When Jonathan Yeager is out on a river, away from everything, casting his fly rod and reeling in trout (or not), he often finds himself in a deeper spot than just a good fishing hole.
“My favorite thing is to be by myself in the middle of a wilderness or national forest and fly fishing and catching fish and it’s a beautiful day; there’s nothing better than that,” he says. “Usually I find myself doing a lot of thinking and reflecting while I’m doing it.”
Through his experiences, he has found a meditative element in the sport, a state of mind that can be spiritual in its resonance. That understanding led him to create a new course, “Religion, Spirituality and Fly Fishing,” for Winter Semester. While he figured about 10 or so students would sign up, he now has 25.
Although “religion” is in the title of the course, Yeager says he’s not promoting one denomination over another; in fact, he’s not promoting any denominations at all.
“Spirituality is synonymous with religion,” he says, ‘but there’s no formal religion involved. I’m not advocating a particular kind of religion, so ‘spirituality’ is a word that some people would want to use in place of ‘religion.’ Spirituality is a part of a religious experience as well.”
The course meets once a week and, along with the classroom study, outside reading and student essays, an hour or so each week is spent on their fly fishing skills for about an hour on Chamberlain Field. No, they aren’t using real, barbed, flesh-piercing flies as they practice the sports’ finely-tuned casting motions; the tips of their fishing lines have Velcro attachments.
Becoming proficient at fly fishing is critical to understanding the spiritual aspect, Yeager says.
”They’re not going to be feeling very spiritual if they can’t tie the knots or tie flies or can’t do the casting,” he says.
Ryan Owens, a student in the class, has been fly fishing for about 11 years and has become friends with Yeager through the sport. As sort of a second-string instructor, he helps other students during the outdoor practices, passing on his knowledge in hopes that some of the students will develop a love of the sport, too.
And, like Yeager, part of his enjoyment for fly fishing is the mental aspect.
“You can go out there and think about nothing or everything,” he says. “You’ll think about anything from ‘How can I be better at my job?’ to ‘How can I better myself through spiritual rigor,’” he says.
Along with such reading assignments as A River Runs Through It, Fly Fishing—The Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice and the Ernest Hemingway short story “Big Two-Hearted River,” fundamental part of the class is actually getting the students out on a river, fly rod in hand. Around Chattanooga, fly-fishing rivers include the Hiwassee, the Elk and the Caney Fork.
“They aren’t’ going to be able to know what I’m talking about until they get out there,” Yeager says.
After the river trip, students must write essays about the experience.
“What did you experience? What was it like? Did you prefer going by yourself? Did you prefer going in a group? What spiritual aspects did you pick up?” Yeager explains.
For me, it’s a lot of thinking and you’re sort of absorbing your environment, the nature, the beauty of the river,” he says. “It’s a lot of reflecting.”
When you have the mechanical areas of fly fishing down and don’t have to think on the constant adjustments that are an integral part of the sport, the spiritual angle can come to the forefront, Owens says.
“It’s meditative, especially you’re over that hill and are able to do things automatically,” he says. “Once you get that down, you can really open up your mind and expand your thoughts.”