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Dr. Jonathan Yeager teaches a class at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga called "Religion, Spirituality and Fly Fishing." / Photo contributed by UTC staff

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." — Norman Maclean, from the 1976 book, "A River Runs Through It"

The thought that fishing can be good for one's mental health is an article of faith among anglers. The idea that it might also provide a window into the divine was the inspiration for a recent course at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga called "Religion, Spirituality, and Fly Fishing."

Last spring, UTC students clamoured to take the class, which was capped at 25 students.

"We had a waiting list. People were begging me to get in," explained Jonathan Yeager, U.C. Foundation associate professor of religion and creator of the class.

Yeager said he got the idea for the course after he was bitten by the fly-fishing bug a couple of years ago and began regularly fishing some of the wild rivers and streams in East Tennessee.

It all started when a couple of Yeager's college buddies organized a fishing trip to recognize one of their friend's 40th birthday. Yeager didn't want to be a drag on the others so he checked out some fly-fishing gear from UTC Outdoors and taught himself how to cast.

Soon, he was fly fishing at least once a week; sometimes with friends and sometimes by himself. One day, while fishing the Hiwassee River, he felt a convergence of wonder about nature and the mechanics of fly fishing that put him in a deeply meditative state.

"It all came together, I figured it out," he recalled. "I caught five fish that day and it was beautiful. From there, it just took off."

As fate — or divine intervention — might have it, UTC was pushing faculty members to experiment with unconventional course topics. Yeager was awarded a so-called "high-impact development grant" that ultimately provided money to buy fishing supplies for his students.

Yeager quickly outlined a course that require students to dive into fishing-related literature — including "A River Runs Through It" by Norman Maclean and "The River Why" by David James Duncan — and purchase a fishing license.

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Mark Kennedy

For many of the students, the fly-fishing experience was transformative.

"We were challenged to think about how one can have a spiritual moment just in the simplicity of standing in a river casting for hours," says Hannah Feldhacker, a UTC student who took the class.

"The best memory that I have from this class would probably be driving to the Hiwassee River so early in the morning that I got to watch the sunrise over the water. Absolutely a spiritual and breathtaking moment."

Yeager said that before the fishing expeditions, students learned to cast by practicing at Chamberlain Field in the middle of the UTC campus.

Watching them actually catch fish turned out to be richly rewarding, he said.

One student, a pre-med major, became giddy when she hooked her first trout, he said. Another overcame a broken leg and barely made the deadline to test her fishing skills.

"She ended up catching the most fish of anyone: 12," he said. "She caught at least one of all three varieties of trout: brown, rainbow and brook."

Yeager said the object of the course was not to push a particular brand of spirituality. Some members of the class were deeply religious and some were not, he said.

"The spirituality part was different for each person," he said. "You don't have to subscribe to a specific dogma."

Yeager said the bigger point of the course was to get students to unplug to contemplate creation while immersed in the beauty of nature.

After all, feeling a wiggling trout in the palm of our hand for a day — instead of a smartphone — is its own reward.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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