The Fly Angler’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maybe what looking deep into the fly angler’s hierarchy of needs will do though is help anglers realize they are not alone in their passions and idiosyncrasies, that they may be misguided and lost in their pursuit, but in the words of the band Blue Rodeo, “If we are lost, then we are lost together.”

By Derek Bird

Artwork by Diane Michelin

For some reason I began pondering the late American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory. Remember the pyramid in first year psychology class? Maslow’s theory proposed that humans all have the same needs (biological needs, safety needs, love needs and esteem needs), and these must be met in order to move towards the ultimate goal of self actualization (realizing potential and self fulfillment).

Fly fishing is not too far away from any thought that springs to my mind, so for me it was a natural progression to jump to wondering about a fly angler’s hierarchy of needs. So what follows fits into the psychology of fly fishing category, which, like the limited psychology I studied at university, simply brings the obvious to the surface.

Does a theory like this matter? Probably not. Will it make you a better angler and will you finally have a deeper understanding of yourself as fly angler? I’m thinking…no. Will you finally be able to go to your spouse and explain to him or her why it is that you dream for months about standing in a freezing cold river on a snowy January morning just for the remote chance of catching a steelhead that you will simply release back into its watery underworld? Most definitely not (and likely no amount of digging into the human psyche ever will).

Maybe what looking deep into the fly angler’s hierarchy of needs will do though is help us realize that we are not alone in our passions and idiosyncrasies, that we may be misguided and lost in our pursuit, but in the words of the Canadian band Blue Rodeo, “if we are lost then we are lost together.”

So like Maslow, we’ll start at ground level, with basic needs. Every fly angler has needs such as gear, fish and water. And water may arguably be the most foundational to our basic needs. True, many do start out in a grassy field, but really we only do this so that we can cast better when we are on the water. We take water very seriously be it in the form of river, lake, ocean or pond, and those who are close to us who do not share our deep passion rarely care about our instinctual observations.

When traveling with my family if the road brings us over a bridge or alongside a stream, I constantly make comments about the state of the water. I talk about the depth, the flow and the fishibility. Often my comments are greeted with the classic raised eyebrow accompanied by a raised cheek and a slow head nod. Not so much to indicate agreement, but just an acknowledgement showing that they heard what I said and have absolutely no interest in furthering the conversation. I find comfort in the fact that other anglers I fish with make the exact same comments when driving past a stream. For most anglers a statement like “the river is high for this time of year,” is simply an automatic response.

Technology has also aided us in our basic need. On my iPhone I’ve bookmarked a site that gives constant water level updates for my favorite streams. I check it often throughout the year so that I can see how the streams are doing. On weeks and days leading up to a fishing trip, I visit the site more diligently. I also make a note of the water level on the fishing day so that I can compare the level to the next time I fish the stream. Some would call it an addiction, but ‘need’ sounds so much better.

The second level of the fishing hierarchy of needs is simply fishing time. I understand that time can be broken into categories such as time spent thinking about fly fishing and time spent preparing for a trip, but for now I will only deal with time spent actually fishing. Time is a little more complicated in that, though all anglers have a strong desire to spend time on the water, the amount of time one spends angling is different for each angler. Some anglers only feel fulfilled if they spend every waking moment fishing. Those who place themselves in this category often must, in some way, make fly fishing their occupation otherwise they end up jobless and/or spouseless. They realize that one must work in order to survive, so they take up a job in the fly-fishing industry that allows them to spend as much time as possible on the water. Somewhere along the way they figured out that the statement, “Honey, I’ve got to go to work,” is better than “I’m going fishing” when there are bills to pay. They are our guides and our shop owners to name a few. I do respect this type of angler, but that is not me.

I fit into another category when it comes to time. Before I had a family, I tried to fish all day every day for an entire summer. I got about two weeks in when I realized that I just did not really enjoy using my time that way. I realized that I needed balance to foster the desire to fish. Now that I’m a father and a husband the concept of balance is ever more essential. Too much time on the water and I feel guilty for stealing time from my family; not enough time on the water and I feel grumpy because of a need I have that’s not met. Time spent fly fishing is a balancing act that requires sacrifices on both sides.

Angling knowledge is the next level in the fly-fishing hierarchy. The depth to which fly anglers can explore is somewhat endless. We’ve got a lifetime of learning when it comes to entomology, casting techniques, fly tying material, fish species, line types, rod weights, angling destinations, nymphing, dry-fly fishing, streamer fishing…the list goes on, not to mention numerous combinations of the listed categories. To complicate matters we also have to be discerning in our acquisition of knowledge as well. Did the guy in the fly shop tell me the truth about the large trout slamming big ugly purple flies with pink rubber legs, or was he just trying to get rid of stock that he got duped into buying by a smooth talking rep? It’s all a learning experience.

As fly anglers we want to know more, not because we believe that we can know all there is to know, but because we desire to become more accomplished fly anglers. Though, sometimes we must humbly admit that all the knowledge in the world does not always guarantee success—and in a complicated way that may be one of the most appealing concepts about fly fishing.

In the end, I’d like to make one other alteration to Maslow’s theory. The theory’s chief goal is self actualization which is a form of self fulfillment that he believed only one out of every hundred people attain. It is here that I have to veer. He places the need of belonging as a step to becoming self actualized. Whereas, I believe that we can only truly feel complete when we recognize that our end goal cannot be self fulfillment. Self is important, but self finds more importance when understood in relationship.

So, I propose that the final level of the fly-fishing hierarchy is connection—connection to self and to others, connection to the waters we fish, and connection to the moment. Connection is the realization that we are part of a narrative that started well before you or I existed and will continue long after you or I cast our last cast. Like a single piece of a puzzle is necessary to the completion of the entire picture, in some way a seemingly miniscule act like a trout rising to a fly or hooking a steelhead on the swing is not only important to those of us who fly fish, it is an essential part of our lives.