Become a Better Writer: Fly Fishing Artist Date

The Artist Date is a dream-child of Julia Cameron, helping readers learn how to become a better writer. We’ve discussed her book, The Artist’s Way, and highly recommend both the book and the weekly date. An Artist Date can be life-changing. It can open your creativity like nothing else. Today, we wade into the river to try our hand at fly fishing.


“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”  ― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

On the slick underside of cool river rocks, the sow bugs hide. I turn stones over, watch one scurry for cover under the stone next door, watch its brother try to burrow deep into the mud. I reach into the shallow water, grab a fistful of pebbles. Opening my hand, mud spreads across my palm; pebbles fall from the edges and splink into the water. The sow bug, known more commonly as the “roly poly,” is there, exposed. He has rolled into a ball, his best attempt at hide-and-seek, his attempt to look for all the world like a perfectly round pebble. The ball-like symmetry of his curled exoskeleton gives him away, though.

I grab him between my thumb and forefinger and fling him into the channel. He is my offering to the keepers of this stretch of river, and before I can count to two, I see the metallic flash of trout against the morning sun. The rainbow trout is a magnificent mirror when turned at the right angle, its pink and silver side throwing light back past the surface.

The rainbow trout is the most magnificent in Creation, I think. He is a slender fish, long and lean with a feminine fancy for pink. He is a fighter on the fly line, will hold his breath and dive up through the surface, will thrash his head to shake a hook loose, will run till he is wooed to the bank by the gentlest fisherman. He comes into the angler’s waiting hand with delicate reluctance, almost in reverence.

There is no hatch rising from the water at this early hour, and the trout are feeding near the bottom. Any attempt to hook a trout on a dry fly would be futile. I tie an artificial sow bug onto the end of my leader and strip six feet of fly line onto the water. I raise my arm and begin the back-and-forth mechanical motion of fly-casting.

Bill Tennison taught me the art of casting with a fly rod. “Get the rod tip moving,” he said. “Back; slight pause; forward; slight pause. Feel the quiet rhythm of the line arcing back and flattening. Feel the rhythm of it shooting forward toward the water.” If I quiet the inner noise, if I listen to the history of my stretch of river, I still hear Bill’s quaint Ozark drawl of instruction.

Back. Forward. Back. Forward. Release. Don’t waste any energy. The fly rod is an extension of you.

Forward, I shoot the line across the river, watch my sow bug sink as if having fallen from a tree limb on the far side of the bank, as if drifting dead in the water. I watch as the fly line floats. As it reaches the end of the drift, I raise my arm and pull the line from the water, watch as the mist follows it and pulls a low rainbow into the breaking morning sun.

Each cast, each drift is an exercise in releasing tension. Sometimes, I consider the motion as a metaphor for prayer, the way a man reaches always to the far shore hoping for the taunt tug of reward on the other end of the line. Today, though, this is less about prayer and more about emptying myself of daily cares.

My son has been ill for nearly two years now, unable to gain enough weight to climb onto the growth chart. There are bills to pay, more doctor visits to be had. There are procedures on the horizon.

Back; forward; back; forward; release. Don’t waste any energy. The fly rod is an extension of you.

Things at the office are busier than they’ve been in years, and the clients are demanding an ever-increasing slice of my day’s energy. There are reports to generate, memos to draft. There are phone calls to return on Monday.

Back; forward; back; forward; release. Don’t waste any energy. The fly rod is an extension of you.

I’ve been unable to find creative words in the last few weeks, have struggled to find time to read poetry, much less write a couplet. Time evades. Words evade.

Back; forward; back; forward; release. Don’t waste any energy. The fly rod is an extension of you.

With practice, I transfer the cares of the world through the fly line, scatter them across the river waters and let them sink with my sow bug. I consider the art of angling, that by graceful repetition, by easy and patient strokes, one can find an inner quiet not often afforded in today’s world.

I continue the exercise, and in an instant, I catch the flash of trout against sun. The hook is set and the remaining cares of the world are swallowed into the belly of the trout. He leaps skyward, surprised by the stinging punch packed by my artificial sow bug. My rod tip bends, and we dance.

Image by Michael/Literary Mind. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Seth Haines

Be inspired; learn how to become a better writer: Browse more Artist Dates.


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  1. says

    Your words invite rest amid tension. Release amid weariness. They seem to personify these Eugene Peterson words in The Message, Matthew 11:29-30

    Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

  2. says

    Seth, indeed, for a fly-fisher there is no better artist date with nature. A excellent account of a day on the stream. There is nothing like the quiet music of water. I just returned from the White River in Arkansas and caught and released 6 of those rainbows. They are beautiful creatures. I would have to say that a brook trout is equally colorful. Here is something you might enjoy from Orvis…

  3. says

    I don’t fish, but the rhythm of this piece settled me, the details and beauty linger. Even the humble sow bug lured me in, as we have those here, under garden rocks, curling up tight for self-protection.

    You opened us up, Seth. Thank you.

  4. says

    So beautiful. The repetitive back and forth and reeling in remind me of Dorothea Brand’s advice in Becoming a Writer, “If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways,” rhythmical and monotonous.

    It also reminded me of the time my father, with his backward motion, hooked my mother’s lip. I’m not sure she ever went fishing with him again.

  5. Mike Rusch says

    Mr. Haines,

    I will concur that the way grace comes is through art such as this. Both in the word in the stream.

    However, I must say that should I have a choice. I would take up a line against a Brown Trout any day. If not for the simple fact that they seem to offer both equal embarrassment and equal anger for falling for the things of their lesser cousins…the rainbows. :-)

    Grace my friend

  6. says

    This is absolutely beautiful writing. “Back; forward; back; forward; release. Don’t waste any energy.” Yes, that about says it, the letting go into God, and then not wasting energy. Yes.

  7. says

    I love this, Seth, for all the fly-fishers in my family. And I think that when you can’t pray, when you can’t write even a couplet, fly-fishing is a good thing to do. Cast on, my friend.

  8. says

    One thing I love about this is that just at the moment when you seem to have both settled for “an inner quiet not often afforded in today’s world” as your pursuit and hooked it, THEN the grace-ful trout comes. It’s the fulfillment of what was set up with the Norman Maclean quote.

  9. Marcy says

    I’ve read many of your works before, this piece u have written is awesome, it’s peaceful, calm & full of knowledge at the same time. It’s like I’m there with u watching from the bank. When I’m having a bad day with 1 of my 7 diseases I go outside, that is my refuge. 4 some reason once I’m there I don’t think about the pain. I feel n your writing how your letting go of it all. This is good, I’m sorry about your son, this is hard. I lost 1 child before birth, 4 months along but 2 this day I mourn 4 what could have been. Finally wrote a poem last year & got it off my chest. Today, I’ve finally accepted that 1 of these diseases is going 2 take my life. Loss someone with the same thing last week. Upon onset they give u 10 years, not bad really & I’ve got less than 6 2 go. Some days the pain is so bad u just wish the Spirit would take u. I’ve finally accepted the fact it’s not about me anymore, no, it’s about God. It’s what I can do 4 others, how I can help them, I believe it’s made me humble & a better person. It’s better this way, I get 2 put my house n order. Some people don’t get that chance nor do they get 2 love. I love on my love ones so much. Oh, I could pray & ask God 2 take this stuff away, maybe He would, but then I wouldn’t always be on my knee’s thanking Him so much 4 everything & everybody. I love the Man, God, I respect Him, I look forward 2 meeting Him. Hope this helped n some way. It’s all about acceptance.

  10. Marcy says

    I just read your words again, it’s been a long two years for you, still so much uncertain things lie ahead. This can drain you, make you feel alone with your struggles. You feel helpless with the health problems of your son. I feel your pain. God never puts more on us than we can handle. Seth if you believe in God this is not from Him, in life awful things happen and we can’t control it. Yet God the Father is standing right there beside you, He hasn’t left you Seth. He’s waiting for you to reach out and grab His hand. Sit with Him Seth, give it to Him, He’s big enough to handle it all. My thoughts are still with you.


  1. […] The rainbow trout is the most magnificent of God’s creation, I think. He is a slender fish, long and lean with a feminine fancy for pink. He is a fighter on the fly line, will hold his breath and dive up through the surface, will thrash his head to shake a hook loose, will run till he is wooed to the bank by the gentlest fisherman. He comes into the angler’s waiting hand with delicate reluctance, almost in reverence.  … Continue reading at Tweetspeak Poetry. […]

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