July 09, 2020 Feature

Fly-Fishing Lessons

A personal take on what litigators can learn from the art of fly-fishing.

Kendyl T. Hanks

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Over the decades, fly-fishing has been a respite from the inertia and anxiety of college and law school, an exhilarating physical and psychological challenge in the solitude of remote wilderness, a healing sanctuary during devastating personal loss, a gift to share with a loved family member or new friend or client or stranger in need, and a meditative retreat from the stress and grueling pace of my chosen vocation—big-firm appellate litigation. The sport, for me, is a deeply personal pursuit that began as a childhood recreation with my family and has evolved into a genuine avocation in my adulthood. Whether it rained or shined, and regardless of whether I ever laid eyes on a fish, I’ve loved and been enriched by every angling experience.

Years into my law practice, I started noticing striking commonalities between successful anglers and successful appellate litigators, from their personalities to their talents. The parallels might seem obvious if you’re familiar with both and you give it some thought. But having kept a proverbial church-and-state divide between my work life and piscine pursuits until recently when I joined the board of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (a nonprofit serving disabled veterans), I hadn’t focused enough to sincerely appreciate it. I have come to realize that applying lessons from one activity to the other makes both more successful and joyful.

Translating skills between angling and law practice reminds me of Robert Frost’s 1934 poem Two Tramps in Mud Time, which tells a story of a man who splits wood for the sheer love of the wood-splitting. Two unemployed lumberjacks arrive, coveting his task for the money. Although the man recognizes the strangers’ need for pay (it was the Great Depression, after all), they have no love for the task, so he keeps it for himself:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time (1934), reprinted in Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays 251, 252 (Richard Poirier & Mark Richardson eds., 1995).

So how do we join those two eyes—love and need, avocation and vocation?

Illustration by Bradley Clark

Illustration by Bradley Clark

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