish can taste, too. Fishing a three-weight, I tied on one ant and had no reason to change it for the duration of the morning circumnavigation of this small lake. See cutty, make cast, watch fish ambush ant, set, land, repeat—all morning long.” Photo: Copi Vojta

This article was originally published in Volume Nine, Issue Three of The Flyfish Journal.


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