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.