November 30th, 2009
03:05 PM ET

Fly Fishing and Afghanistan

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Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

I went fly fishing for the first time in my life this weekend. According to my experienced guide, I made a common mistake that often separates the novices from the veterans. I took back a lesson from that Tennessee creek that applies to every war zone as well as to life’s peaceful endeavors.

Cast Away

As a first-timer, before I got in the creek, I got a quick lesson in basic casting techniques. Two methods in particular. Overhead and sidearm. Knowing how to cast sidearm is critical, I learned, because, when you’re in a stream, there are often tree branches hanging over your head. You’ve got to have a good sidearm cast or your line will get caught in the branches. Makes sense.

Apparently, I’m a natural caster. At least on shore, standing high on the bank above a big pond with nothing to get in my way.

As soon as I was thigh-deep in my waders and the current was rushing towards me and the tree branches were nearly eye level, it became a little more difficult to land my fly where I was aiming.

And then, I made that mistake which separates the novices from the veterans.

Heading Toward the Creek’s Conveyor Belt

My guide knew where the trout was. Facing upstream with their mouths open, waiting for the current’s conveyor built to deliver their next meal.

I started downstream to avoid alerting them to my presence.

After a half hour of slowly moving upstream, disturbing the water as little as possible, I saw it. That little splash that indicated a trout was flapping around.

I could practically smell the first catch (and release) of my life. I kept my eye right on the spot where the trout had just splashed, aimed, and did my best sidearm cast.

The line never hit the water.

It got stuck in the branch of a tree. That branch must have suddenly grown since I got in the water. I had never noticed it.

That’s when I was reminded of the lesson that the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq are taught every day, before they deploy, and after they arrive. It’s the lesson I heard the senior officers pound into the heads of the newly enlisted soldiers during some reporting I did in Fort Stewart, Ga. – home of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Don’t Focus on the Fish

The fly fishing guide told me my beginner’s mistake was that I focused on the fish. A veteran focuses on the surroundings.

After speaking to many members of the 3rd ID, including the senior non-commissioned officer who had been under fire so many times over the years they called him “The Metal Magnet,” one key survival phrase kept coming up.

Situational Awareness. That means being aware of your surroundings. Not easy when you don’t speak the language and have not grown up in the culture.

This week, CNN is using its unparalleled newsgathering ability to provide our audience with situational awareness of Afghanistan in the time leading up to President Obama’s West Point address tomorrow and his announcement on whether to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan.

For many of our reporters, Afghanistan has almost become like a local creek where you grow up fishing. That’s an overstatement, of course. They’ll never be local. But many of our reporters, and producers, and videographers, have spent years in Afghanistan, including before the U.S. deployments there ever began.

They will share their situational awareness with our audience on this critical week for U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

Fly fishing and fighting are not very similar.

But they do have this in common.

To succeed in succeed in either – to succeed in any endeavor in life - requires keen situational awareness.

Tomorrow in this space:

I didn’t realize at the time we were celebrating Thanksgiving last week that the people of Afghanistan were preparing their own Thanksgiving feast. And I was surprised to learn THEIR feast was based on the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. A photo essay of Afghanistan’s Thanksgiving Feast, tomorrow, right here. Situational Awareness.

Filed under: Beyond 360 • Michael Schulder
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