Fly fishing's lost heart

When a craft becomes an industry, something is lost
fly casting iceland
Photo: Earl Harper / Harper Studios.

A few weeks back, a friend sent me an article from Angling Trade magazine, entitled "An Influencer Rows Through It." The piece discussed the general phenomenon of the influencer in the modern business of fly fishing and, specifically, a rhetorical battle that seems to have developed around two influencers who happen to be fairly young and unapologetically female. From the description in the article, I guess this confrontation has gotten quite nasty, calling into question their qualifications because of their youth and gender.

Being an old white guy who has lived most of his life in the hyper-conservative confines of the Rocky Mountain West, I imagine I’m expected to take the side of whoever is outraged by the notion that two relatively young women could be making a fair amount of money as “influencers” while men with more years in the business are not.

Honestly, I don’t much care about that. In fact, I find the idea that these women might be attacked solely because of their age and gender to be repugnant, just as I find the notion that old white guys like me are often attacked solely because of their age and gender to be repugnant. It would be wonderful, now and then, to consider an idea on the basis of its merit rather than the identity of the person who communicates it. I know — I’m a hopeless romantic ...

But I’ll save a more inclusive rant on prejudice for another time. There was a different theme in the article that startled me. At the very beginning, the author offers a fishing vignette. He’s out with a fly fishing “veteran”— for which I read ‘grumpy old white guy.’ The writer lands a twenty-one-inch brown and turns to his veteran friend for the picture that inevitably seems to follow such exploits in modern fly fishing. The old guy refuses to take the shot, saying, “We’re starting to forget what this is all about.” The writer goes on to quote another “veteran,” who offers a different ex post facto explanation for that refusal: “This new generation of anglers, they just don’t seem to have the same sort of respect for the sport that we had to have growing up in order to make a name for ourselves.”

The need for the picture and the implications of that last quote stuck crosswise in my throat. Setting aside, for a moment, the blatant generational prejudice at the very beginning of the quote, I have to wonder when it became important for fly fishermen to “make a name” for themselves. The idea of making a profit from fly fishing probably had something to do with it, although, as one of those useless old fossils from another age, I can remember people like Joe Brooks, Ernest Schweibert, and Alfred Miller (aka “Sparse Grey Hackle”) who managed to make a spartan living on the fringes of an arcane pastime without any notoriety outside a small coterie of fellow psychotics. Maybe those earlier fishermen/communicators are to blame for what came after them; maybe they convinced another generation of fly-fishing fanatics that there was money to be made around the edges of the sport they loved. And that generation convinced this generation of the same thing. Maybe that’s why the pursuit of fly fishing is what it seems to have become, at least for some practitioners and certainly for the corporations that have embraced it— an avenue of self-promotion, a way to gain notoriety and attract a following, and, ultimately, an inexhaustible source of revenue.

For most of the five centuries since Dame Juliana’s book, fly fishing was a craft, and, in the hands of a few of its practitioners, even an art. It was personal, a commitment to a discipline that could never really be mastered, only studied with close attention to detail and undying enthusiasm. It gave rise to a small cadre of specialists who fabricated exquisite tools for the pursuit of fish, from reels and rods to the pinch of fur and feathers that decorated the hook. Only in my admittedly lengthy lifetime has the discipline become a part of pop culture and a tempting source of revenue for Big Business.

And so, somewhere along the line, a craft became an industry — and lost its soul. I can’t single out one person or entity to blame for that metamorphosis. The corporate manufacturers of tackle and gear are doing what any corporation does — maximize profit. If that means underwriting a person with little knowledge but a huge following, then I guess I can’t blame them. And in this era of electronic togetherness and personal isolation, I don’t know how else a person who discovers an interest in fly fishing would go about finding a mentor other than to search for one on Google.

Like so many of the changes capitalism has worked on our culture, this one is probably beyond any conscious control. But when one fisherman is irate because his trophy trout wasn't captured in media-ready pixels and another veteran fly fisherman implies that one of his key motives is “to make a name,” I reserve the right to mourn what’s disappeared from a pastime I’ve loved all my life.

As I consider the portrait of the fly-fishing industry sketched in this article, I’m reminded of a man I knew in Arkansas when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. He was my grandmother’s hired hand. He was lean and hard as a pick handle, weathered from many years spent in the Boston Mountains in pursuit of smallmouth bass and channel cat in the summer, bobwhite quail and whitetails in the winter, turkeys in the spring. I remember him talking to my dad about a poacher who’d just been arrested for killing twenty mallards out of season.

“Why, John,” he said to my dad, “a man like that ain’t got no heart, just a thumpin’ gizzard.”

A craft can have heart. All an industry has is a thumpin’ gizzard.

Comments

This essay brings to mind Russ Chatwin’s wonderful book, “The Anglers Coast.” Largely about a spectacular California anadramus fishery going from great to almost oblivion as seen through the eyes and experiences of Russ and his angling partner, perhaps the greatest flyfisher who ever lived, Bill Schadtt. The book is illustrated with snapshots, mostly black & white. Russ’s comment: “These men were fishermen; fishing is what mattered; photographs were incidental. Self-promotion was the last thing on their minds. Now its about $500 reels, $1000 rods, $700 waders,
Travel to exotic destinations to catch snd release “trophy” fish. Yes, something has surely been lost.

I owned a ski shop business for several years in the late 80’s and 90’s. To me it seemed that elitism entered the ski industry. Like you say, expensive equipment, every year, the latest and greatest, had to have. The mom and pops and many big names closed, mostly just the mountain shops survived. Many brands merged. I hope that isn’t creeping in to fishing. Even some fly shops seem to be getting a little elite. I was brought up with zebco combos. My first fly rod was a Heddon. All purchased at the Western Auto. Red ball waders with my fathers old sneakers for boots. I had a blast. I still have that in me. I’d rather spend money on gas to get to my favorite spot. I buy the best stuff I can afford. Usually outdated close outs on sale. (Remember it was the BEST a few years back). Normally I wouldn’t care, but lately it seems that on the streams and in the parking areas an elitism is growing. Just like on the ski areas. Someone has 10 year old stuff. Waders with patches. Sometimes things are said, sometimes when I strike up a conversation, I’m ignored. Something I’ve never experienced until the last few years. I remind myself I’m here to fish. Using the flies that I’ve tied. Enjoying the water, the surroundings. And the fish. I’m a kid again. And I’m having a blast.

Rodney,
Like you, I was in the sports business, in my case, for over 30 years I owned/operated a bicycle shop in a popular NW Washington tourist area.
The proliferation of high-end and expensive fishing gear also happened in the bicycle industry. We had to decide: do we sell a lot of low-to-moderate priced bikes, or concentrate on the high-end market? Both require about the same level of labor to assemble and sell, and take up the same amount of floor space, and yet I could clear $$$ profit on a few high-end bikes a month, or clear $ profit on a lot of bikes. Fewer bikes meant less floor space clutter, less staff (less $$$ in wages) and the much higher profit on the high-end meant more money in my pocket at the end of the month. The same goes for the fly fishing industry, I'm sure. Sell a bunch of $75 rods (maybe even cheaper on Amazon), or a few $750 rods with protected price points and dealerships. Overhead, whether rent, salaries, or insurance, keep going up, so something has to give. What we end up with is sport elitism, where the major buyers are those with money to burn and a desire for the latest and greatest. I eventually got tired of it all and am now semi-retired. I ride older bikes of high quality I've had for years, and fish with great rods, some bought on close-out, which are now considered "outdated." They still work great, and leave cash for fueling those fishing trips. What counts is fishing, not just show-and-tell.

I agree the "soul" of the sport is certainly wandering if not lost from a traditional perspective. However this isn't unique to fly fishing... it's everything from travel to eating. The Instagramification of everything has turned life into a pursuit for the "coolest" picture that gets the most likes. The dopamine addiction for the "likes" is at the root of it. It's happened most apparently to outdoor pursuits as those seem to offer the dramatic backdrop and appearance of "epic-ness", or life well lived. I truly hope people are remembering to actually enjoy these moments and not living photo to photo. My genuine hope is that as more people are drawn to the outdoors they at least become advocates for protecting and restoring these places. So far some preliminary data seems to support that as a trend, so if that's the case I take solace. As for the "soul" of fly fishing, maybe each generation has a different definition of what the "soul" is. After all, many of the fish we chase were originally planted there to begin with for recreation, so let's not get too pretentious about the idea of "soul".

I agree. I just finished reading Ed Van Put's history of fly fishing in the Catskills. The "good old days" were pretty much the same oraune worse. Trains full of well dressed fisherman from NYC made trips up to the Catskills and boasted of the numbers of fish they caught. Eventually the native brook trout we're almost wiped out. At the end of the day - the soul of fishing is on you. Nothing is stopping you from having your own adventure and journey in this wonderful sport. So don't worry about what others are doing and enjoy it. Thanks

Yes, this.

This article struck lots of chords. I can think of many people who work hard for their craft, not just in flyfishing.

The small company that made our garden tools, knowing each time we buy one it will last a lifetime. Not a big name.

The medical staff who saved my life and whose names I hardly knew…. or now remember.

The local restaurant chef who insists on local products from small businesses, who will never be a ‘food chain’ with smart branding.

The small fly shop, where the owner is happy to share his wealth of knowledge and sell quality goods, but struggles to survive agains the cost cutting pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap businesses.

Just my personal experiences. There are many more, their heart is in their craft not their pockets. We should value them all and celebrate.

"I truly hope people are remembering to actually enjoy these moments and not living photo to photo."

Watch footage of any concert or artistic performance nowadays and just try to find someone not holding up their phone or g*dd*mn iPad.

I’m firmly in between the veteran and influencer generations. My motto is “keep one and release the rest” and that applies equally to my bag limit and photographs.

My father was good friends with George Griffith and Art Neuman and the whole crew at Wa We Sum. As committed fly fishermen the preservation of habitat and the trout found there drove them found Trout Unlimited. Fly fishing is an art form and a bond between the angler and nature each respecting the other. It should never be a soap box for anyone to shout how great they are.

Fishing is just lagging behind hunting which has been destroyed by outfitters, facebook, and disgusting elitist's being choppered in after the hired hands do everything but tie the animal down for them. Social media is tearing apart humanity as the idea of showing everyone your trophy catch outweighs the the event.

As the venerable "Lefty" was fond of saying, "There is too much B/S in flyfishing these days."

As much as I agree there is a lot of negative impact coming to the sport from social media, we must remind ourselves people have been saying the same thing for years. I see Lefty Kreh mentioned above as well as others who made their living from flyfishing. They made their living by marketing themselves and their products. They certainly didn't become famous by staying silent and not showing their photos. They used the "social media" of the day... and even they all complained about how the sport was being ruined back then. Sure, they did it with class, but rest assured there were others, no longer remembered, who did it with less. Remember, fly fishing has been touted as a high end elitist sport for a long time before any of us touched a rod. The soulless practitioners will come and go, those of us who recognize the real value of time on the water will convert a few of those hooligans to true artists with a rod, and in the meantime, we will enjoy the true beauty in the wild and will just have to ignore the whooping and hollering of the vain.

The only "soul" one can get from any endeavor is the one we generate ourselves. I still remember the complaints after "A River Runs Through it" brought moderate mobs of new people to the once quiet river. These people not being there for the "right" reasons. There are many reasons people flyfish, from wanting to catch some fish, to reconnecting with nature, to getting clicks and profits. Even our hallowed corporations like Umpqua have their flies made cheaply overseas, taking possible pay from American employees at the cost of the factory life of a person in a foreign land. As long as the people in the river are being respectful to each other, being as kind as possible to the fish and natural surroundings (whether releasing, keeping or photographing), and they find happiness for their souls in the process, the manner in which this occurs doesn't matter to me. If you find yourself thinking, "It was better when...." with just about any endeavor or entertainment, you might as well shout, "GET OFF MY LAWN!" and get it over with. But then what does that say about your own soul and fly fishing?

I love this!
Having been mixed up in fly fishing for neigh fifty years, watched the growth with an oft weary eye I think I can suggest, without too much fear of contradiction, that we have evolved from "cottage" industry ... to becoming one that is trying to be corporate.
No longer do we rejoice in the simplicity; but centre on the image, the "cool" and the oft banal snapshot image. We all love to catch a fish: but when, for the love of god, did that picture have to be bandied about as a token of ones brilliance or self worth. its a fish: not an Olympic record or Winning the European cup.
However, I am that grumpy "White-haired Guy" who urges others into the sport.
It really is up to us not to be bitter. OK have a rhetorical whimsical look backwards occassionally; but I honestly believe, it is a golden opportunity to just have a sharp intake of breath and see the recreation for what it is and whom it influences. Just fishers: you and me. Old and young. The sport still has "soul", it truly does...and the lovely thing is, that there is not one fish that swims, who knows our name or the cost of the equipment we spent in its momentary downfall. Fishing still remains a simple thing...yes we complicate..."yes" we corrupt it" yes we can bend it out of shape. But it is pretty resilient. And actually, it behoves us (we little ol' grey folk) to lead by example and not condemn ...and NOT look backwards... but forwards and point to the very heart and soul of flyfishing that we have loved for decades. Work to do.

Another grumpy old white guy sharing his appreciation for your words. I have to hope that, despite my distaste for the exhibitionism, the younger generations will succeed in making conservation the priority it deserves. There are also an awful lot of good younger anglers and conservationists doing very good work. I applaud them.

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