Mirror, mirror

Wannabe trout bums, changing demographics, and the great unwashed
mirror mirror
Image credit: Richard Wilson.

There’s a mirror near our front door.  It’s the last thing I see before heading off to the river, and I normally give it a quick glance to make sure everything’s in order. Two shoes? Tick. Crumpled sweatshirt? Tick. Counter-cultural Rastafarian neck-warmer that nobody ever notices, cool hat, glasses, etc. Tick. I nod to myself, smile at the absurdity of it all, and head for the door. That’s me in the mirror.

Maybe when you do this a midlife-handsome and weathered Trout Bum, with a strong resemblance to John Gierach, winks back at you? No? That makes two of us, which bothers me. Who doesn’t want to be a gracefully ageing Trout Bum? We’ve bought the book, so who’s that in the mirror? (Ladies, if this already seems annoyingly male, pale and stale, please be patient. There's a method in my ramblings).

I thought I’d start my quest for Trout Bum validation with the lazy option and ask my mirror for an endorsement. It’s best to do this when the rest of your family is out of the house.  So, when the coast is clear, try my version of the famous question: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the finest reasonably competent recreational angler of them all?”.  Silence. No surprise there because if I was a mirror, I wouldn’t talk to me either.  As everybody knows, talking mirrors are strictly A-list and when they do say something it’s an A-Lister put-down. They won’t waste their time telling me I’m just a reasonably competent angler. And anyway, I already know.

It took me a while to work this out but, in my heart of hearts, I have to admit I’m trapped in an eternally underachieving, wannabe Trout-Bumdom. This is a real state of mind - so much so that it’s a global marketing demographic.

Think about it: that Mirror Man you see is no bum. He’s two or even three times older than surf, ski and skate bums, and there’s rarely, if ever, a hint of exotic smoke drifting downwind.  And there are a lot of him. More, I suggest, than any other form of male fly fisher. Crucially, he usually has real money in the bank. Which is why the tackle companies like him so much: Wannabe Trout Bums buy a lot of stuff. And didn’t Alice Cooper sing “I wanna be a Trout Bum”. Or something like it?

So once the corporates have got us nailed (they have our data), we’re sitting ducks for the sales pitch.

“We tailor our advertising specifically to target susceptible readers, thus minimizing advertising expenses and maximizing the effect of investment dollars.”

— Tackle Company Marketing Strategy

It’s not just tackle. We patsies, as the sales world sometimes calls us customers, also look a bit crumpled. That makes me male, pale, stale and scruffy. Which is why my mirror always shows me that bemused-looking old fart wearing a comedy hat. Note to self: I must Google fishing hats and buy a real one. 2nd note to self: what the heck is a real fishing hat?

john geirach trout bum
The original man for all ages (image credit: West Margin Press).

So how do I know there’s such a big wannabe Trout Bum tribe out there? Well, every year the Outdoor Foundation, along with the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (which is all a bit of a mouthful), publishes a report about fly fishing. It reveals who goes and how often, what they earn and the such-like. It’s US data, but I expect results are broadly similar in Europe. The big tackle companies run the same ads on both sides of the Atlantic, targeting the same idealised version of a fisherman. I’m part of a global clone.

And thanks for waiting ladies – this is now about you:

The 2023 report says fly fishing is the most male-dominated category of all the forms of rod & line fishing.  It’s 69% male. Thankfully the gap is narrowing – in 15 years the number of women has doubled.

I think women fly fishers, being newer, are also younger. This can be a handicap because younger people have less money and, as we all know, the sellers are drawn irresistibly to spending power. So kit designed for women is still shamefully limited in range and availability. Has anyone ever seen a fishing catalogue in which a third of the products target women? 

Maybe this is because we males can afford more expensive kit (see below) and are clever enough to know how good a rod is just by reading the brand name? That makes us the easier mark for the sales pitch.

The numbers gap should continue to narrow because women are taking up the sport faster than men, while attrition by age-related death erodes Trout Bum numbers. So those marketing departments really need to wake up and smell the coffee.

OIA chart
Fly fishers (image credit: Outdoor Foundation).

In all probability my ‘reasonably competent recreational angler’ status is also hung around your neck. It’s a catchall that hoovers up almost all but the very best and worst.  Which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to my quest for a real fishing hat.  Once-upon-a-time I thought a fishing hat should stay on in wind, keep my head dry in rain and make me look like John Gierach.  Not much to ask, surely? It turns out I was wrong.

Here’s why: If you look through the fishing catalogues, you’ll notice a viral ingredient in just about all of the clothing pictures: Pockets. They’re everywhere.

Apparently, this is because our buying capacity for small items of kit is limited only by the number of pockets we have.  Fortunately, we have fishing waistcoats capable of carrying more stuff than most people will use in a season.  And because that’s not enough, our trousers now have multiple pockets too.  And because that’s also not enough, there is a thing called a fishing shirt which features a range of pockets with zip, button & Velcro fastenings that serve bankside needs I haven’t yet developed. Every item of fishing clothing comes with pockets, pockets, and yet more pockets.

But a fishing hat with pockets? Surely not.  Ah….

fishing hat with pocket
Fishing pocket with hat attachment (photo: Richard Wilson).

So here’s a thought.  Before we start wallowing in victimhood and the Great Pocket Miss-selling Scandal, let's get on the front foot. Who buys all this kit, pays for the permits that fund the fisheries, subscribes to the journals, donates and volunteers for the conservation organisations, and generally keeps all the top dogs well-oiled with cash? Who actually buys the rods the fishing gods and casting champions are given free on photo shoots?

Which is why I say let’s hear it for the great unwashed. The scruffs in motley hats who prop up the whole bloody edifice and without whom there’d be no Mega-Weba Online Fishing Superstore or fly lines with 53 mow tip options.  And no #3 single-handed short-belly Speys perfectly matched with a 7’ Nanomeister Brookster, Singapore Grip edition. And especially no hats with pockets. None of it would exist.

So, to all you brands out there, we, your Bum customers, are carrying the needy weight of the tackle industry on our shoulders, and we’re not being well served if all you do is salami-slice our credit cards into ever-more complicated minutiae; be it a birds-nest of interconnecting line segments or sock-pockets or multi-function hats, all in male sizes. And while I’m on a roll, how about flies?  How many, did you say?

So, there it is. I've said my bit and I have a feeling nothing just changed. Hey-ho.

And yet, despite everything, I still feel a pang of disappointment when I look in the mirror and the same grumpy git in a bad hat gurns back at me. Maybe I can be a real Bum for a day? How cool would that be? Please …

So if a mirror ever does answer my question and say, ‘Hey! You’re the man. The daddy-cool, the dude-Meister of Trout Bummery’, I’ll take a long toke from my Trout Bum spliff, and wonder what and why, and then whether or maybe not.  I’ll smile with deep meaning and ask, “Now, where am I? Ah yes, I’m Gone Fishin’.”

How about just the once? Is it too much to ask of a mirror? Even as a last wish?

When I finally get my shot at being a Trout Bum, probably by joining that heavenly choir in Trout Bum heaven, I expect you’ll find my body somewhere on a riverbank. And, just so you know, my stash is in my hat-pocket. That’s what it’s for. Right?

(With apologies to John Gierach, a great writer)


What a great article. Reading it for some reason made me think of maslows hierarchy of needs. Maybe the tip of the pyramid is a young fly fisherman on a casting platform going for a zero limit day.

I am in this bucket. I picked the sport up recently after doing it briefly in my youth. I was a heavy waterfowler for many years (also an audience loved by marketers) and laugh at myself like we all laughed at the guys at the launch decked out in gear with the price tags on it with camp patterns sharp in detail never having seen marsh mud. Age, available time, cost to maintain boats and the like sent me looking for a new past time I could do year around with limited planning.

I looked at several hobbies to reconnect with and Now I stand in the water in 1,200 dollars of new gear not catching a thing. John Gierach would be proud that I at least never considered golf.

I have reconnected though with what it’s really all about for me which is peace, flow, and the hunt all through the pursuit of self actualization… by standing in the water and waiving a stick.