The Fly and the Peg

The Fly & the Peg

A seeker finds that chasing glory is the same on the course and the water

I’m standing in a shallow valley at twilight. Birds dart between the long shadows from the pine trees, feeding on the bugs that hatch as the heat of a summer day retreats with the sun. My bag is behind me close to the woods, where the long grass ends, and my attention is fixed a short distance in front of me, at the far edge of the sand. ¶ The scene is familiar to golfers everywhere, except I’m nowhere near a course. I’m on the bank of a river. The caddie has been replaced with a fishing guide, and I use the lever in my hand to manipulate a small object through the air to land at a precise point 50 feet in front of me—only this time the target isn’t a green. It’s a rising fish.

For years, I had kept a wall between my two all-consuming hobbies. Then I hit a massive fade, as I too often do, off the third tee at Highland Links, in the far northeast corner of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. As I crossed a wooden bridge above a narrow river and looked away from the short grass toward my wayward ball, I noticed movement: a fish, likely a salmon, tailing in the water below. 

For many golfers, this would be a quick curiosity before moving on to their next shot—a sighting barely worth a mention back in the clubhouse after the day’s round. Not for me. Unexpected revelations aren’t uncommon on the course or the water, and this fish forever connected the two endeavors in my mind. As a lifelong fly fisherman and an ever-aspiring golfer, I’ve been struck by their similarities ever since.

The shared allure is clear. They both offer refuges in what can be devastatingly beautiful natural surroundings. Whether it’s club rules or the limits of technology, our phones are often turned off, creating spaces defined by what they don’t contain: the unrelenting pings and rattles of connected modern life. The preferred times for both are the peace of early mornings or evenings.

Cape Breton, of course, is not the only place where they intersect. Ireland and Scotland offer perhaps as much world-class fishing as they do golf. I know people who carry a fly rod in the front pocket of their golf bag in case they spot a largemouth bass in a water hazard. At Waterville in Ireland, the neighboring river is known for its run of salmon. Sullivan County Golf Club in New York is adjacent to the birthplace of dry-fly fishing for trout in the U.S. My friend recently sent me a photo of a leaping 50-plus-pound tarpon he’d hooked in a greenside estuary in Puerto Rico. I don’t think he paid a greens fee for the pleasure, but the slack-jawed golfers in the background sure got their money’s worth.

Some might point out that, unlike fishing, golf exists in manufactured landscapes. The most cynical could rightly say that even links courses, mythologized as places where we pursue golf on land as it once was, are manicured to some degree. But golfers know that this takes nothing away from their enjoyment.

Those same cynics would be surprised to learn that fishing is remarkably similar. Take the brown trout, a coveted fly-fishing species. It’s now ubiquitous, but many folks don’t know that it was imported from Germany to Michigan and is native only to Europe and Western Asia. It’s now been exported and stocked around the world to suit people’s preferences. In North America, state hatcheries similarly stock hundreds of thousands of varying species of trout so people can have a so-called “wilderness experience.” From manipulated riverbeds to cultivated oxygenation to private fishing clubs mowing the riverbank grass right down to the water’s edge, our waterways are often less natural than they appear. And they remain similarly enjoyable.

Fly-fishing’s origins in the practical—the hunting of food—have evolved away from utility into a sphere golfers know well. Today, the process of selecting rods and flies for a specific river rivals the space-age technology involved in club fittings. From one perspective, the amount of time and money I’ve spent obsessing over how to successfully pursue a fish with a brain the size of a pea, only to throw it back, is ridiculous. In that same vein, golf is also entirely impractical. But therein lies the true joy. Some would say the best things, from marveling at a sunrise to hearing a little white ball drop into a cup, extend beyond any utilitarian value.

Part of this joy lies in the relationships. My dad—an accomplished golfer (he set a course record on the back nine at Shinnecock that stood for years) and a known fly-fishing author and bamboo-rod builder—speaks often of his favorite caddies and fishing guides. The conversations began on a course or on a riverbank, working through the arcane details of grass condition and wind direction, or water quality and bait selection. They moved into suggestions and encouragement, then grew into lifelong friendships. I’ve known a few river guides my entire life. If I can persuade my daughter to take up fishing, one of them will end up guiding three generations of Carmichaels. If there is a greater gift, I don’t know it.

Both sports provide a window to quickly learn about people. You see how they handle discomfort or celebrate success, discover their generosity or their temper toward friends and strangers. Even with a caddie providing a perfect read on a green, or a guide high in a tree spotting a salmon in a river, we must make the play. We are, in this sense, alone in the spotlight. Some shine; others wither. Windy conditions or a lack of fish peel back the club tags and custom-built equipment to reveal true character. I have come to understand strangers better after a day on a river than colleagues I’ve spent years with in an office. 

Regardless of personality, participants in both sports understand that humility is part of the experience. This is true in places like Bandon or Cabot, striking a perfect shot with the cliffs yawning and the ocean crashing below. It’s similar to standing in a river, feeling the unrelenting pressure formed by glacial melt high in the mountains, and holding a fish freshly returned from its multi-year journey to Greenland. These moments make you feel appropriately tiny. Yet they also lift you up. For those who’ve landed a 30-pound Atlantic salmon—which amounts to intercepting a pulsating silver miracle—the mundane issues of life immediately recede. So it is when the ball drops for an ace (I would imagine).

This exists also in smaller moments, like finding the sweet spot. I have long struggled with the common, if counterintuitive, mistake shared by both pursuits: trying too hard and exerting too much effort. Flex the rod too quickly or apply too much force and your cast is a mess. When I swing a club too hard, I tend to hit it worse than when I swing easy. Both offer great lessons in patience and in finding a connection to one’s body and its unique rhythm. At their best, swings, like casts, are graceful. The movement is hypnotic, the results seemingly effortless. And in our quieter moments we realize that these lessons can, and probably should, be applied when we return to real life.

I’m not prone to quoting pre-Socratic philosophers, but there is the famous idea from Heraclitus about how no one ever steps into the same river twice. My experiences fishing and golfing bear this out. You never hit the exact same shot or make identical casts. Just as a course or river’s condition is always changing, so too is the person. And in this is what I believe to be the shared core of both sports. In Ireland, it could be blowing like stink one day, and the next it might be beautiful. I could get skunked on the river today, and tomorrow catch a trophy.

In the face of all that is humbling about these sports, of all the mounting evidence against us, there is something noble about the continued pursuit. It connects us to something bigger, just as it feeds within us something not yet satisfied. What is that? We may never know, but I have a tee time at 6 a.m. tomorrow to find out what awaits in a shallow valley.

The Fly and the Peg