Almanac (Fly) Fishing: ‘The Zone’ and other diversions

You may recall the movie A River Runs Through It directed by Robert Redford.  I have just finished the autobiographical short story written by Norman Maclean that was the basis of that Oscar-winning movie. It is a magnificent piece of writing that meanders through the lives of two brothers, their father, and their connection with each other and fishing.  Maclean is clearly enamoured with the beautiful but frustrating art of fly fishing – as am I.




Towards the end of the book, the author is reliving a brilliant but prophetic day of fishing on the Blackhawk River in Montana.  It was ultimately the last time the three men fished together, and Maclean poignantly describes the state of being intensely aware of ones surrounding environment, yet totally focused on fishing.  He proposes the most perfect of phrases: –


Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it


I relate this as fishing’s version of ‘the zone’, and have experienced this feeling many times on a babbling mountain stream, endeavouring to decipher its secrets.  That elusive Zen-like state that we strive for in life, where we are acutely attuned to everything around us, yet myopically focused on the task at hand. Periods of calm observation and reflection; punctuated by flashes of high drama where the universe converges into a moment.  It is a state we mere mortals experience all too infrequently, but is exquisitely exhilarating once achieved.  I am certain that each of us can remember the setting for our own moments of sporting or other perfection with surprising detail and in Technicolor splendour.


Rooted in medieval Latin, the word ‘diversion’ is often used to describe such pleasurable pursuits. In fact the Italian word for fun is ‘divertimento’; which is what fun really is, a diversion from our everyday lives. Sport in all its many forms is my perfect diversion, but it is not such an exclusive club as that.  Maclean’s insightful phrase could be so easily and universally translated with the simple substitution of the word ‘river’ to suit any number of settings.  The word ‘fairway’ springs readily to mind, perhaps because fly fishing and golf dispense both pain and pleasure at similar dosages!


However, the thing I really love about Maclean’s story, is his exploration of the way a shared love or pursuit can put differences aside and bind us together.  These positive diversions are a powerful foil to overcome diversity and reframe perspectives.


Facebook and LinkedIn may have commercialised our contact lists, but it is our authentically shared experiences and common pursuits that bridge diversity and bind us together in a durable way.  The way I look at it, is that this mosaic of interlocking groups constructs a healthy society, one that can withstand to be stretched and pressured, but will spring back into shape unbroken.


Any worthwhile relationship will wither and die without proper care and attention, and we must continually invest both as individuals and as a collective to keep them flourishing.  It’s something I need to keep working on; to correctly value these relationships; not just the fleeting moments of connection, but the structure they bring to our lives.  Surely this is infrastructure worthy of our investment.


Read another fly fishing story at David Straus’s terrific fishing website. (He recently contacted us to say how much he enjoyed Robbo’s story. )

About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. A nice contemplation there, Robbo. Thanks.

  2. Wonderful.
    I love rivers.
    Are you a waders man, Robbo?

    And divertimento!
    Many thanks to you for introducing us to this word in your piece.
    A river runs through it.

  3. Thanks PR. I have mused much on life and work over the last 6 weeks of glorious ‘divertimento’ in Spain and Portugal. My moments of bliss on the golf course are all too brief, but I find the beautiful natural surroundings a wonderful consolation. Working with people with depression and addiction problems I have concluded that it is about reminding people of their “best selves” – often a 10yo child buried deep within – out of fear, confusion and self protection. It is always there and once rediscovered it can sustain all of us. Nature and animals are great signposts. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated.

    Waders are very much a seasonal thing for me (and the size of the river). I recently had a few weeks fishing and hiking in Wyoming (bear spray at the ready), where we hiked and camped at 3 mountain ranges and fished along the way – my favourite type of fly fishing. The photo is me at a remote lake @ 10,000ft, the only sound being an industrious woodpecker that sounded like a gunshot – it was breathtaking. When you have to carry everything, you realise how little you need to fly fish, and waders are definitely off the packing list. However, in NZ over winter, I am all waders!!

    I love to fly fish with my now 18 year old son. What we find is that, it seem to takes us 3 days before we can quieten our minds and quell our impatience sufficiently to become attuned to our magnificent surroundings and fish well.

    Nice comments also Peter B. I was alarmed to hear about the massive Ice ring seizure at St George, Qld. Having played the St George tennis tournament a number of times in my youth, I am saddened to think that they have to deal with this. I presume that this ring ‘serviced’ all of those rural townships. My wish is that we can re-connect kids and youth through sport as a calibration for their lives – somehow we need to convince our politicians that this type of infrastructure is just as important as new freeways.

    6 weeks in Spain and Portugal, fantastic. These are great places to ‘get lost’.


  5. Nolsie Pelly says

    Thanks Pete. You are a magnificent writer
    I close my eyes and vividly recall the peace and total quiet in NZ Tassie and Patagonia when fly fishing – it’s an amazing pastime

  6. Jan Courtin says

    Enjoyed the story, Robbo, but in my complete ignorance of fishing of any type, if fly fishing involves killing the fish, then my enjoyment has lessened. Thanks,

  7. Steve Hodder says

    I love fly fishing! As my body ages, fly fishing has become my sport. Within the film, the father has the boys learn to cast according to a four-count beat set out by a metronome, my old man had me learn the beat as though I was striking a hammer. Same thing; arm only moves between 10. o’clock and 2 o’clock. I also get that ‘ Zen-like state’ but usually have to snap myself out of it by counting out those beats to re- focus my concentration on the fly. Looking upwards for that laughing kookaburra or following the glide of a dragonfly is usually when that big brown strikes!

    Having destroyed so many expensive waders and nets on barbed wire fences or snag etc ; I now wade ‘wet’ and light. When the legs cramp I give it away; late May is usually my last cast of the season. I’ve fished N.Z and Japan but have only dreamed of Montana. Perhaps, one day?

    John Gierach, David Scholes and even Hemmingway. So much great literature around our sport, hey?

    Jan – If you never intend to kill a fish, why hook them? I’ve always thought the ‘kiss and release mob’ ethically challenged. Fish for and only take what you need.

    Tight lines.


  8. Hi Jan and Steve, Great timing, as I am about to head to NZ for a weeks fly fishing with my 19yr old son. Very excited about the prospects ahead. In response to Jan’s comment, I generally prefer to release the fish that I have battled with. The release is a very rewarding and therapeutic experience. However, in some cases and in some seasons, the NZ game & fisheries suggest that you keep a few to keep the numbers under control and ensure that the fish in the habiat are well fed and healthy. Since catch and release fishing has become more popular, I undersand that some systems have come under pressure through fish overpopulation.

    Winter in NZ is definately Waders over tracksuit. In summer, I agree with you Steve, and fishing light is great fun. My favourite is to go super light and pack-hike, fishing each afternoon after setting up camp.

    I was surprised to see the comments on an old article. Thanks for commenting.


  9. Ps. For anyone wanting to learn a few tips about fly fishing, Davis Straus’s site is fantastic. I will be taking some of those gems to NZ with me. I will have time to learn all there is to know about the sport.

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