by Paige Wallace

“I promise to pretend to listen when you talk about fly fishing.”

That’s how my husband began his marriage vows. I laughed spontaneously, loudly, and with all my heart. Our guests giggled along. Like any good joke, it was funny because it was mostly true.

I’m a woman who likes wearing breathable waders and a trucker’s hat, not a lacy white dress and sparkly heels. Yet here I stood, at my wedding, about to commit the rest of my life to a non-fisherman.

We met through a dating website. He told me that my online profile impressed him, but he couldn’t figure out how he got matched up with someone who chose the username Fly Fish Girl.

“I’m not a fisherman,” he said on our first date, raising an eyebrow to see if this revelation mattered.

I knew this about him already. I’d read his profile thoroughly. No mention of fishing whatsoever. He even called himself “indoorsy.” He did say he liked to go on long walks, which I extrapolated to mean hikes if walking in a forest. I figured I could at least get him out to a riverside trail and see what happened.

Sander confessed he was leading a newly single life. His wife had left him shortly before we met, ending his marriage with one blunt sentence: “I can only be happy if I’m single.”

To tamp down his bewilderment, he took long walks around our city. Every day he’d leave his apartment before dawn and walk for three hours or more. He said each step on the hard pavement helped grind away his grief.

I had spent the past few years trying to recover from an abusive relationship. I went fishing.

Rivers offered all the tenderness the boyfriend had not. The gentle hum of riffles drowned out the sounds I couldn’t get out of my head any other way: late-night yelling matches, fists smacking against flesh, the ever-present crackle of fear. Water always welcomed me with a gentle hug, the current pushing my waders tight against my body. Each fish that rose to my fly felt like my heart resurfacing. When I released those trout back into the river, a little bit of my shame swam away, too, in a trail of bubbles filled with lightness and hope.

We’d been dating about a year before I talked Sander into visiting my favorite spring creek. As we drove into the mountains, I mentioned I could teach him how to fly fish.

“No thanks,” he replied, just as he had the other times I’d offered. “I’ll just go hiking while you fish.”

I nodded. By then I’d fallen in love with his independent streak. We had activities we shared and others we didn’t. The space to pursue our unique passions felt vast yet comforting, like the forest that surrounded us as we meandered that quiet, empty highway.

A few hours later I stood at the water’s edge with fly rod in hand, watching Sander cross the rickety little footbridge that spans the water at the trailhead. He waved from the opposite bank, then disappeared around the first bend.

Three hours later he returned. I noticed him standing on the bridge for a long time, leaning his elbows on the railing and watching me fish. I hooked and landed a gorgeous rainbow, lifting it briefly for him to see. He nodded his head approvingly, then headed off toward our campsite.

Later, I found him sitting quietly beside the campfire with a Miller High Life in hand. I peeled off my waders and grabbed a beer from the cooler, then settled in next to him. We sat there a long time, not saying much, just holding hands. Holding on to that beautiful day.

Our long ride back to the city gave us a chance to talk about what we’d discovered on our separate adventures. I asked Sander what he thought about fly fishing.

“So, I think it works like this,” he said thoughtfully, surprising me that he’d even considered the hows and whys of my sport.

“Your cast is a physics equation,” he pointed out, “and it won’t work if you put too much force into it. That must be because there’s very little weight on the end of the line.

“It’s like you’re conducting music. There’s a precise rhythm and intricate timing, but when you do it right, it seems effortless.

“The fish are behind rocks and under logs, or in the shaded pools. They keep hiding until you offer them something worth chasing.

“You have to get your fly to float like a real bug. That must be difficult, because it’s drifting on moving water with various forces pushing and pulling on it.

“Then you do that little movement where you pop your line out of the current, so the fly doesn’t get dragged under,” he said, flicking his wrist as he’d seen me do.

“Mending,” I replied. “That’s what we call it.”

I glanced over at him. “It’s an important skill. I’m still learning how to get it right,” I added.

Sander raised his eyebrow and smiled.

A few miles down the road, I asked one more time. “Are you sure you don’t want to learn how to fly fish? I could teach you. You obviously get it.”

“No, I’m good,” he chuckled. “You fish, I walk. That’s what we do, Fly Fish Girl.”

I loved him so intensely at that moment, this thoughtful, independent non-fisherman who had spent a weekend enduring dust, bugs, and a girlfriend who stood waist-deep in a cold river for hours on end. Sander had found a way to enjoy his favorite activity in my favorite place. He’d even taken time out of his hike to study my casting, assess the meaning of my movements, recognize the chemistry between river and fly fisher. He made an effort to understand this thing I love. To understand me.

I knew this man would never take up fly fishing, yet he’d give me every opportunity to pursue it. I could talk about it as much as I wanted and he would stay present, even when he didn’t understand half of what I was saying. He would honor my passion.

Most importantly, Sander would empower me to cast farther, wade deeper, practice mending, and release the last of my sadness into the dark pools of the past.
Pretending to listen was an act of love.

Not long after that trip, we stood on a stage holding hands and promising to blend our indoorsy and outdoorsy lives forever. In the five years since our wedding day, I’ve continued offering to teach Sander how to fly fish. He still says no. Then he kisses me gently and heads out of the house for a long walk.

A few hours later, I’ll grab a couple cans of Miller High Life out of the fridge and meet him as he walks in the door. Maybe I’ll tell him about the flies I tied while he was out. He’ll raise an eyebrow, smile at me, and pretend to listen.

Paige Wallace is a freelance writer and content creator who enjoys telling true stories about people, fish, and the places where those lives intersect. When she’s not on a lake or river with a fly rod in hand, you’ll likely find her training her pandemic puppy, snapping photos of urban wildlife, or swing dancing to live music in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.