Art does not come easy.
The brush of a painter lightly strokes a blank canvas; the hands of a sculptor caress the clay spinning on a pottery wheel; or maybe he carefully drives a chisel into stone with the blunt end of a worn hammer.
A fly fisherman draws back his line and gently but surely whips it forward into the stream before him. Back and forth, as the line etches imaginary scribbles into the sky like a celebrity signing an autograph for Mother Nature.
That’s why Norman, the lead character in the film “A River Runs Through It,” carefully passes on the words of his stern, fly-fishing father.
“To him, all good things — trout, as well as eternal salvation — came by grace,” Norman spoke. “And grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.”
Fly fishing dates back as far as the second century but has established itself as a sport or hobby in modern culture. But to fly-fishing enthusiasts, like the fictional Norman and his father, the hobby quickly becomes more than that.
“Once you get a grip of the fundamentals, everything beyond that is creative, really,” said Clark Smyth, operator of Rock Creek Anglers.
“It’s one of those pursuits where the means by which you get to the end, if the end is catching a fish, probably, in most cases, outjustify the ends.”
Author Izaak Walton called fly fishing “the contemplative man’s recreation.” Standing in a stream, tirelessly working to perfect the unique casting technique and the satisfaction that comes with the completed masterpiece, one quickly becomes entranced by the process.
Sheridan provides the canvas for the contemplative man with various bodies of water nestled within and around the Bighorn Mountains. Much like other Sheridan offerings, the Bighorns provide an abundance of adventure for fly-fishing aficionados, yet tend to eliminate some of the overwhelming pressure and overcrowding of more popular fishing spots.
That’s why the area’s fly fishers have become a kind of family. As that family continues to grow, so does the sport — or art — of fly fishing.
For Jade Thoemke, the growth starts with her. With each cast, Thoemke strives to prove that the contemplative man can just as easily be the contemplative woman, a stigma that, for some reason, hasn’t aged with the centuries-old activity.
“I have no idea what the perspective is as a man, obviously,” she said. “But I think being able to slow down and really listen, take the time to observe and be patient with the water, be patient with the fish and be patient with yourself is definitely something that is necessary. I think that women have a huge place in fly fishing’s culture.”
Every fly fisher has a different backstory. For Thoemke, a self-described “adventure seeker,” her fly-fishing guide boyfriend made the jump from her hiking and rock climbing hobbies an easy one. Others followed the path of Norman and picked up the sport from their fathers.
But none of them picked up a rod and hooked a fish on their first try, just as Basquiat littered his studio with crinkled sheets of paper before coming up with King Alphonso. Fly fishing is difficult, they’ll all tell you.
That’s what makes it just as much an art form as a sport.
“Most fly fisherman are like, ‘Yeah, I’m willing to learn and get better and deal with the frustration,’” Smyth said. “Whereas the easy out would be, ‘Screw this. This is hard; I’m going to go get a lawn chair and a bobber.’”
“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been fly fishing,” Fly Shop of the Bighorns worker Chaz Davis said. “You’re always going to learn something new.”
Despite the learning curve, Smyth, Davis and the Fly Shop’s Andrew Burgos, along with Thoemke and other fly fishers, have found that the sport quickly turns frustration into relaxation. Perfecting that craft and chasing that fish — and the pursuit leading up to it — puts the fly fisher’s mind at peace.
Literally and figuratively, they become one with the stream.
“It’s the only activity that I’ve ever been a part of where I am so focused on one thing at any given time that everything else is completely irrelevant,” Burgos said.
“There’s times when I fish for two hours and sit on the bank for six.”
The irony of fly fishing in the Bighorns is that the locals who head up the mountains have become a sub-community in Sheridan in a sport that typically lends itself to secrecy and privacy. Even as Thoemke heads to the mountains to escape the rigors of everyday life and the people that come with it, she says the family of fly fishers add enjoyment to that escape.
“There’s such a high interest in fly fishing that I think it’s very easy to communicate with people about it and to meet people who are interested in it,” she said. “No matter what, I feel like there’s some connection to fly fishing, no matter who you talk to.”
Smyth credited Sheridan’s identity as a “Cowboy town” for the overlap in mindset within the local fly-fishing community.
“There is a phenomenon in the fishing industry, a culture of, ‘Look at me; look what I can do,’” Smyth said. “That doesn’t necessarily exist here. There are a lot of talented people who are modest and willing to share information.”
The sharing of information and the willingness to appreciate the process despite its challenges add to the art. Mingling with the guys at the Fly Shop, or browsing the fly-fishing photos, Thoemke snaps and posts to her Instagram strengthen the community and invite others into the escape.
It’s difficult to starve as an artist with the Bighorn Mountains as a canvas. Once you can get over the trepidation of dipping the bristles onto the palet, the sky becomes filled with Monets and Picassos, masterpieces along rivers and streams — and inside the mind.
There’s an infinite amount of paint. Grab a brush.