Starting out, did you aspire to be a “serious” literary writer?
Oh sure. I started writing about fishing just to make some money—it didn’t seem like a career path to me. I started out writing that “how-to, where-to,” straight outdoors journalism. The first story I sold paid for a month’s rent. And I thought, hey maybe this can finance my literary career. And then I started reading Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison’s nonfiction, Charlie Waterman and Russell Chatham, and some of those guys, and I thought, this can be done as well as anything. McGuane wrote that the closest thing to a tarpon in the physical world is a Steinway piano. I mean, that’s brilliant. It doesn’t really make sense, but if you’ve ever looked at a tarpon—yeah, it might as well be a Steinway piano.
You seem to see fly-fishing as a blue-collar sport.
I do. I always have. I grew up in the 1950s, fishing with my family in the Midwest. And it still astonishes me that people think fishing is upscale. I mean, fishing was always a bunch of guys in coveralls, spitting tobacco juice and swearing, drinking Old Overholt whiskey. There’s always been this deep blue-collar and counterculture aspect of fly-fishing that for years never made it into print. When I was starting out, the most famous outdoor writer was Ernie Schwiebert. And Ernie was always about the best lodge and the best guide and the best wine and best food. And I was this hippie guy. I basically wrote Trout Bum as a way of saying, “What about the rest of us?” I always wanted to tweak that element that thought fly-fishing was all tweed and briar pipes.
Why should fly-fishermen care about native trout?
It’s very simple: If there were no native fish, there would be no fish at all anywhere.That’s the practical reason. The ethical/poetic reason we should save them is because they exist. Same reason we should save ourselves. And the very last and most trivial reason to protect native trout is so that we can go catch them, look at them and admire them.
What are your thoughts on stream access controversies in the West?
Well, it just seems obvious that the people should own the rivers up to the high-water line. It goes back to English common law and the idea of the commons—people own this in common, and have a right to use it within certain restraints. I think it’s obscene that you can be kept off of what should be public water.
Your fishing buddies–A.K Best in particular—figure prominently in your essays. What makes a good fishing companion?
It just needs to be someone you get along with on and off the stream, and someone who thinks about and appreciates fishing roughly the same way you do. A.K. and I always got along because we have similar twisted Midwestern senses of humor. We agree on what a camp should be like. And we’re not fish hogs—we’re more interested in how than how many. Life’s too short to fish with people you don’t like.
Why fly-fishing instead of golf?
Well, it’s doesn’t destroy habitat, for one thing. Golf courses destroy habitat. Fishing depends on habitat not being destroyed. Culturally, golf is just pointlessly ridiculous. If you don’t just see that golf is ridiculous, then you don’t get it.
Could you choose a favorite river?
Probably not. I’m interested in what keeps me going back to certain rivers. It’s not always the quality of the fishing. I have a steelhead trip coming up to the Klickitat River, in Washington state. I’ve caught some fish in the Klickitat, but it’s probably not the best steelheading I’ve ever had, but it’s where I want to go back to. It’s absolutely gorgeous, I like the town—there’s this dinky little town where I stay with friends—and I like the people. It’s the perfect size river for someone like me who’s not a great spey caster but is adequate. I don’t like the lower Deschutes because it just seems pointless to cast into the Deschutes—you can hardly see the far bank half the time. It’s an expanse of water. The Klickitat is just the right size. You can hit all the water where steelhead would be from shore with a spey rod. That’s a river I wish was closer—it’s 1,200 miles from here. It’s a long drive.
Does steelheading attract a certain kind of personality?
It attracts two distinct personalities. It attracts guys who will pee in their waders rather than stop casting and go on bank. There’s a guy I met—you could smell him. And that’s why—he wouldn’t stop for 10 minutes a couple times a day to pee. He’d probably say you can’t steelhead fish unless you fish ferociously. And then there are guys like me and some of the people I steelhead with who aren’t maniacal about it. For me, it’s very meditative and restful. Here’s a nice run that’s about 600 yards long, I’ll get in here about 2 o’clock and be done by dinnertime. Cast, swing, step. Cast, swing, step. It’s absolutely methodical.
You’ve fished for a variety of gamefish, from trout and salmon to bass. Do you have a favorite?
Some fish are more desirable to me than others. Steelhead, there’s just a romance to them—they’re born in a little creek up in the headwaters, swim out to the ocean, live in the Sea of Japan and then they find their way back, and as they’re going by every once in awhile you can catch one and look at it and think, “Damn, this thing has been to Japan and back!” I don’t see how anyone can not get excited by that.
You’ve written about not wanting to be seen as an expert.
Well, I’m not. I’m always a couple years behind the curve on what the hot new thing is or where the hot new place is. I’m more the guy that when people look in my fly box, they go, “Dude, that’s old school. Do those things still work?” That’s what I get. I’m an accomplished fisherman. I’ve fished for 40 years and would have to be a moron not to have learned some things. But being an expert—it’s not my role as an author.