Is Fly Fishing a Sport?

Please read the rest of what I have to say here before you rush to answer this question. This post isn't meant to instigate an opinion poll and I'm not trying to trigger an impromptu website debate on semantics.

I just want to tell you a story about how fishing with a young man named Joey Maxim and his father Joe on Montana's Blackfoot River has forever changed my own perceptions of fly fishing.

Joey, from Murrysville, Pennsylvania, was involved in a horrific automobile accident in November, 2011. He suffered broken bones, collapsed lungs, and severe brain injuries. In fact, he was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash. By some miracle, he made it back. But it's been a long, painful and arduous recovery. Joey's injuries make it difficult for him to concentrate and remember things. He was an "A" student, but he could no longer attend classes for more than an hour or so. He was a voracious reader, but suddenly, written words became difficult for him to engage with and understand.

And at the time of his accident, he was a promising athlete in many sports like basketball, soccer, and lacrosse. All that went away in a flash.

Somewhere during his recovery, Joey got a hold of some fly fishing books by Tom Rosenbauer. They grabbed his attention. When Joey was able, he and his dad ventured to the trout river to fly fish, and that kindled something deep inside.

"Fly fishing brought him back," his dad explained. "He got into tying flies, and reading, and the therapy of being out on the river was incredible. I don't think we'd be where we are now, were it not for fly fishing."

To the "sport" question: I'd always been first in line to criticize anyone who might describe fly fishing as a sport. A pastime, maybe. A hobby, for sure. But I'm on record (somewhere) for suggesting that anything fat old people can do as they smoke a cigar or drink a can of beer shouldn't ever be considered a "sport." I mocked IGFA "world record" holders for daring to elevate anything they'd done with a rod and reel anywhere near what Usain Bolt has done on the track, or Michael Phelps had done in the pool. And I certainly had a hard time with the notion of fly fishing competitions, believing that keeping score in any context was contrary to the true ideals of what this endeavor was all about.

Yet Joey and his dad have maintained a tradition of keeping score as they fish together--one point for a hooked fish, and two for a fish landed. As they rode in guide John Herzer's raft down the Blackfoot yesterday, I heard the banter--"I'm up one… now it's 8-to-6" and so on. And suddenly, it occurred to me that sometimes keeping score isn't such a bad deal.

If we look at the true essence of sport, we realize that it's often a means of escape from the rigors of ordinary life. Our sports heroes are held in esteem because they do things most people are incapable of doing. They accomplish the unimaginable. And the rest of us live vicariously (and with awe) through their examples.

At the core, sports are about reaching beyond boundaries. Sometimes, it's also about a father or mother looking with great pride at their son or daughter and seeing the satisfaction of accomplishment, however measured. On the river yesterday, it also occurred to me that a kid doesn't necessarily have to wear a numbered jersey, or play on a field or in a pool, to make that happen.

So yes, I've changed my mind. Fly fishing is indeed a sport. And it took a sports hero like Joey Maxim to show me the light.

It was, perhaps, fitting, that this all transpired on the Blackfoot River, where Norman Maclean found his inspiration to pen a book on fathers and sons, tragedy and triumph, that has turned many of us onto fly fishing in the first place.

And for the record, by the end of the day, Joey and his dad had caught too many fish to keep score anymore.

They both won.