Fly Fishing Jazz: We’ll Never Be “Pop”

Fly Fishing Wisconsin

Searching for Hendricksons. Photo Kyle Zempel

SOME OF YOU have seen my writing in a number of different places—from Field & Stream magazine, to its blog FlyTalk, here in MidCurrent, at the “Takemefishing.org” blog, at Angling Trade magazine, in The Drake, now with Trout Unlimited (www.tu.org) and elsewhere. (It’s a tough business—one needs many irons in the fire to survive.)

Thing is, throughout all of that stuff, I’ve maintained a “Johnny Appleseed” ideal that we need to spread the appeal of fly fishing, because through new anglers comes new enthusiasm. And that new enthusiasm derives additional allies for the causes that make rivers, and flats and all the things that make the fly fishing world go around.

But I think there are limits.

At some point, I think we need to respect fly fishing—like jazz music—for its inherent niche appeal.

I receive hundreds of calls and E-mails every week from folks lamenting that fly fishing just cannot break through to mainstream “pop” culture. Granted, the fly world had a brush with pop culture about 20 years ago, when Robert Redford turned Norman Maclean’s novella “A River Runs Through It” into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Newbies gravitated, sales spiked and fly fishing was incredibly cool. And now, decades later, fly fishing is just, well, cool. Literally and figuratively.

Now, as much as I want to see the sport grow, and as much as I want to help my fly shop friends sell rods and reels and all that, I’m not willing to trade melding into “pop culture” for the true ideals of fly fishing.

After all, “pop culture” today is the Kardashians, and “Dancing with the Stars,” “Survivor” and “American Idol.” All stuff that makes me cringe.

And as such, I’m perfectly happy with fly fishing being an art form that relatively few truly appreciate and understand—but those who get it, get it, and live it, and love it more passionately and profoundly than anyone (myself included) could ever possibly endeavor to explain or fully understand.

You know, I’ve had women insist on fishing in the dory while wearing high heels. I’ve seen veterinarians suffocate fish in order to make a perfect photo for the office wall. I’ve seen plenty more antics that revolve around “look at me!” but the truth is, I don’t give a rip if any of those people ever come back and fish with a fly, in any river, anywhere.

When all was said and done, I also don’t think Miles Davis (who played with his back turned to live audiences), or Dizzy Gillespie, or John Coltrane, or Oscar Peterson, ever really played their music worrying and wondering if they captured the mainstream. They played for themselves. They played for the tradition. They played for perfection.

After all, jazz is high art, and pop, by definition, is short-lived.

And I’d rather fly fishing be considered jazz than pop any day.