Thoreau’s Question

Essay by Jason Klass

Henry David Thoreau said, “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” As a novice angler, my goal was to catch as many fish as possible. After all, it’s called “fishing”. Numbers measured my success and fishless days were considered “failures”–something to be rectified the next outing.  But decades into my angling life, I have pondered Thoreau’s quote many times.

Today, I no longer care about how many fish I catch nor their size. I don’t feel the competitive need for “bragging rights” among other anglers. I don’t care about trophies or hero shots. So then, what exactly is it that I’m after?

If you’ve read Thoreau’s Walden, then you’re familiar with his philosophies on solitude and simplicity. 166 years ago, he audaciously did what many of us secretly want to do today: dropped out of society to live a simple life in the woods, away from the bustling, masturbatory business of society.

While many of us can’t simply “drop out” of modern life because we have obligations to our families or otherwise, I wonder if going fishing is our mini-version of Thoreau’s sabbatical. Maybe we can’t disappear into the woods, seclude ourselves in a rustic cabin, gather and fish our food, or fall asleep fireside every night, but we can get our brief respites on the river from time to time. And maybe that’s what we’re ultimately “after”.

I know the answer to the question will be different for everyone, but for me, it’s unequivocally “solitude”. I now consider a successful day on the water when I haven’t seen another soul and have just absorbed the wilderness around me. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”. I just call it “fishing”.

It’s the witnessing of nature without being spoiled by human contrivance. An escape from the noise of traffic, construction, music, and idle chatter. Away from all of these things, one finally has a chance to be present in the quietness of nature. A chance to shed the poison of modern life for a moment and just “be” without expectation or complication. To me, fishing is a form of meditation—as legitimate and sacred as anything monks in remote Tibetan monasteries do. There are many paths to presence, and standing in a river waving a stick has been more efficacious for me than sitting on a cushion for hours.

When I return from the water, someone will ask me, “did you catch anything”. I’ll reply that I did. And the inevitable follow-up is, “how many”. “I don’t know” is typically my answer because, honestly, I don’t count anymore. I could tell you details about the deer I saw crossing the stream, the colors of the wildflowers, or the stonefly I watched crawl onto a rock and hatch before my eyes. But, ironically, the assumed “goal” of the sport, in its very name, is a side note to me. And that tells me the reason I’m there. “Fishing” is just the excuse.

Jason Klass is a former fly fishing guide & casting instructor based in Colorado. He was an early adopter of tenkara in the West and has been fishing the method for a variety of species since 2009. His extensive writing on the subject can be found at

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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