The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

And to continue plundering Dickens, the current state of fly fishing “was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .  it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . . ”
by Ted Leeson
From the April 2008 issue.

Among its manifold infirmities, the human memory inclines to the categorical and absolute, preferring broad brushstrokes to nuance and detail.

 When we don’t view the past in sepia tints through a Vaseline-smeared lens, we are apt, as the Stones say, “to paint it black.” But Dickens was right: Human experience is equivocal. The Dark Ages had their bright spots, and the good ol’ days weren’t really all that good. From the French Revolution to fly fishing, history happens in shades of gray.

So at the onset of a new fishing season when the world, as Franklin Burroughs writes, “is green and gracious” and all things are forward-looking, it’s worth pausing to take a snapshot of our own age of angling in all its ambivalence, before the image is enhanced, cropped, synthetically patinated, and otherwise Photoshopped into memory.

It is the best of times because . . . despite the strenuous efforts of 6.6 billion earthlings, there are still enough fish to make fishing more than a musty archaism in the Oxford English Dictionary. By fish I mean trout, though this surprising persistence extends to salmon and steelhead, striped bass, permit, tarpon, bonefish, and all the other gamefish flavors. They are not prevailing in this world of change, but as yet they endure.

It is the worst of times because . . . there aren’t so many fish as there should be, or even used to be. The pace of change inures us to the effects of change, and we adapt too quickly. In America, nothing falls faster—not old-growth forests or the coal-laden mountaintops of West Virginia—than expectations. We savor the catching of an Atlantic salmon or a steelhead—as an accomplishment or reward or gift—because it happens infrequently. It is an event, a cause for celebration, and we spin tales of our rare good fortune without realizing that the rarity is a product of our making. We romanticize something we should be ashamed of.

It is the best of times because . . . fly fishing has become more democratic, less deliberately mystified, more open and available, especially to women. And as a general philosophical principle, I favor anything with more women in it. Largely uncorrupted by the headhunter mentality, they have a civilizing influence born of the novel presupposition that fishing is supposed to be fun.

It is the worst of times because . . . this civilizing influence hasn’t reached far enough, and from the Keys to the Kenai, angling today is marred by an appalling lack of manners. Granted, some of this owes to simple ignorance. But while guide wars and combat fishing may be a regrettable fact of contemporary angling, must etiquette always be the first casualty?

It is the best of times because . . . we live in an age of miraculous tackle. Memory may summon the equipment of the past with a warm, nostalgic fondness, but except for bamboo rods, the gear of yesteryear basically sucked. It doesn’t matter what you choose—waders, boots, lines, raingear, leaders, even reels—it was godawful heavy, comparatively expensive, required more upkeep than a British sports car, and certainly gave no better service than what we have now, and mostly gave worse. We are blessed by a pantheon of modern divinities: the Gods and Goddesses of Gore-Tex, Graphite, Fleece, Microfiber, Genetic Hackle, and a whole host of lesser demigods, from strike indicators to nippers.

It is the worst of times because . . . while we are anglers, we are still Americans, and so harbor the inflexible belief that more or newer or different stuff holds the solution to all our problems. We will catch more fish—be better fishermen—if we just have the right gear. There are plenty of reasons to get new equipment, but catching more fish isn’t one of them.

It is the best of times because . . . modern fly fishing is robust and energetic, pursued with a kind of enthusiasm that often translates into resource advocacy. Like it or not, there are no longer any nonpolitical gamefish; preserving our waters and conserving the fish have become a matter of numerical clout. And at least from this standpoint I would rather have more people fishing more water than fewer fishing less.

It is the worst of times because . . . more of anything these days connotes market potential, a descent into vendable commodity typically culminating in a certain, well, boorishness. I’m not talking about etiquette, but a presumption that fly fishing can be made appealing only by transforming it into a media event, reducing it to the level of spectacle, televised or not. Hence we have extreme fly-fishing; stunt fishing; contests in fly tying and casting; fly-fishing competitions and championships with the inevitable prizes, statistics, and sponsorships. Maybe I’m irredeemably retro, but grafting fly fishing onto the NASCAR-and-paintball culture seems to carve out and gibbet the living heart of the thing.

It is the best of times because . . . we live in an age of unparalleled fly-fishing opportunity. We can now travel to remote corners of the earth and fish for hitherto unfished-for species while generally enjoying respectable creature comforts in the process. The world of fly fishing has grown larger, more varied, and more interesting.

It is the worst of times because . . . increasingly, little bits of those distant places hitchhike home with us—New Zealand mud snails, milfoil, zebra mussels, whirling disease, didymo. Altering the ecologies of entire watersheds is no longer an ominous risk but an undeniable reality.

It is the best of times because . . . catch-and-release fishing has become the default ethic among fly fishers, even on waters where it isn’t mandatory. Whether they quickly grasped the irrefutable logic of the practice or just didn’t care to eat fish, anglers adopted C&R with astonishing speed and relatively little fuss considering the general inertia of humankind and the ponderous counterweight of centuries’ worth of creeling anything with fins. Were the disastrous bag limits of times past still in force, today’s record-high number of fly fishermen could render barren the best blue-ribbon river in America in a season or two.

It is the worst of times because . . . okay, maybe not the worst, but troubling nonetheless. Catch-and-release can conveniently insulate us from understanding that angling is a blood sport even if no blood is spilled. Refusing to kill fish can too easily engender a false sense of righteousness, of magnanimity, of benevolence that we have spared a life when, symbolically at least, we’ve already taken it. Releasing fish is not so much admirable as it is sensible, but neither reason absolves us from the gravity of our own actions. Angling is a morally serious business.

It is the best of times because . . . the morning sun still warms June waters; mayflies still hatch, and trout still rise. The charm of fly fishing endures, a way of staying connected to the natural world that restores the mind and renews the soul.

It is the worst of times because . . . the idea of staying connected has been hijacked by a technophilic world in thrall to the electron, inducing a fear of leisure and making productivity a national fetish. We can now broadband, WiFi, BlackBerry, and Bluetooth ourselves from sunrise to insensibility and eventually into our asylum of choice. (Google up the options.) I doubt that restoration and renewal have ever been needed more.

It is the best of times because . . . for all the scientific angling, technical fishing, strategies, and tactics, the mysteries of fly fishing go safely unmolested. The fish, as always, remain imperturbably and implacably themselves, the magnetic north of our wonder.

It is the best of times because . . . finally, for better or worse or both, it is the only time you have, your sole shot at the thing, which, if you do it right, should be just enough. In “The Summer Day,” poet Mary Oliver asks the single, truly relevant question: How do you plan on spending “your one, wild precious life”?

I know exactly what I’m going to do. Car’s already packed.



Ted Leeson is the author of two books of fly-fishing essays, The Habit of Rivers: Reflections on Trout Streams and Fly Fishing  and Jerusalem Creek, as well as a shocking number of books and magazine articles about fly tying and beyond. His books are available from In his spare time he teaches English at Oregon State University.

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