Before Robert Redford came to my little hometown and made fly fishing a cliché everywhere, I had already figured out that I would fish my whole life.
This is not knocking Redford. He arrived in Livingston with the difficult task of adapting Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It, one of my favorite books, and left having produced a fine movie. He also gave many Livingston locals some extra spending cash, including my childhood friend who played the younger version of Brad Pitt in the movie.
The thing is, fly fishing blew up after that. Hoards of tourists, decked out in wildly expensive gear that I didn’t know existed, flew to Montana, jumped on boats and then asked “What do I do now?” There seemed to be a loss of dignity, though I couldn’t have identified that as a young boy who only knew that fishing was fun.
When I was 5 years old I caught my first trout in a small creek across from the log cabin I grew up in. The speckled cutthroat didn’t suspect there was a hook in the live grasshopper kicking on the surface. I stared at my catch until it died, gasping for air on a tuft of grass.
I have been fishing ever since, though I now have a better understanding that fish prefer to breathe underwater and tend to die on tufts of grass. Only occasionally do I kill a trout to eat. I buy flies at clearance sales, beg my fly-tying buddies for handouts and fish with the same rod that was given to me a decade ago. I am an unlikely addict if you consider fly fishing “a rich man’s sport.”
For some Montana natives, the word “fly fishing” borders on profanity. There are water use and access issues. There’s the construction worker who has a beer at his favorite bar after a long day at work and listens to someone he’s never seen before, with $200 polarized sunglasses dangling around his neck, talk about the fantastic day he had on a $100 per day spring creek with his $150 guide.
Tension is understandable.
Some of us, though, have always fished and can’t imagine not fishing. We were born in Montana, raised here and fished long before Brad Pitt took his first fly casting lesson. We miss our favorite streams on which we used to spend entire weekends but are now fenced off as private fishing paradises. There is no blame, only changing times. I can’t even blame Redford.
But as an angler who watched the rivers clog up with graphite rod-yielding tourists scaring the hell out of fish all day and wondered what fly fishing meant to them, it seems strange to be reduced to “just another fly fisherman,” to have a life-long love dismissed as a cliché fad.
Fly fishing is a fad for many, but for others it’s something much more.
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