In his seminal work The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri paints a picture of hell that is, in many ways, quite contrary to our own contemporary vision. We imagine hell as a lake of fire where horned and fork-tailed demons torment the souls of the world's sinners, but Dante's vision isn't quite so all encompassing. The poet offers us a hell that is tailored to the perversions of each individual soul, a hell where Satan is not master, but rather a prisoner. Dante's hell exists within nine concentric circles, each representing a crime against man or God. I've spent just enough time beating bush along the river to know that such a place must exist for bug chuckers.
Dante's journey through Hell begins at the outermost of the concentric rings, Limbo. Limbo houses the uninitiated and unbaptized souls who have yet to accept Christ as their savior and redeemer. So it is for us fly flingers. We have to start somewhere, and relatively few of us start with the satisfaction that comes from tying a diminutive dry fly, and casting it to large, spinner-sipping brown trout. Instead, we start with bluegills, worms and a bobber. Many of us only ever come to fly fishing after we've had an epiphany, a realization that there must be more than bluegills, worms, and bobbers.
Some of us wander aimlessly through Limbo for half a lifetime before we discover the redemption of bug chucking. We move from worms to minnows and then from minnows to artificials. We buy spinnerbaits and plugs, crankbaits and soft plastics. We study the Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops catalogs. We commit ourselves to a monthly boat payment and weekly bass tournaments. The whole time we feel as if there must be more, and that if there isn't more then certainly there mnust be something else.
Then it happens. We're on vacation with the wife and kids, rolling across the country in the family truckster, and as we follow I-90 where it parallels the Yellowstone River we see a solitary angler wading knee deep in the pounding current. We recognize that it's a fly rod he holds in his hands; we've seen its cousins in our catalogs. What we do not recognize is the angler's expression. Even at a distance we can tell that he is positively beatific. He smiles, but his is not a tournament angler's smile. His knowing grin - not quite ear to ear, but ebullient just the same - suggests something else, something untold. We're intrigued.
Or maybe we're not on vacation at all. Maybe we're sitting comfortably at home. We've settled into our favorite chair after a long day at work, and we're paging vacantly through 700 channels of high definition mindlessness. The wife and kids have been asleep for hours, but tonight we're restless. We cannot close our eyes. We surf channel after endless channel, and then we see it, the image of an angler silhouetted against a backdrop of pine. He stands tall atop a boulder, which is just off-center in what must be a glacial river. His fly line dances through the air, and paints golden script across a verdant canvas. We've heard of this film. People who know we fish have suggested that we watch it. What's it called? A River Running, or something like that. It doesn't matter; we place the remote on an end-table, and watch until the film's conclusion.
I suppose it's possible that we didn't come to fly fishing after a road trip or having watched a movie. Maybe we had a grandfather who taught us how to tie, or a father who taught us how to cast. Maybe we read about it in Field and Stream, or saw an episode of The American Sportsman with Curt Gowdy. However our enlightenment happened, the result is the same.
We came to realize our ignorance, and we discovered our place in Limbo. We understood that there could be more to fishing than the fish. We came to know that in the hours we spend riverside we might just find our redemption.