Reel Genius

REVIEW: ‘The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life’

May 30, 2021

Many years ago when I took up fly fishing, an old friend became my guru. He sent missives on everything from rod and line selection to the simple glories of Pflueger Medalist reels, from stream tactics to fishing philosophy. All of this is useful to consider when plunging into a pastime that, if you’re doing it right, will come to resemble an obsessive-compulsive disorder, causing one to give short shrift to family, work, personal hygiene, and other onerous preoccupations of the adult world.

My sensei’s pronouncements were by turns practical, wise, and irreverent. In college, he’d had a literary bent and briefly considered becoming the next Walker Percy. But he opted to feed his family, going corporate instead of hanging out with surly MFA students whose worldviews were as bleak as their financial prospects. Still, I asked him, did he ever think of turning his thoughts into a fishing book? "Blechhhh!" he said with typical circumspection. A Civil War buff, he suggested heading to the bookstore at Gettysburg to see what punishing doorstoppers those obsessives had committed to print. "Hour Three at Devil’s Den and What The Generals Ate For Breakfast On Day Two," he scoffed. "I would contribute something similar to fishing. My theories are near and dear to about 300,000 other fishermen, all of whom have already written books."

It’s hard to fault our Mr. Miyagi for thinking it’s all been done before. For while fly fishers only represent a small percentage of all fisherpersons, they are way-overrepresented when casting their fishing feelings into words between hardcovers. Possibly this is because they’re a verbose lot, not unlike drunks at an Irish wake, always looking for an excuse to hold forth. Or possibly, as some would sniffily suggest, fly fishing books outpace other fishing books because most bait fishermen can’t read.

But though I already spend an inordinate amount of time and candlepower trying to outsmart creatures whose brain is the size of a cannellini bean and who often mistake something as preposterous as a bead-head green weenie for food, I read plenty of these books. For man cannot live on fishing alone. There are chores to tend to. So sometimes you need to sit by a winter fire, knock a few back, and read about fishing, too.

I retained some healthy skepticism, however, when an editor dropped David Coggins’s The Optimist: A Case For the Fly Fishing Life in my lap recently. From a distance, it smelled like hipster poseurhood. While Coggins does write about fly fishing for Robb Report, his day job also includes writing about tailoring, travel, and drinking for places like Condé Nast Traveler and writing books on men’s style. His Instagram, while handsome, looks like the kind of feed that isn’t fed, but curated, appearing as though it came out of a 1940s Filson catalog.

When his book’s publicity materials mentioned that fly fishing "is no longer your grandfather’s pastime—millennials are flocking to fly fishing for its authentic gateway to nature and Instagrammable moments," that sounded sufficiently barf-y enough to make me want to take up cribbage or needlepoint instead. The last thing I need is some beardo with an overpriced vintage Hardy reel standing in my layup spots, TikTokking out the coordinates.

But I worried needlessly. Coggins isn’t some fishing arriviste. He’s been at it for a good couple decades, learning at the knees of two codgers—friends of his grandfather’s—who showed him the fine points of casting poppers to within an inch of the banks on Wisconsin rivers and lakes to entice smallmouth bass (a vastly underrated fish, basically largemouth with a few Red Bulls in them). His mentors were such devout practitioners of their craft that they kept their secret spot secret even from each other. (One secret Coggins discovered when fishing with them separately: Theirs was the same secret spot.)

The Optimist is loosely set up, structurally, as a travelogue/instruction manual, with each place and fish Coggins pursues—cutthroat in Montana, bonefish in the Bahamas, brook trout in Maine, and the like—purportedly serving as thematic illustrations of an essential attribute: assurance, vision, persistence, etc. But what might sound like self-help dopiness or feel like an editorial conceit is carried off with a mercifully light touch and near abandonment of the concept. The Optimist isn’t some dreary how-to, or about character development, or even travel porn for its own sake (though it sure as hell made me want to join Coggins for overgrown rainbow trout in Patagonia or for Atlantic salmon in New Brunswick). It is, rather, a pure and extended love letter to fishing. Trout, they say (as well as many other fish that Coggins pursues), tend to live in the most beautiful places. But this isn’t fish braggadocio, the piscatory equivalent of flashing dick pics. Rather, Coggins writes, "I like feeling small, even insignificant, in a beautiful place. It’s humbling, and somehow correct."

Being humble, of course, can get you banished from many internet fishing boards and bars. I sadly and shamefully have spent many a day on the water, thinking not just about communing with nature, luring some of God’s most perfect wild creatures to hand only to watch them swim away freely, but about how to make the size or volume of the fish caught feel maximally enviable to fishing friends/rivals when I relate the tale, later. Which disgusts me. We fish to escape the world, and other people, then enslave ourselves to their perceptions anyway. At least, I rationalize, I don’t take fishing selfies, rationalization being what separates us from the animals.

While a fine turner-of-phrases ("Patagonia is not what anybody’s made, it’s what’s lasted despite all we’ve made"), Coggins may not possess the undiluted laconic zen of a John Gierach or the literary precision of a Tom McGuane. (Who does?) But what grows on you and ultimately stays with you while reading The Optimist is his sheer exuberance and honesty. The real brotherhood of fishing might occasionally be about fishing triumphs, but just as often if not more, it is about failures. And we get streamside seats to all of Coggins’s.

One of his fishing guides, Tony, a Jimmy Page doppelgänger who rolls and chain-smokes his own cigarettes, summed it up nicely on a brushy chalk stream in England, as Coggins was catching more overhanging branches on his backcasts than he was sulky brown trout, which are often the Godots of fish in that you can spend a lot of time waiting for them. Doubling as a salmon guide in Scotland (Atlantic salmon can make brownies look like ravenous plate-cleaners by comparison), Tony dryly offered, "In salmon fishing, you have one chance a day, and if you’re good enough, you’ll know when you’ve missed it."

And so, we suffer with Coggins all of his gratification delays and indignities: The bad, water-damaged fishermen’s motels with the television chained to the wall and the sign saying the desk help is down the street at the bar. The overheard conversations of guides discussing their sports’ blown casts and lost fish. ("A true humiliation, like people watching a video of you dancing.") The lonely desolation of bonefish flats when you’ve waited all day to see a fish, then when you finally do, clumsily spooking them back out to sea. Going to a stuffy angling club in Canada, only to catch the smallest grilse (a young salmon) in club history, which you are required to enter in the club’s fishing log, even though your guide, whose very livelihood should depend on being bad at math, refuses to let you round up its size: "In the comment section next to the entries, which other anglers have used as a chance to elaborate their triumphs, I’m at a loss. Beneath a ‘tremendous fish’ or ‘silver beauty’ I write ‘room for improvement’ and close the book."

Once, after Coggins and a fishing buddy floated all day down a river in Wisconsin to his car at a pull-out spot, when he got there, he realized he left his keys in his friend’s car at their put-in spot many miles upstream. "Why would I want to carry them in the boat all day, something bad might happen?" he had reasoned, before his boner dawned on him. Here, he perfectly illustrates why I prefer fishing alone: "Fishing with somebody brings you close together because that person has a front-row seat for your failures."

And yet, despite the expensive globe-trotting shutouts, the spectacularly miscalculated weather patterns that have him gutting it out in torrential downpours, the nagging feeling that "I’m not merely leaving town but leaving society, the society that’s employed, productive, efficient, and to their mind, necessary," he keeps going back. Hell, that’s probably why he keeps going back. 

For fishing forces optimism into even the darkest heart. There’s catching, sure. But a good deal of the time, it’s all anticipation and expectancy. Even on days when it’s all going sideways, "you’re one cast away from being a genius," Coggins writes. And then comes the blessed moment of connection. The tug is the drug, as the beer koozies say. "Action replaces theory, analysis makes way for drama. This is not speculation or a wistful memory—it’s completely in the present tense." You are playing something wild and beautiful and pure just a fly-line’s length away. You will bring it to hand, admire it, and then let it go. It will leave you as suddenly as it appeared. And then you will wait for it to appear again.

It’s downright biblical, if one feels the need to inflict that sort of order on things. I’ve always held that it’s no accident that a good sliver of Christ’s disciples were fishermen, including all of his favorites. (Judas, for whatever it’s worth, was a treasurer and embezzler, but no fisherman.) For as the Good Book says: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Faith and fishing—it can be hard to tell the difference, because there isn’t much.

And so, Coggins keeps on casting. Like many of us, he dreams of fish, too. "They say you can’t see your hands in dreams," he writes, "and I never see mine. But I cast, not knowing what will happen. In the waking life, I cast too, and still I never know. If no trout rises, I cast again. I feel a shiver of good fortune to be in the world, a world without end."

The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life
by David Coggins
Scribner, 256 pp., $26

Matt Labash is the author of Fly Fishing with Darth Vader.

Published under: Book reviews