Opinion: Fly Fishing’s Changes

September 25, 2023 By: Spencer Durrant


Photo: Spencer Durrant

Folks usually attribute fly fishing’s latest renaissance to the pandemic and its lockdowns, and they’re probably right. Over the past few years, though—even predating the pandemic—I’ve noticed more and more “mainstream” coverage of fly fishing. It’s no longer this bohemian pursuit, but a socially-acceptable way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

On the one hand, a boon in participants means more money to go around in the fly fishing space. More money spent on gear means more money eventually makes it way to conservation, thanks to excise taxes and the like. But it’s also turned previously-busy rivers into complete zoos, and it feels like not a day goes by that I don’t read a complaint in a Facebook group about how much litter is found in the mountains these days.

All this is to say that, when I see an article like the one that just published in Drift Travel (a travel magazine) I start to wonder if our zeal for promoting fly fishing is becoming our own worst enemy.

Drift Travel lists a handful of the “best places to fish in the United State.” Unsurprisingly, Alaska and Montana both make the list, as do Colorado and Arkansas. The description of New Mexico’s San Juan River focuses almost entirely on its high trout-per-mile count. Montana’s Rock Creek is described as “rich in fish” and Bristol Bay is noted for its “dense population of oversized Arctic grayling and rainbow trout.”

I’m not trying to drag Drift Travel, or the author of the article. But the focus of their story—and so much of fly fishing media these days, in general—is wrong. If all we ever focus on are rivers full to bursting of big, easy fish, I worry that’s what we’ll end up with. I enjoy fishing a big tailwater as much as the next angler, but I worry that we’re losing part of the soul of this sport that’s made fly fishing so unique. It’s easy to find beauty in many of the places we fly fish, but to find so much meaning and fulfillment in a tiny mountain stream and its miniature denizens is a skill that shouldn’t be lost. If anything, catching more and more small trout makes you truly appreciate when the big ones come your way.

I moved to Wyoming three years ago, and I left behind a productive tailwater in Utah that I considered my home water. I traded 20-inch browns for 10-inch rainbows. A few weeks ago, I made the drive to one of Wyoming’s famous tailwaters, and had one of my best evenings of fishing since moving to the Cowboy State. I caught a handful of big, fat trout that, in all reality, were only slightly bigger than what I used to catch regularly back in Utah.

Three years of catching small trout in my local creek, though, made me appreciate those big fish even more.

Maybe I’m just too jaded, or grumpy, or jealous. But I seriously worry about the state of fly fishing as a whole when we seem to be consumed by a zeal for bigger and better. Fly fishing has made its reputation in many ways on appreciating the smaller, finer things in life, and it’d be a shame to see that disappear as the sport grows in popularity.