Fly Fishing in Hell
by Matt Stansberry
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
It felt like a waking dream, walking a path out over the water.
Deep in the calendar and closing on the solstice I clambered over a breakwall in a dark corner of our city by the lake.
The sun had gone down and I was nearly blind and stumbling over slick stones.
In the closeness of the night, I could hear all around me the pounding din of machinery, heavy blows striking iron in the race to beat winter, construction unfinished. I heard the water washing the feet of the city below me in the darkness.
Out on the lake, fat predatory walleye prowled the nearshore for baitfish. Dozens of other anglers had come to the breakwall to cast glowing baits and rattling plugs, slowly retrieved in the hopes of hooking one of the year’s biggest walleye. Fish up to 30 inches and over ten pounds cruised the surface looking for shiners and shad in a vast food-web sprawling across this Great Lake.
I had descended to the water’s edge with a fly rod in hand.
The mechanics of the successful standard fishing method seemed easy to replicate — a floating minnow wobbling and pulsing just below the water’s surface. Maybe I could improve on the standard approach with Ultraviolet or glowing fly tying materials? A spun deer hair head might push the water in way that approximated a struggling baitfish. I had high hopes at the fly tying vise the night before, lashing materials to a new hook.
I might even out-fish the gear guys, I thought to myself.
But out on the dark breakwall, I knew I was doomed to suffer divine retribution for my hubris and offense to the fishing gods.
My headlamp cast scant light – it seemed to be swallowed up by the darkness before it could illuminate any details.
Every action required patience and fumbling luck — from pulling a fly out of the box without dumping the whole collection, to threading the eye of the hook. The mere act of setting my stuff in place where it wouldn’t fall down through the gaps in the stones to the water below took maddening patience and mindfulness.
This was fly fishing in hell.
I don’t mean hell in the cartoonish fiery red hell we all imagine. I was not tormented by demonic imps with glue-on mustaches and horns, brandishing pitchforks. I meant rather a more classical hell, like the underworld of Dante’s Inferno — an ancient dismal lake where one might be punished in a parallel manner to one’s crimes.
The second circle of Dante’s Hell is dedicated to inflicting suffering on the lustful, those who pursue their pleasure at the expense of reason. This is a sin fly fishermen might understand. In this second circle, the punished are lashed by a violent wind storm.
I considered this as I cast again and again into the windswept lake, compelled to reach out into the darkness with my fly line despite the gusts.
I do not wish to descend further dear reader, into the inner sanctums of the damned reserved for the heretics and those who sell church offices, but rather we will reside in the murky netherworld of low-probability fishing.
Out on the water, I watched a dozen fishing boats plying the horizon. Port and starboard lights shining red and green, trailing strings of lit-up planer boards behind them. The boat anglers were raking the water right in front of us. What chance did I have, flailing on the rocks? Why couldn’t I be in the warm glow of the cabin lights of one of those lucky ships with giant fish flopping at my feet?
I cast out again and lost sight of my line in the dark just a few feet from the rod tip. How far out was the fly? It could be drifting below my feet for all I could see. Yet I stripped it in, hoping for that line to come tight, tense and expectant.
My eight-weight fly line designed for warm-water bass fishing had stiffened up in uncooperative coils. It curled at my feet, tangled in clunky knots in my hand.
There is no redemption here. No miraculous walleye arises to my strange offering.
Soon the coywolves will be loping on this frozen lake, following the trail of dead seabirds and I will slump into another winter.
Why do we do these things to ourselves?
It is better to be out here chasing the improbable than to “die inwardly of that unlived life,” writes the Alaskan poet John Haines.
There’s a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly that hints at the dangers of that unlived life.
SOMETIMES A MAN STANDS UP DURING SUPPER
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that sands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
Some other version of me, a man content and sensible, is home sweeping crumbs off the kitchen floor. He’s locking the doors, and washing the dishes. Going to bed early.
My sons would not love that man as much, I hope, as I cast out again into the dark.