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Fly Fishing Jazz: On Writing About Fishing… “Roll the Miles”

by Kirk Deeter
photos by Liz Steketee

Liz Steketee PhotographyI’m often asked by aspiring writers about how to get stories placed in magazines or websites, writing books and all that.  That is a somewhat awkward situation for me.  My career has seen many strange twists and lucky bounces, and I certainly still consider myself more a student at this point than a teacher.

But I do have a few thoughts on the matter.  And following up on the piece I wrote about “The Monk List” last week, I think the advice I might offer is similar to what an older jazz musician might have to say to a younger one.

Foremost, I’d say that there are writers who fish, and anglers who write.  It’s important to endeavor to be among the former.  There are many, many others in the latter category.   In print, online, whatever, without understanding “the craft,” you’re lost.

From there… pitch!  Hustle.  Grow some thick skin.  You’ll need it.

Above all, in this world of fly fishing, there really is no substitute for having actually seen and done things.  You must “roll the miles,” and watch, and learn, and fail, and surprise yourself, all the while asking questions and taking notes.  I have stacks and stacks of dusty old notebooks in my basement, most of which are filled with pure drivel that nobody (thankfully) will ever read.  But it’s important to constantly write for an audience of one: yourself.

Ultimately, the stories have very little to do with fish, and everything to do with the people you went fishing with and the places where the adventures happen.

Actually seeing the northern lights helps you understand Alaska.   When your truck breaks down on a dirt road in the middle of Wyoming, you have a new perspective on fishing in the Rockies.  After you hunker down against the bank to wait out a lightning storm, the ensuing Hendrickson hatch on the Delaware River has more context.  Watching a tarpon jump like a streak of molten metal 20 yards in front of your face matters more when you factor in all the sweat, and grime, and dollars spent, and gasoline fumes you sucked in en route to that moment.

Twenty years ago, when nobody in the “fishing writing establishment” would read a lick of anything I had to say, I swore to myself that I would never be an “old fart” like those people.  I’d always believe in new ideas, and enthusiasm, no matter the source.  And I do.

I’m also thankful that blogs allow many voices be heard these day.  But as my mentor Charlie Meyers once said to me: “You aren’t a professional unless you get paid.”  And when it comes to writing professionally, there’s nothing more important than rolling the miles.

Granted, that’s not what your parents, nor your spouse, wanted to hear, I know.  That might not be what you wanted to hear either.

The good news is that, with enough miles and experiences, the stories come to you.  It just happens.  Someday, perhaps, someone’s going to need 500 words on the signature cicada hatch on the Green River.   They might pay you a few hundred dollars for that, and it will take you less than an hour to write it, because you can close your eyes and still see it happening in your head.  Easy money.  I call those “payback” stories.  You may never actually break even on the effort to create that story, mind you, but you’ll never get the call and you’ll never be able to produce the story unless you’ve actually seen the event.

The bad news is, writing is a tough, tough deal.  And even if you’re really good, you’ll make nickels next to the dollars you could make doing other things.  Even then some hobbyist—or worse, someone hiding behind an anonymous screen name on a blog comment thread—is going to compete with you, get in your face, insult you, and tell the world you don’t know what you’re talking about.

But remember this.  If you’ve really rolled the miles, and done so for the love of the sport, and if you’ve absorbed those experiences for what they’re truly worth… well, none of the bad stuff will matter at all.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Kirk Deeter is the editor of TROUT, the national publication of Trout Unlimited, and a frequent contributor to MidCurrent.
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  • Steve Moss

        I really need to thank you for the equal doses of encouragement AND reality you offer in your column. And, although I have yet to ‘turn pro’, I faithfully administer to my blog, logging my experiences, quite often to frustratingly intimate audiences ( Bless my son). But, through it ALL, I KNOW I can write, and that’s not just an idle boast from someone who COULD continue to hide in anonymity and blame the world for his lack of success. Seems to me, that though I’m quite aware of all the emerging literature out both in print AND the internet, I find that often it borders on becoming redundant. Oops, I wander…
       Some of us (me), don’t have a lot of wherewithal ($) with which to fill our experiential reservoirs. I am admittedly location-challenged, in that aside from my home water (The Spokane River), a muddy spring creek in the middle of the state and a few subsidized forays to other moving waters within a day’s drive, I do not have a high-end destination to regularly plug in as (bait) subject material. 
       What drives me is this; even though I DON’T have an extensive recent resume glittering with famous (or infamous) locales, the experiences I have had, even if they are confined to my home water, are in MY mind interesting and diverse enough to fill volumes. I don’t think it matters where you are. For many of us, the experiences both on the water and off are universal. The jist of my argument is this; I STILL, after years of reading others, believe I can do it better than others. And in that way, I believe what I have to offer would be appealing to many readers. Publishers please take note.

            Thanks again, Kirk.

               Steve Moss

  • Erin Block

    Got my first rejection letter this week from book queries I sent out a few weeks ago…thick skin is growing. Quickly. Thank you for not being an “old fart;” moreover, thank you for writing this piece. 

  • Thanks Kirk, wise words indeed.  I found that the combination of actually fishing and getting first hand experience, coupled with writing and writing and writing has seen me move beyond (only just) doing freebies into the world of paid writing.  Three international magazine articles and a chapter of a book on chalk stream fishing in the last year but it took 6 years of blogging and talking to people to get there.

    I’m a way off being able to drop the day job, but who knows, one day perhaps…



  • Kirkdeeter

    Thank you all. And one thing I should have made more clear:  Rolling those miles doesn’t necessarily mean covering long distances to exotic (expensive) places… sometimes the best miles are spent going back and forth to the “home river” over and over.  The most important miles, of course, are the ones “rolled” on foot… especially when your boots are wet.  Pete… that quote is so spot-on, I also wish I were bright enough to included that in the piece.  Thanks for adding that.  

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  • Joe

    Great article. It is great to hear the perspective from someone who has “rolled the miles” so to speak. I would consider myself more of a fisherman than a writer. Just someone who wants to write about my experiences, get others engaged. Maybe even inspire a few people to pickup a hobby that’s given me so much joy throughout the years. Keep up the good work. -Joe

  • denisecousins

    am a child wandering how to write a fishing story somebody please tell me how to write one