Book Review: “Trout Culture: How Fly Fishing Forever Changed the Rocky Mountain West”

“The creation of Planet Trout is, by many accounts, a great success story, and by many other accounts, an unmitigated ecological disaster. And it has, by any account, caused big changes in the  American West.”

—Paul Schullery, Cowboy Trout: Western Fly Fishing,  As If It Mattered (2006)


Float Trip

Every summer morning a squadron of bully SUVs and four-wheel drive pickups, as well as smaller, nimbler vehicles, pulling banana-shaped drift boats and low-profile skiffs (made by ClackaCraft, Hyde, Ro, Willie Boat, Lavro, Boulder Boat Works, and others) so favored by Western anglers and rivermen, storm by the corner of Montana Routes 87 and 287 in Cameron, Montana, at 70 m.p.h. on their way to one of several boat ramps and designated put-ins on the lower Madison River, one of America’s most treasured and sought-after trout streams.  The work day has started in that trout-rich sector of Fly-Fish Nation.

Much of the traffic that passes this intersection is from one of half-a-dozen fly shops in West Yellowstone, Montana, thirty-five-plus miles away, or Slide Inn just up the road from Raynolds Pass Bridge, or various fly fishing outfitters, lodges, and camps on Hebgen Lake or on the Madison River itself, and even from fly shops and outfitters to the south in Island Park, Idaho. They all come to float their dream section of the Madison’s forty miles of runs and riffles north to Ennis,  Montana. Ennis is the third destination fly-fishing town within a fifty-mile radius of Raynolds Pass; its Chamber of Commerce boasts that the town has a larger population of trout than humans.

Boats from upper Cameron and Ennis fly shops and lodges have it easier because theirs is a short hop to access the lower Madison and so they don’t pass that 87/287 intersection unless they are making the two-hour-plus haul to the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, in Idaho. In addition, there are numerous privately owned craft that whiz by here as well each morning. Once in a while an oddment comes along—a forty-year-old VW Micro Bus pulling a 16-foot ClackaCraft almost as big as the car, or a rust-bucket Chevy sedan toting a blue Avon four-man raft on a wide, flat trailer, or a one-person catamaran lashed to the top of a Subaru that itself has a tell-tale stone-cracked windshield. During the short window of salmon fly season in July, the number of vehicles and vessels compounds exponentially. The designated access area at Lyons Bridge has long queuing lines, and, impossible to fathom this far from any urban center, traffic jams and short tempers are legion.

In most cases, salmon-fly season or not, on the trip to the river, the guide, a licensed professional angler,  is driving, and he or she and the client(s) are drinking coffee or Coke or Mountain Dew or Red Bull or some other jack-me-up energy drink, and talking, feeling each other out, to get a sense of what they have gotten themselves into for the day. The clients are jazzed—the whole experience is perhaps new and exciting, and is an adventure they have read about, heard about, or otherwise anticipated for a long time, and now their day has come. Whatever occurs, however many fish are or are not raised, it is an adventurous departure from their work-a-day lives, for which they have forked over a good deal of cash, close to 500 bucks for a day-long float. In this deservedly touted river trout equal money and everyone involved gives or takes accordingly. The Madison feeds both souls and pocket books.

For the guide, maybe in his or her first year after apprenticing in a fly shop for a couple of seasons, or maybe in his or her twentieth year, they might have already made thirty-plus trips, on the Madison which is their work-a-day grind. If the fishing is good this day, or the client(s), besides being adept anglers or quick learners, are also interesting, entertaining, or  intriguing, and the tip is suitably bountiful, then the day will enter a category of its own, and in that way a loyal clientele is formed. With much at stake, it is hard to say who is more anxious about the day’s prospects. Every sport’s hope is that the guide doesn’t treat the hire as business as usual; every guide’s hope is that his or her charges are at least reasonably skilled anglers who can get the most out of a day on the water. False or unreasonable expectations do no one any good.

Nearly everyone is dressed the same in a kind of contemporary fly-fisher’s uniform—fast-drying nylon shorts or fishing pants in a neutral solid color (beige, clay, putty, olive), a brightly colored lightweight fast-drying shirt especially designed for fly fishing and casting—it has an ample bi-swing yoke and back, mesh innards to wick sweat away, ample breast pockets (with zippers or velcro fasteners) that can accommodate small fly boxes, sunglasses, magnifiers, cigars, gum, lip balm, fly floatant, what have you. Also a ball-cap lettered with the name of a fly shop, lodge, or tackle maker. If the morning is cool, as it often is in that part of Montana in July and August, someone in the car is wearing at least one garment made of fleece that can be stripped off later when the day begins to warm, as it invariably does. Layering clothes, much like carrying sunscreen and rain gear, is de rigeur.

More often than not those shirts by Patagonia, Simms, Ex Officio, Reddington, L. L. Bean, Cabela’s, Orvis—all major players in the Western fly-fishing business—are emblazoned over one of the pockets with a jumping trout or crossed fly rods beneath which is printed the name of a tackle shop, lodge, or outfitter that caters to fly fishers. As part of their marketing strategy, these entities specialize in purveying a “fly-fishing lifestyle,” a total outdoor package that emphasizes not just catch-and-release angling, but also ethical behavior, educational values, riverine ecology, spiritual uplift, and wholesome fun in an outdoor setting. They provide one-stop shopping for all trouting needs.

The rest of the client’s angling equipment, including fly rods and reels (they run the gamut from big-box store outfits to pricey high-end items), waders, wading shoes, fishing vest or fanny pack are stored in the back or bed of the vehicle, along with the guide’s gear, which is sometimes strewn willy-nilly in the back of the truck. The all-important cooler, which contains food and drink for the well-deserved mid-day lunch at streamside (a high point of the excursion if fishing has been slow) is stowed in the drift boat. As politics and religion are usually off-limit topics, most of the conversation gravitates toward the day’s fishing prospects, and everyone’s desire to hook a boatful of huge trout. It’s the dream that drives the whole fly-fishing enterprise, fueled by personal appetites, but also by the host of media forms that showcase grip-and-grin photos—fish pornography—of this or that happy, smiling celebrity angler holding a behemoth trout in some gorgeous drop-dead geographical setting most people will never have the opportunity to visit, much less fish.

Some clients admit that dream desire freely, and they might be the boastful ones who allow how they are anglers to be reckoned with and have caught countless fish, and have fished with this or that famous angler or on this or that famous river, don’t you know; some are more guarded and conservative, either by temperament or restricted experience, and know enough to be quiet and soak in the atmosphere; others, who want to get the most out of the day, ask directed questions and their queries, more often than not, put the guide at ease and open the way to active dialogue and engaged participation. The guide, whose training besides CPR includes negotiation and publicity skills,  wants to strike the right note of enthusiasm without promising or predicting astonishing results. There inevitably will be, however, references to yesterday’s or last week’s monumental fishing, tales of which, true or not, keep the pump primed and raise everyone’s eagerness quotient.

Consumer expectations aside, the truth is that so much depends on conditions no one can control: weather patterns, local climate, the river’s flow speed, clarity, and temperature, density and frequency of insect hatch activity, and so on and on through a list of independent, non-negotiable variables. What the guide really wants to say but can’t without risking insult or sounding arrogant is that much of the day’s success will depend on how adept and skilled the clients are with a fly rod.

The lower Madison, which moves fast and is rather unforgiving with its bouldery bottom, its choppy riffles and swirling pocket water that seem to go on forever, requires a decent level of casting ability to hit the right marks. The guide can aid and abet the angler’s progress by rowing the boat in such a way that the sport can drift a nymph under a gaudy eye-catching plastic or yarn indicator a long way downstream, but even that trick goes just so far before it breaks down.  If you can’t manage your line, know when and how to strike, the advantage is mostly with the trout or, God forbid!, the dreaded, indigenous mountain whitefish.

No matter: with some variations, a similar scenario plays itself out on the Beaverhead, North Platte, San Juan, Green, or any river, east or west, you care to name. “Western trout, while often steeped in local lore and regional nostalgia,” Jen Brown writes in her must-read book, Trout Culture: How Fly Fishing Forever Changed the Rocky Mountain West,

tell an important story of the changing human relationships to the natural world that extends far beyond the American Rockies. Today’s fishy West can be understood only within a larger network of global processes and transnational exchanges, particularly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this larger history, the region became part of the rise of outdoor recreation and sport around the world, processes caused by industrialization and imperialism. Middle classes around the Western world legitimized their own leisure and the consumption of nature during this era. Rocky Mountain anglers played their part, remaking western waters for better fishing and helping to define conservation solutions based upon transnational sporting culture.

Welcome to Fly Fish Nation’s Planet Trout, Troutville, Trouttown, Trouthala, Trout Empire, Troutopia (call it what you will), which is now, perhaps inevitably, as much a cultural and economic construct as it is a physical and mental place. “Trout are both a business and an atmospheric condition,” Ted Leeson claims in Inventing Montana: Dispatches from the Madison Valley (2009).



Taken together, Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella  A River Runs Through It and  the 1992 Robert Redford movie version, Brown claims, “helped foster a mythologized image of western trout fishing among readers, moviegoers, and inspired tourists.” Which is to say, the texts valorized a special, white guys-only way of looking at western fly fishing as a ritualized, elite, and even sacred endeavor, not to be bastardized or compromised by idiots, women, minorities, or well-meaning wimps.

The iconic ARRTI texts provided a privileged view of one tiny sliver of fishing activity, but because it treated that synecdochal sliver so artfully and lyrically—so much an object of extreme desire and representative of an entitled individual way of being in the world—it was especially resonant, captivating, and influential. While we might have qualms about fishing with take-no-prisoners Paul Maclean (who imagined he might one day like to be a professional fisherman), or doubt Norman’s view of Montana as a place where the wind rarely blows or a hatch can be simulated, or take exception to their shoddy treatment of some women, the single-minded concept of fly fishing reduced to a heroic, passionate, artful equation is seductive. We have all have fallen under its spell.

 It is also reductive. Being inside the magic angling circle, as many of us are, makes gaining an outside overview difficult. We are dazzled by the immediacy and allure of the sport, and tend to neglect the historical antecedents and environmental determinants brought into play during the last 150 years that Jen Brown examines: extirpation of native fish, wide-spread planting of non-native trout, influx of invasive pathogens and invertebrates, creation of artificial dams and hatcheries, and on and on through a laundry list of unglamorous elements. So if the ARRTI lit/film experience is up our alley, we also owe it to ourselves to read Trout Culture, not only as a corrective to ubiquitous romantic conceptions of our beloved sport, but as a way of providing a deeply informed, well-researched counterstatement to widely held sacramental notions and often unexamined premises.

In the West, now romanticized for its trout and fly fishing opportunities, the expectation of pristine nature has obscured decades of environmental change, so much so that readers automatically accept Maclean’s authority and that rainbow trout belong in Montana. These assumptions stem from the actions of anglers, fisheries managers, tourists, regional boosters, and local business people who had built a regional culture and economy based upon nonnative trout ….

 In other words, for a full, panoptic view of fly fishing, we need both the glorifying Maclean texts and their creative ilk and the sobering critical voice. Trout Culture isn’t a book that will ever be made into a movie, perhaps because Brown, despite being an avid fly fisher who apprenticed on the Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers, offers  little sense that fly fishing is fun or why it matters to so many adherents.  But then that’s not her purpose.



Unpacking History

Books such as William and Catherine Washabaugh’s Deep Trout: Angling in Popular Culture (2000), Joel Daehnke’s In the Work of Their Hands Is Their Prayer: Cultural Narrative and Redemption on the American Frontiers, 1830-1930 (2003), Paul Schullery’s Cowboy Trout: Western Fly Fishing As If It Matters (2006), Robert Hayashi’s Haunted by Waters: A Journey Through Race and Place in the American West (2007), Anders Alverson’s  An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World (2010),  and now Jen Brown’s Trout Culture all seek to look behind the well-scrubbed, innocent image of fly fishing and instigate awareness of contextual elements and mitigating considerations that will no doubt appear less heroic, less mythical,  than we had hoped. “The iconography of western fly fishing and the nostalgia for majestic trout streams,” Brown writes, “were not timeless features of the West, but rather the product of . . . profound manipulation of the Rocky Mountain environment.” In six informative and streamlined chapters, Brown historicizes western fly fishing and “overturns the biggest fish story ever told.”

Many hands have been active in shaping a vaunted Rocky Mountain troutery and Brown’s title mirrors that multiplicity: “culture” in the sense of a wide-ranging merger of social, economic, artistic, natural, and civic sporting practices; and “culture” in the sense of genetic engineering, fish propagation, and indiscriminate distribution, namely of non-native trout. From an economic perspective it is a case of Quid pro quo: in order to have the former culture, you have to have the latter culture, even though the International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks both brown and rainbow trout among the 100 most invasive alien species. Chilling news about two of our sport’s favorite species.

But while biodiversity has routinely been supplanted by species-specific solutions, attempts to reverse that imbalance are themselves heroic and probably impossible to achieve, if the efforts to restore native cutthroats to the South Fork of the Snake River or to Yellowstone Lake are any indication. Regardless, Brown points out that the role sport fishing has played in conservation and the protection of habitat, while not perfect, “has been beneficial.” The western Troutopia, “with its nostalgic and simplified past, has also had real and tangible advantages for river and fish protection.” In a sense Brown’s book is a back-story to current heated discussions about whether our streams should be inhabited for aesthetic reasons by native trout only, or for pragmatic reasons by a mixed piscine population.

Trout Culture is not a ranting, thesis-driven book, but a coherent, cautionary statement that identifies forces sometimes lost sight of in today’s elevated conception of fly fishing. Brown’s book is complex, multi-layered, and  copiously documented (seventy-three of its 238 total pages are devoted to notes and bibliography). And yet for all its scholarly chops, Trout Culture is a well-written page turner, by which I mean Brown deftly treats the relevant  factual, historical drama behind the creation of modern Rocky Mountain fly fishing without employing academic jargon or gobbledygook terminology. She is con where she needs to be, and pro where she needs to be. “I share the history of Rocky Mountain fish and fishing,” she claims, “with the hope that anglers, conservationists, environmentalists, and fisheries managers address this entrenched trout culture and economy in their continued work to save rivers and fish.”  That’s having it both ways and is good for the poets and the biologists.

Because we value and honor the pursuit of wild trout, by which we mean a self-sustaining river-born population, even though predominant members of that population are not native to the rivers in which they breed, I suppose the  answer to the dilemma is that we latter-day fly fishers, while remaining aware of the complexities, ironies, and paradoxes of all riverine environments,  have to play the hand we are dealt, as Gary La Fontaine realized about tailwater fisheries in Caddisflies (1981), when he said some favorite trout fisheries “include many tail-water rivers—some of them resulting from the very dams I worked  hard to prevent.”

I doubt Trout Culture will deter the army of fly-shop owners, outfitters, guides, and their clients from pounding the Madison from morning ‘til night every single day—the sport is too deeply rooted and insanely popular for that—but reading Brown’s book will add a persuasive measure of realistic awareness and ecological purpose, because “protecting western waters and fish means knowing the past as much as the rivers we love.” We should all keep that in mind as we climb on the drift boat for our next float trip.

Originally published in the New York Angler’s Club Bulletin, Volume 88, No. 3, summer 2016