Review: The Believer by David Coggins

In a trope-riddled landscape of fly fishing writing, Coggins' latest is a standout
david coggins fishing
Photo: Markley Boyer.

Author’s note: There’s a new book in the world of fly fishing. It’s called The Believer, by David Coggins, and I felt so many things when I started reading it that I maxed out a self-aggrandizing Instagram caption with an Adderall- and wine-fueled rant. It was, as such things often are, regrettable and embarrassing the next morning. Unfortunately, too many people I know had reacted for me to surreptitiously delete it and pretend nothing had happened. Then Chad from Hatch Magazine reached out and played my ego like a fiddle, so here we are with an expanded version. One thing — while this is a recommendation for the book, you’ll notice I’ve been intentionally vague about its contents. This is because you should read it, and to do so you should buy it, preferably from an independent book store. But first, as I’m sure Chad wants me to add, you should read this.

I’ve spent much of my life writing for money and, because I’m a whore, all too often I’ve mined the things I love for subjects. One of these things is fly fishing, though I readily admit I’ve never written about it very well. I’ll also admit that, despite a lifetime of trying, I’ve never actually fly fished very well, either. This is part of the allure of worthwhile pursuits, that even when you do one with some level of occasional proficiency, the next day can be a completely different situation.

Luckily, taking photos of fly fishing is easier. Beautiful places, rugged individuals, humanity vs nature, eye-wateringly vivid fish captured on aesthetically pleasing, intricately tied flies … I want to say it’s harder to take bad fly fishing pics than good ones, but a quick scroll through Instagram proves otherwise. I’ve spent countless hours crouched by all manner of water swatting bloodthirsty insects with my camera while comrades wave sticks and lines around. The waving may as well be performative. As a photographer, a failure to hook up doesn’t impact my catch of easy-to-sell images for brands, media, and even fine art prints.

TL,DR: as any experienced writer knows — don’t @ me, photographers — making quality words is exponentially harder than quality pictures.

Yeah, I’ve dabbled with the keyboard. Plucked low hanging fruit for mags I worked at or ranted for odd niche fishing publications but, as Kenny Rogers crooned, ‘if you’re gonna play the game boy, you gotta learn to play it right.’ Therein lies the problem with writing about fly fishing: Doing it right. Because most don’t.

A big barrier for aspirational fly fishing wordsmiths looking to stand out is the preexisting murderer’s row of actual literary legends. Titans like Hemingway, Harrison, McGuane, Brautigan, and Arnold Gingrich — whose book Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger gifted me on my first day as a staff writer — leave a mountain of unfillable wading boots. In the modern era, writing about angling has become a trope. Bookstores ‘sports’ sections and our glossiest print mags bloat with awkward men (and it’s always men) wrestling with their father’s memory, humblebragging about trips or fish most of us will never experience, egomaniacally chasing nostalgia in their later years, or eulogizing lost dogs with the misplaced confidence of a man whose friends ‘like’ all their Tweets. For the reader, these stories scratch an itch, discussing a pastime we, a target audience, is obsessed with. Yet ultimately most are instantly forgettable.

Don’t get me wrong, a few current names stand out: Gierach, Ames, Kurlansky, Tomine, Nakadate. If former Flyfish Journal EIC and current Patagonia Fly Fish raconteur Steve Duda’s forthcoming book is even remotely as entertaining as his IRL storytelling it’ll be as legendary as he is. What these men (again, we’re just discussing dudes here) have in common is an understanding of the assignment: writing about fishing, like fishing itself, should generally have very little to do with catching fish. It's about experience, being there, and how those experiences form throughlines with the rest of life. It’s also about anything but what gear you’re swinging or what the fish do when it hits the water.

David Coggins (@davidrcoggins) exists somewhere between his contemporaries and our literary forefathers. Much like those marquee names, he’s made a career of words, journalistic essays written on a broad swath of topics in culture and style as well as fishing, plus a Substack worth a follow. He’s learned to walk the narrative line in a way that entertains readers even if they’re not interested in roll casts or Royal Coachmen, yet slips enough of our secret society in to keep snobs such as myself nodding and turning pages.

That Coggins resists overwrought prose or short punchy sentences like the ones Hemingway is often incorrectly quoted as saying come from standing and bleeding at a typewriter reveals his own chops as a writer. When his last book, The Optimist, came out I admittedly read it with cynical eyes. Freshly wounded by my own father’s recent passing — the irony here is not lost on me — and harboring a blanket distrust of mass market interpretations of our shared pastime, I was prepared to disregard the book. That I learned about its existence via social media posts from our dozens of mutual friends, many of whom do not fish, didn’t help. Yet, despite my own vitriolic closed-mindedness, The Optimist almost immediately won me over. I love that book, and found that it reinvigorated me in a way nothing else at the time could. It’s become one of those rare books that I keep buying and then giving away, which is the highest possible praise.

Coggins’ latest book, The Believer, came out last month.

david coggins the believer
Image credit: Simon & Schuster.

Yes, it’s about fly fishing. A year in his fishing life, to be specific. A single year dedicated to checking off as many bucket list missions as possible, which, yes, falls under that list of tropes but which we can also all agree is a laudable undertaking when financed by a third-party, AKA his book advance. Tropes are only bad when the writing is uninspired and sub par, two descriptors that Coggins’ excellent prose deftly avoid. Anyone addicted to angling will appreciate and relate to the three-dimensional chess of crafting a perfect excuse, capable of overruling all rational objections, to spending as much time on the water as possible.

I again initially learned about The Believer’s looming publication via mutual friends’ social media hype long before I saw any advertisements or Coggins’ own ongoing PR and brand partnership campaigns. But this time I was so excited I drunkenly pre-ordered two copies in one night.

As a known loud person in every way, I appreciate that Coggins writes in a quiet voice. ‘Quiet’ meaning understated — he doesn’t shove himself on the reader. Yes, he’s the narrator. Throughout the book situations unfold naturally, through his eyes, with all the required perspective and necessary-but-not-extraneous details spun together. Yet, it never feels as though his id is trying to alpha dog the reader’s. I don’t know Coggins personally, but I suspect his writing voice is a window into who he is. Understated, smart, trustworthy. A man who prefers owning well-made things for a long time rather than amassing piles of flashy crap. What’s the adage? “Fashion is fleeting, style is forever.” Coggins is very much a style guy.

Okay, I didn’t infer all that detail from context clues. He says most of it outright, multiple times, and I’m inclined to believe him.

Even if you don’t fish, and if that’s the case it’s weird you’re reading this right now, The Believer is worth picking up.. As I said before, the greatest fly fishing writing is only tangentially about tying a midge to a leader and bobbing for trout. It’s a tool for transportation and, like your buddy’s vintage Toyota pickup, you should trust in this vehicle. Most of the words we consume these days are fraught. Fake-clever clickbait headlines duel with algorithmically-fed pull quotes specifically designed to raise blood pressure. News is invariably dire, its portents worse. We need to take a break. A breather. A guide to calmer mental waters. It’s up to you whether or not you fish when we get there, but you better believe I’m gonna.



Fun read, just like The Optimist!

Reviews are greatly helped by excerpts from the book being reviewed... if the writing merits it.

Great book. Wonderfully written by a humble and perceptive angler.