Science Fiction Fishing

The Art of Fly Fishing in Low Gravity

By Carrie Vaughn
Oct 29, 2019 · 3,118 words · 12 minutes

From the author: When we go to the stars, we'll take our hobbies, and our longings, with us.

I watched her and tried to learn the art of it.

Vera attached an artificial fly to the end of the leader, a nearly transparent length of nylon filament.  She had rigged up a microfilament hook and eye arrangement so all she had to do was clip the fly to the end of the leader, since she couldn't tie a knot in the nylon while wearing gloves.  The tiny hook and eye were air-light and didn't affect the weight of the leader any more than a knot would have.  Vera was clever, when it came to adapting equipment.

She'd made the rod, reel, and line herself out of materials from the lab.  She'd spent a month tying her own flies, using wire, colored fibers, and even her own hair to painstakingly mimic the local variety of airborne fauna most favored by the surface-feeding aquatic animals.

"I just want to see if it will work," she'd said, after observing how much the local ichthyforms behaved like trout.  As Trade Guild Survey Division scientists, we were trained to avoid making analogies between our home worlds and the worlds we studied—at best, they were only analogies, and at worst such comparisons grossly misled us about the natures of these alien places.  But comparisons were inevitable, and Dr. Vera Locke got it into her head that she wanted to try fly fishing on Alice 4.

Regulations stipulated that she didn't go into the wild by herself to test her hypothesis.  She asked me, because I was the only other person on the Alice 4 team who had ever been fishing.  I went with her because I'd have done anything she asked me to do.  So here I sat, at the edge of a sandstone rock overlooking the purplish water, watching Vera fish.

We kept trying to bring Earth with us, wherever we from Earth went in the galaxy.  We searched for and reveled in the alien.  Then we decided how to best mold it to our structures.  But it never worked, not really.  On Alice 4, the colors were all wrong.  Algae-noids and light turned the water black and purple.  The land, mostly sedimentary silica and uplifted ranges of shale, was gray and brown, spotted with pockets of blue vegetation.  The sky was yellow, the sun a searing disk of light far too close for comfort.  Vera might have been fishing, but she wore a blue environmental suit over most of her body and a breathing mask with O-2 cartridges over her face.  Alice 4 had an atmosphere—Vera's brown eyes were free to the air and her short blond hair stirred in a breeze—but it didn't have enough oxygen. 

My hairline was receding with age, so I kept my head nearly shaved.  I could feel the bright sunlight on my scalp, through my cap.  Even when I closed my eyes, blocking out the strange colors and odd light, I knew this wasn't Earth because the heat felt wrong.

Vera held the end of the rod in her right hand and with her left pulled out a length of plastic line from the reel.  She stood with her feet apart, planted on the bank of the river. 

Fishing was all about knowing what you were fishing for, she'd explained—knowing the quarry's habitat, feeding patterns, preferred food, and likely behavior.  Fly fishing added something more:  technique, a skill learned quickly but perfected over the course of a lifetime.  Grace of movement, wrist control, knowing how long to play the fly, when to cast, at what angle to lay the line and how to place it on the water to best fool the trout.  The whole production was supposed to make the fly just touch the surface of the water, like a real insect would, thereby inspiring the fish to take the bait.

She raised the rod and, moving no more than her wrist, made the line whip overhead, forming an arc that curved behind her, then ahead again.  The plastic line hummed through the air, playing out longer and longer.  She leaned the rod forward, letting the line soar ahead, and the fly at the end of it sailed away--and away, to the bank on the other side of the river, and the line slapped on the water, across the whole ten meters.

She laughed as she pulled up on the line and wound it back on the reel.  "Only half Earth gravity.  Not to mention less air resistance in the thin atmosphere.  It changes everything."  The breathing mask made her voice sound hollow.  She looked back at me, and though the mask hid her mouth I could tell she was grinning by the way the corners of her eyes wrinkled.  "Come on, let's hike up river a bit."  She hooked the bag with her supplies over one shoulder, propped the rod on the other, and headed upstream.

We'd been out for less than half an hour and she was already having a great time.  This wasn't about catching fish.  It was about fishing.

I brought along some cartography equipment, mapping lenses and GPS markers, thinking I'd survey the river.  I hadn't yet walked alongside one of the planet's rivers.  As the mission geologist, I had a more complete picture of the planet we were surveying than anyone else on the project.  I knew how the continents fit together, what compounds made up the bedrock, what processes had worked to form the land, what this planet must have looked like a hundred million years ago and what it would probably look like a hundred million years from now.  But I made that picture by looking at pieces.  I took samples from a hundred different sites, flying from one to the next by ultralight, and filling the spaces in between back at the base.  A biologist like Vera might examine every microscopic nuance on a square foot of land, but the phenomena and formations I studied covered thousands of square meters.  Once in a while, I liked to walk from one point to another, to get the grounded perspective rather than the satellite picture, to feel the rock under my feet.

This planet was wretched and beautiful at the same time.  It was bleak and angular--all the mountain ranges on this continent had been formed when sedimentary beds were uplifted in a basin and range type expansion of the continental plates.  Cliffs and mesas ran along the length of the horizon, but they were all tilted at angles of fifteen degrees or greater.  It sometimes gave me vertigo to look at them, like I felt that I was standing at the wrong angle, and that those plateaus should be horizontal.

I'd brought equipment, thinking I might do some work.  But the gear stayed in the satchel, and the satchel stayed on my shoulder. 

The river flowed quickly, gurgling.  I trudged along behind Vera, keeping out of the way of her rod.  Its tip bounced when she walked.  She stopped at another point on the river and unslung her equipment.  I stood well out of the range of where I thought the line would swing this time, finding a perch on another rock.

She practiced for a time, aiming the fly at a clump of pseudo-lichens on our side of the river.  Soon, she had established a rhythm, and was able to cast more gently to compensate for the lighter gravity.  The rod moved more slowly, the line didn't whip as fast, and soon the fly came to rest at the target every time she cast.  The line flung the fly and its leader out to distant parts, where a fish could not see the person casting.

I saw the line and fly only peripherally.  I watched her, the rhythm in her arm, the slight movement of her hips, the focused shine in her eyes.

I'd only ever been fishing once, though I didn't tell Vera this since she'd seemed so excited to hear I'd done it at all.  "I've been fishing," I said stupidly, an eager boy desperate for approval, when she announced her project to the group last month.  Her eyes had lit up when I said it, so I couldn't back down.  I'd been a teenager back on Earth.  My Dad, older brother and I rented a little rowboat at a lake—a large pond, really—in the wilds of the Great Lakes Province.  We sat there all morning dangling nylon lines baited with worms.  Sometimes fish took the bait.  Sometimes we reeled in our lines and the bait had disappeared.  We all caught something, though.  The lake was stocked.  We even got to bring our catch to the shore, and the man who rented us the boats took them, cleaned them, and cooked them for us.  It had been disconcerting, watching our food die.

We'd meant it to be a time to share, one last, memorable excursion together before Harry went off to University.  I couldn't remember what we'd talked about all morning.  I signed on with Survey Division, and the three of us hadn't been on the same planet at the same time since.

We hiked further up the river.  Vera cast the line over the water a few times, then we moved on.  A couple times at each stop, she swapped out flies, trying different colors and styles, or changed the leader to a longer or shorter, stouter or lighter one.  The shorter, heavier ones seemed to work better; the slight breeze picked up the lighter flies and leaders and carried them away from the target.  This went on for probably a good two hours, but she never seemed to tire.  We made small talk, but her gaze was always on the river.

What Vera was doing, this wasn't just dropping an invertebrate impaled on a hook into the water.  She was luring, dancing, playing, attempting to outwit what she hunted--which implied that what she hunted had wits, which somehow made the enterprise more interesting.

"Who taught you this?" I asked.

"My grandfather.  He was a park ranger in the Rockies."

The next spot she picked came at a bend, where the water pooled and flowed more sluggishly under a stand of vegetation which arced over the water.  Vera tilted the rod and began casting at an angle, working to land the fly in the shadow of the vegetation without tangling the line in the branches.

On an upward cast, the line escaped, flinging itself far behind her, looping and tangling as it came to rest in heap on the sandstone.

"Damn gravity," she muttered, setting down the rod and gathering up the line.

I slid off my rock.  "Let me help."

"Oh—thanks."  She took the rod back and began winding the reel while I attempted to sort out the line before it slid through the guides on the rod.

My fingers couldn't manage the line very easily.  The plastic slipped on my gloves; I couldn't grasp the filament, but somehow I managed.

"You miss it, fishing on Earth?"

"Yeah.  I haven't been back in years.  I blame the gravity, but I may just be out of practice."

"So it's not the kind of thing that always comes back to you."

"Well it does, and that's the trouble.  I'm trying to cast like I'm in Earth gravity.  I'm not compensating.  I'm not used to feeling like my arms are floating away.  At least there aren't mosquitoes here."

In this gravity, I could just pick her up and carry her off.  She was slight, small-boned.  She weighed next to nothing, even on Earth.  Here, she moved with ethereal lightness and grace.

I found the end of the line and the fly, a bristly thing with red spikes and a head of white fluff.

"This is supposed to look like an insect, huh?"

"Alicean ephemeroptera, yes."

"It took you how many hours to make, and you're just flinging it into the water?"

"That's what it's for."

"But—it's almost like art.  It's pretty, in a way."  I was looking at her.

"Thanks."  She took the fly and its leader from me and went back to the edge of the river.

I couldn't say anything, not right out.  I'd gotten no signs from her—she treated me like she treated everyone on the team, friendly and professional.  I had to do the same.  If I said something, if I embarrassed her—we couldn't have that kind of awkwardness hanging between us for the next year.  It would affect the dynamics of the entire survey team.  It would affect the mission.  So I said nothing.  I watched and hoped.  In a year, after we'd compiled the report of the mineralogical and other potential economic values of the planet to the Trade Guild, we'd ship off this rock.  Then I could say something—right before we were reassigned to opposite ends of the galaxy.

Fish or cut bait.

Something splashed, and Vera yanked the rod up, pulling the line.  The fly zipped up and over her head, right at me.  I shielded my face with my hands, but the fly bounced harmlessly away.  She overestimated the gravity again.

"Did you see that?  It jumped!  It went for it, it went for the fly!  I was just too fast in this gravity, yanked the fly right out of its mouth."  Quickly, she reeled in the line and prepared to cast again.

How to set the bait without moving too quickly?  How to make just enough of a sign to attract her but not so much as to scare her off?  Alice 4 had nothing like flowers.  I might have picked flowers, tied them in a little arrangement to resemble her favorite insect.  Offered them to her with a hook to hold her.

She cast again.  The reel whirred as she released the line, which hummed over her head.  She held back, not putting as much force into the cast as she had been.  With a slight waver of the rod, the line trembled, vibrations transmitting all the way to the fly.  The fly shivered a moment, nearly floating in the air.  I swear I saw its wings flutter.  Then it settled on the surface of the water, a silent ring of ripples spreading away from it.  I could believe it was alive.

Vera's eyes were wide.  She murmured, "It never would have done that on Earth."

Then, the fly disappeared in a splash, a chaos of water flung out as a blue-backed shape broke the surface, arced over in the blink of an eye, and disappeared.  The line pulled taut, and Vera leaned back—too hard, too far, once again too strong a movement for the light gravity.  She tripped on the gravel and fell back, flung by the force of her own momentum.  She dropped the rod.

I lunged at her, not quickly enough to catch her.  I skidded to my knees and grabbed her arm, starting to help her up when she pointed.

"Get the rod!"

The rod was slipping off the bank and into the water, dragged by the fish-thing at the end of the line.  Scrambling on the gravel, I went for it, threw myself at it, reached, and nearly went off the bank and into the water.  I rolled back at the last moment, bracing with my boots, and clenched my fists around the end of the rod.  I pulled.

"Let it go slack for a minute!  Play it, Ed.  Play it!"

The thing was hooked.  The reel buzzed as it pulled out more and more line.

"Now bring it in!"

My hands shaking, I found the little knob on the reel by chance.  I started turning it—

"Other way!  Other way!"

I turned it the other way and it clicked, faster and faster.  The line pulled tight, the rod flexed into an arc--and the thing at the end of the line thrashed, nearly yanking the rod from my grip.

"You're almost there, Ed!  Come on!"

With Vera's coaching, I brought our catch home.  The creature appeared at the surface, glistening and writhing.  Vera leaned over the edge of the water—my heart stopped, I thought she was going to fall in—and held out a net she'd retrieved from her pack.  She scooped the thing up and pulled it in.

I dropped the rod on the river bank and breathed for the first time in what seemed like eons.

"Oh, it's a beauty!  Let's see, thirty point three centimeters."  She checked with a scanner she'd unhooked from her belt, then dangled the whole net from a portable digital scale.  The animal was slick, eel-like, with three flippers down each side of its sinuous body.  Pale membranes flickered rapidly over the six eyes at the swell of its head.  "Alicean Siluraforma C.  Congratulations, Ed.  You caught the first fish on Alice 4."  She was beaming like I'd caught the first fish anywhere.

"We both did."

She set to work peeling the creature's lipless mouth off the unbarbed hook.

"All that work, just to let it go?"

"We can't eat it.  I've got all the lab specimens I need.  So, yeah."

It's about the fishing, I reminded myself.  Not the catch.

The siluraforma squirmed in her grasp, so I held it still while she finished removing the hook.  Then, she took it from me and lowered it into the water.  With a splash, it plunged from her grasp and raced away through the oily water.

"Success," she said with a contented sigh. 

We sat for a time, staring at the place on the water where the siluraforma had disappeared, listening to the water lap calmly, as if nothing had happened.  She leaned back, tilted her face up, closed her eyes against the glare of the sun.

"Vera—"  I started to reach for her, but held back.  I just wanted to smooth the stray lock of hair away from her forehead.  I just wanted to touch her hand when there wasn't a fish squirming in it.

The look on my face—in my eyes, since that was all she could see—was all the bait I had to offer.  The desperate pleading—take me, I'm yours.  She met that gaze, and she must have seen it for what it was.  She frowned—her brow creased, and she closed her eyes and looked away.

She stood up, brushing gravel off her gloves and suit.  "We should get back to base camp.  Sun'll be setting soon."  She repacked her gear, collected her satchel, and began walking downstream.

Sunset was still a few hours off.  Light glinted off the water, rippling black and gold.  I took a deep breath and slowly—more slowly than Vera had—climbed to my feet, took up my bag, and followed her down the river.


This story originally appeared in 2014 FenCon Program Book.

Carrie Vaughn

Award-winning, bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Carrie Vaughn digs into her archives for stories and treasure.