IN THE BEGINNING
In the beginning, in colonial America, in that agrarian, rural community, where fauna were still in balance with flora and both reconciled to the vagaries of local geologies and climates, there had to have been an idyllic landscape that offered those early Americans a marvelous promise of fish and game-- of both sport and provender.
The good and beautiful earth lay at almost every doorstep, easier for those early folks to enter upon than for us today to drive down town.
And that is what has become of us. We are all down town in the center of things most all the time and doing quite nicely, thank you.
But, back then, in that once upon a time, fishing was close to home, by foot or by horseback, and intimately connected to the household economy. And it was free.
A new politics and a new economy in a new land appeared to promise that freedom of access and supply of nature’s bounty in perpetuity. There was no need to hurry and so the technology of the field sports developed but slowly. A solid wood fishing rod with a fixed horsehair line was more than adequate; and two open barrels, side by side with hammer locks, did nicely on bird or beast.
Once upon a time, in order to enjoy, have success, and advance in the sport, fishermen went fishing close to home, usually for a few hours only. They went casually, and at little expense. A journey to a remote camp in the woods was a considerable undertaking and rare.
Today, our angler regularly finds himself in the air or for days on the road, on the way to distant, often exotic territories to find the same satisfactions, and accomplishment he used to get at home-- now with a new sense of urgency if not anxiety.
Urbanization is the great villain and moving force fueling this shift. The city has drawn our anglers into its service and some might say “bondage”. It has forced “nature” and its pleasures farther and farther a-field and kept us in our offices. Kept us starved for fishing.
So, what have we done? In our hours off, we have joined clubs, certainly Trout Unlimited. We have read the magazines and doted on the videos, in those hours stolen from the urban machine. A bit of “virtual” angling must often suffice.
Then comes what once was called “vacation”, today more flexible, less formal than the locked-in conventional two weeks of Julys-past when there were no cell phones or texting, to keep the job vibrating or ringing in our pockets. In any case, there still is time to get away and fish. Half an hour on the computer sets us up with destination and transportation. And off we go to a week in Alaska, or, as I do in my dreams, off to The Rio Grande in Patagonia. We pretty much bet our fishing season on those few days away.
Where in the past, fishing was more relaxed and easy- going, now it is marked by a sense of urgency. Angling success becomes urgently necessary in a new, less forgiving, way.
The dark side of all this is to increase the expense of it. The fishing is no longer free: it costs. Sometimes a lot. The water is likely to be private and privileged as once it was for an aristocratically wealthy few. The rest of us have always had to depend on free and public waters. We have been the undecorated anglers who en masse have paid the bill and kept the sport alive.
This en masse, we, the anglers of the working day, since the burst in popularity of fly fishing in the mid 1980s, have enjoyed more disposable income for recreation and developed keen interest in issues of the environment. And today we are wetting our waders in the finest rivers and lakes in the world, right along with our aristocratically wealthy betters of the older tradition.
And so our fishing has been transformed in our time. It has been driven by an historic irony that what we have always loved, we could readily get at home, we now chase quite cheerfully half way round the world to find it.
Nor do we do it alone. The adventure to new and uncharted fishing, with the least possible chance of failure, requires help. And so here comes a key factor in the revolution that has overtaken our angling: The Guide.
AND THEN THERE WAS THE GUIDE
The meteoric rise of the Guide finds us caught in another vexing irony: that now it requires two people to catch any given trout-- where once we did it alone, by ourselves, and solitary. Now we do it in the company of an assistant, an instructor, a protector, caterer, and a boss.
The angler who at one time we looked upon as a self-sufficient, internal sort of person, we now find transformed into a pupil, dependent upon a guide for instruction, landing his fish, selecting his flies, providing safety, lunch, and the conventional conversation of the facilitator, of one who is paid to be always encouraging. His conversation becomes a lingua franca-- or guide-talk.
Guides are an interesting lot. They are more often than not, superior young men and women, smart and capable of deep feeling, even delicacy of feeling. But, their conversation in the service of their profession, made of current slang, and excessive effusion, grows automatic and repetitive,They feel they must keep the client’s spirits buoyed up at all costs. It’s guide-talk talking.
Guides are often young men and women who have chucked the values of the middle class, what they call the “rat race”, and are content to live quite simply, on not much of a yearly income-- just as long as they can be allowed to fish! Fish a lot.
They may have had a bit of college, but not enough to spoil their innocense. Instead they tie the finest flies the world has ever seen, cast the farthest, and achieve supremacy in every one of the delicacies that attend on angling skill and gear.
They live the life that the rest of us dare not. But they depend upon us for alms. Their culture-hero is that unhappy man Thoreau in his shack by Walden Pond. Their ideology is an uncritical devotion to Catch and Release. All of them were born under the star of Trout Unlimited. They tend to agree with each other on most every issue and so tend to sound alike, think alike, and dress alike-- always on the youthful side of maturity.
As an occupational class, they tend to identify first with the owners of the water, then the fly shops, and lastly with the fish. The fee-paying client becomes their necessary suppliant.
Out on the water, the guide becomes the one who “knows” and therefore is the one who “decides”-- and later, back in camp, it is the guide who most vividly establishes the narrative of the day and reports on it. His narrative will often be exploited as an advertisement for his boss, the owner.
The guide’s reports are devoured by angling media and become an extension of it. This becomes the stuff on which the virtual angler feeds. He becomes a consumer of a product as commercial as any other. The client is voracious, always wanting more of the same and always something new. He pays and so must be fed.
Sport has indeed become an industry, business.
In the end, it is the language of angling that suffers. The distinguished literature of angling takes a drubbing as it becomes amorphous, repetitive, and commercial.
What is lacking is big personality and a clear voice. Before this contemporary rise in the popularity of angling and all the attendant writing about it, it was not difficult to tell the difference between the writing of giants like Ted Trueblood and Ray Bergman. Both wrote about the same subject, but with a nuanced tracing of personality, imagination, and sensibility that is the hallmark that separates literature from mere word-grubbing. I believe it fair to conclude that the guides as a professional class have absconded with the literature of angling and have made it their own. Our language has been made to pay.
At a book signing, once, I heard John Gierach say that for him it was the writing that came first and was most important. Then came the fish and the fishing. Such is the primal way: first an irresistible need and craving to speak and only then to cast about for a congenial subject matter-- like angling. Were I not writing this essay about fishing, I would surely he haranguing you about something else.