A friend and I found ourselves floating a small steelhead river recently in our inflatables. ¬†Between heavy rapids and gliding runs, we (of course) found time for the philosophizing that seems to follow fly anglers around the globe. ¬†This time, he asked, Is steelheading a sport?
At first glance, when I see the word “sport” attached to pursuits like fishing and hunting, I feel like we as a culture are missing the essence of these activities. ¬†My friend agreed. ¬†He put it well: sports involve competition. ¬†And at least in the circles I fish in, there isn’t a shred of competition during the day; we’re all out there together, rolling the dice, and sometimes one of us comes up a little ahead–but we’re all equal winners because we made it to the river.
But the issue didn’t fall away. ¬†A run later, I found myself struggling to reach a known lie, a steelhead-collecting bucket about eight feet deep and under heavy currents. ¬†I looked to my fly box and saw the heavy worm-weights. ¬†Slip one on, and I’d be in the bucket in seconds. ¬†But I hesitated. ¬†I hesitated for the same reason I hesitate to fish indicator tactics or jigs or spinners: to me, steelheading is best when you earn your fish. ¬†Or put differently, steelhead are fully appreciated when we earn them.
Which is strange. ¬†If we’re out there to catch fish, why are we consciously hindering our ability to catch fish? ¬†That’s a hallmark of “sport,” isn’t it? ¬†At least it is the definition of the word “sporting,” as in give the fish a sporting chance.
So is ours a sport, a sporting activity, or something else entirely?
At the end of the day, we pulled our boats to the shore just as darkness turned the green river charcoal. ¬†We broke our rods in two, shared a few nips of scotch, and listened to the river run through it. ¬†Our silent reverence was proof enough for me.