This week I returned from a three-month sabbatical from Trout Unlimited. How did I use it?
Well, I worked a bit on writing a book. Played some golf but my handicap didn’t drop as much as I had hoped. Gave a few talks, started swimming again, and canned some peaches.
Looking back now, I’ll admit, that doesn’t seem all that remarkable.
But as I reflected deeper on the past few months, it became clear what the true purpose really was. I was on a quest to answer a question that’s been nagging at me for a few years:
Do I even really care about fishing anymore?
I never thought I’d wonder. Fishing has been my favorite hobby since I could walk, and I was lucky enough to turn that pastime into a career focus that’s taken me to five continents and four oceans.
But I’ve also seen how the sausage gets made. And I’ve seen some changes that don’t just bother me, they hurt. Like everyone, I’ve seen the crowded rivers. It doesn’t bother me that so many people are out enjoying rivers and fishing. That’s great.
What bothers me is how commercialized it’s become in some places, and how disrespected the fish are. Let’s get as many guide trips on the water as we can, with everyone trying to catch as many fish as possible by whatever means necessary.
I’ve seen the demise of classic outdoor media; I used to write stories knowing five million people would see them, now a digital piece (usually video) that garners 10,000 “clicks” is a big deal. Wow.
When I started, top-end fly rods didn’t cost a grand… your whole trip to Montana for a week to use a fly rod used to cost a grand. But that was before Bozeman was Boz-Angeles.
Things evolve, and change is inevitable. And long ago I swore to myself I’d never be an “I remember when” guy when writing about fly fishing.
But I had admittedly come to a crossroads. There was only one thing I could do to try to solve my problem.
I went fishing.
Like I did when I was a kid.
I used worms. I threw big lures on lakes for pike. I went fly fishing for trout, but instead of fishing under the dam with everyone else, I hiked into the backcountry. I caught little brookies with a fiberglass rod. And most important, I went to the home river where I learned to fish in the first place, and I fished dry flies in the evenings. And it felt just the same as it did, all those years ago.
I also spoke with people, starting with other anglers. I met young guides and asked them what they were up to. I met crusty old timers and picked their brains also. I met people of all ages who were just learning how to fish, and found out what interested them. I talked to the saltwater people, the bass people, and others. I talked to bird hunters and elk hunters. I talked with scientists and parks and wildlife professionals. I talked to young writers and photographers who still care about turning a phrase or creating art through a lens… the real “new media” talent.
And I connected to the land and water. My best day of fishing all summer involved catching one fish, then spending the next hour watching a bald eagle preen on a tree branch above me. When she finally flew off, I figured I should probably head for home too.
At the end of it all, I realized that the answer to my question was “yes.”
Yes, I love fishing. All fishing. And for many reasons, the act of actually pulling on fish maybe the least among them. But I know I do love fishing, perhaps even a little more now than I ever have, because I took some time to figure out why.
Sure, we have challenges. We need to manage better for sustainability. We need to reward talent where effort and passion are still there. We must respect each other, and know that people come to fishing for different reasons, and most of them are great.
Most of all we need to take care of our waters and our fish. Without doing that, none of this stuff matters. The challenges are real. Truthfully, I didn’t even fish my favorite river in August, because it was too hot.
But the rewards are all still there—the sights, the sounds, the smells… the words, the images, the art… the tradition, the camaraderie, the family…
All there. All shining bright as ever.
So too is my pilot light.