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

March 5, 2012 By: Kirk Deeter

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.