A 30 Year View

A 30 Year View

Looking back at 30 years of FR&R

  • By: John Gierach
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In my address book, Fly Rod & Reel Magazine is still listed under “R” for “Rod & Reel: The Journal of American Angling,” which is what it was called when John Merwin started it back in 1979. It was originally intended to be a high-class, thoughtful publication that would cover all methods of sport fishing. I appreciated that egalitarian ideal (fly casters don’t have a monopoly on a love of the sport) but it wasn’t until the word “Fly” was added to the title that the magazine found its true voice and its readership—although it never did make the move to “F” in my address book.

I wrote occasional articles for the magazine early on, and then signed on as a regular columnist in 1992 and went on the masthead as an “Editor at Large.” That’s one of those honorary titles that can sound more impressive than they really are, especially in my case, since I’ve never done a lick of real editing in my life. I’ve now lasted through 17 years, five editors and, as of this issue, 106 columns. To a freelance writer, that almost begins to look like steady work.

For the most part, my columns have been as well received as the rest of the magazine, but I have heard from some who I rubbed the wrong way. All writers secretly crave approval (that’s why we sign our work) and discouraging words always smart a little. On the other hand, I come from a newspaper background where it’s believed that if your columns aren’t pissing off at least some readers some of the time, you’re probably being too careful. So with that in mind, I treasure every critical letter. Of course, no one on the staff could top the great Ted Williams for sheer volume of angry mail.

I know the magazine has evolved over the last 30 years. The Kudos and the Traver Awards come to mind as once-new features and the look of the publication has changed from time to time, but most of the rest happened slowly and I barely noticed. The same goes for fly-fishing itself. There always seems to be something new, but at the same time rods, reels, lines, leaders and flies are all still entirely recognizable. Waders may be made from different materials now, but they’re still intended to keep the water out and you still put them on one leg at a time. Fish are still as fascinating and maddening as they’ve always been and people still go fishing without knowing if they’ll catch anything that day.

There was that big boom in the sport in the early and mid-1990s that brought more people into fly-fishing and changed the charming little fly-tackle business into a full-fledged industry. That expansion was widely attributed to A River Runs Through It (the movie, not the book) but I actually think it was the other way around. I think that by then fly-fishing had become popular enough in its own right that the movie would have an audience. Whatever the cause, fly-fishing gradually became fashionable and entered the mainstream. It began to show up in TV commercials for everything from credit cards to pain relievers—unfortunately, most of the supposed fly fishers in the ads dress too neatly and put too much wrist in their casts.

If the sensibility of the sport has changed over the last 30 years, I haven’t really noticed that, either. There have always been competitors for whom a fish was nothing more than a checkmark on a scorecard, but there have always been others who could go to great lengths to catch a few fish, only to spend the next hour sitting on a log wondering what it all means. There’s either room for all kinds, or at least there’s no sergeant at arms to eject people for wrong thinking.

For that matter, beginners still learn the ropes from older fishermen—in person, in print or electronically—and older, supposedly wiser fly casters still learn new tricks from the young guns. I know some older anglers who get grumpy when they’re having a slow day and some whippersnapper walks by and says, “Dude, we’re killing ’em on Girdle Bugs.” But most of us aren’t above accepting generosity from strangers and I, for one, have caught too many fish by taking that kind of advice. I no longer even wait till the guy’s out of sight before changing flies.

By all accounts, there are more people fly-fishing than there were three decades ago, but again, that happened gradually, so it snuck up on some of us. I have noticed a few more fly fishers on some of the small mountain streams in the Rocky Mountains, but I’ve been told I may have had something to do with that by waxing poetic about creek fishing every chance I got. Oops.

You do hear more about rudeness than you used to, but I don’t think it’s any more prevalent than it ever was, nor is it confined to any one group. It’s also not a recent development; so don’t let any geezers tell you that back in the old days everyone was a perfect gentleman. Honestly, I fish a lot and on average see maybe two or three cases of outright assholery in a season, and some of those are caused by ignorance rather than actual evil intent.

Bad behavior among fly fishers might seem more prevalent than it really is because we tend to vividly remember anyone who we think screwed us over on the water. What we don’t always recall—or even consciously grasp at the time—are the many other fishermen who get out of the river downstream, quietly walk around behind us and leave us three-hundred yards of water before getting back in. I guess that’s just a characteristic of the sport: as long as things are going our way, we’re oblivious.

John Gierach is…John Gierach. We’re honored to embark on our next 30 years with John as our back-page columnist.