I’ve been fortunate enough to have fished with many professional athletes in recent years. You’d be surprised by how many actually gravitate to fly fishing as a release from the rigors of playing sports under bright lights for a living.
I’ll be honest though–some are way better than others when they put on waders, and I think that has to do with the dynamics of their professions. Golfers, for example, are usually really good fly anglers. After all, one could argue that fly fishing and golf are kindred pastimes, both born in Scotland centuries ago. It’s all about planning the next move, and adapting to the current situation. The way the wheels spin in golfers’ and anglers’ minds are very similar, so it’s not surprising to know that Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara, Nick Price, and Davis Love III (among many others) are all avid anglers.
Football players? Not so much. They play on a static grid, and their game is all about force, muscle, and executing things that can be planned. Basketball players typically aren’t so hot with fly fishing either, though I will say it’s humbling to watch a 6-foot-9-inch person high stick a nymph run. They can cover water in ways you or I might only dream about.
Baseball players tend to be really good fishermen. Particularly the pitchers. Believe it or not, there’s a resource for MLB players that tells them where to fish on the layover days, for every city, during the long season. A lot of them are southern boys anyway, so they have a natural affinity for fishing. Thing is, the pitchers think about casting flies with the same intensity they think about throwing a 3-2 splitter, so they’re all about the cast, and they’re usually very, very accurate.
But I have to tell you, hockey players tend to be the best anglers of the lot. I couldn’t figure that out for a long time. I mean, having played a little hockey myself, I realize just how physical that sport is. But it’s also very mental. And the crux of the issue is that great hockey players don’t focus on where things are happening… they have an innate ability to know where things are going to happen. These guys also typically are born and bred in “fishy” places, like Minnesota, Michigan, Sweden, Russia, and, of course, Canada. They handle sticks for a living, so they know how to use an instrument (like a fly rod) to play a game. They typically have immaculate hand-eye coordination skills. But most importantly, I’ve decided, hockey is a fluid game, and so too, is fly fishing. It’s all about anticipation and reaction.
Granted, I’m from the North, and I have a natural affinity for hockey, which I think is the most beautiful game of all (followed closely by baseball, then golf). It’s why I felt obliged to plant a kiss on the statue of “Mr. Hockey” (Gordie Howe) when I made my last trip through Saskatoon (pictured here).
But if you want to plan a throw-down fly-fishing contest with professional athletes, and I get to captain a team, I’m going to choose my squad from within the ranks of current or former NHL players. You can have MLB, the PGA, the NBA, and the PGA, combined… and I’m pretty sure my team would win.