A Note to Fly Anglers in the Digital Age
I recently found out that I am a millennial (to be fair, I just barely made the cut). This came as a surprise since there are a lot of ways I feel pretty anti-millennial. I flinch when I hear the word craft used as an adjective, have to force myself to tweet 3 or 4 times a year, and don’t like to watch moving things on screens unless they’re wearing Packers jerseys. But then again I use Snap Chat, am fluent in bourbon and have had a beard since the Clinton administration, so maybe I’ll accept the appellation. But if I am I’m clearly in elder statesmen territory, which I suppose means I have a responsibility to communicate a few things to those a bit younger who have come of fly fishing age during the era of a social media. This is what you missed, and might still be missing.
Photographs Once Served a Different Role
A great thing about our current photographic situation is that just about everyone takes pictures these days, and takes them much better than they did in, say, the 80s and 90s. The fish pictures I grew up with tended to have more of a documentary aspect to them; they existed not so much to communicate aesthetic delight or make others wish “they were there” than validate a story that you would otherwise tell orally. In short, they were almost never the primary narrative element to a fishing experience, but rather something you produced from a shoe box whenever someone questioned the veracity of your account. Editing was different, too. Unless you had your own darkroom, the only people who had any degree of control over how your fish looked were the techs at Walgreens.
Now that the photo has achieved a state of storytelling primacy, and the average person has both the tools and vision to create compelling images, it’s worth taking a look at what the age of Instagram under-represents, misrepresents and flat-out misses.
The first thing I’d tell a new fly angler in the digital age is that no one is catching as many fish as it would seem from their feed, so don’t feel bad if you don’t become a superhero overnight. If there were any kind of proportional relationship between the things we experience most often on the water and the things that you see in your feed, we’d see a lot more shots of mending, more shots of flies stuck in trees, more reading the water, more falling into it. Not all casting loops would look the same, even among accomplished anglers, because a presentation cast isn’t always a uniform thing of beauty. Everyone’s fly line would occasionally form a neon nest of epic frustration. But it doesn’t mean these other experiences should be dismissed. They are an elemental part of the game, even if your Instagram feed tells you otherwise.
One other thing I’d point out is that while social media is pretty great at capturing awesomeness, it doesn’t necessarily excel at capturing complexity or depth, which also have their uses. That’s where language, i.e. writing, comes in handy. When my friend who works at Google and can’t imagine why on earth I fish so much asks me what’s so interesting about mousing, a picture isn’t going to do it (I tried; it didn’t work). I had to dig down deeper and think harder. Astral projection was what I came up with. I told her out in the dark without a light in the middle of nowhere, the boundaries between things fade a bit. I get to be the mouse I’m trying to give life to and the alpha brown trout I’m trying to entice. Then at the same time my human self is aware that there are bears around, even if I can’t see them, and so I better stay alert to that, too. So I’m two different kinds of hunter and three different kinds of hunted all at the same time, and when things come together in a toilet bowl whoosh out there in the blackness, it’s horrifying and electrifying in a way few other things are. Does she get it any better now? No. But I do.
There’s a World Beyond Video
On to video, by which I mean YouTube and Vimeo and the like, which have totally changed the fly tying game, making tens of thousands of patterns instantly accessible to just about everyone. Let me make no mistake: this is awesome and good and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But it’s not the end-all-be-all of fly tying. Even the best videos, for instance, are no substitute for taking classes at your local shop. That’s because YouTube will not talk back to you, again and again, yelling at you to shorten the amount of thread between your fly and your bobbin, because you are losing control of your thread wraps, dammit (and thanks for that, Dennis Potter).
Another thing YouTube doesn’t do so well is show you things outside of whatever algorithm of personal interest their code has concocted for you. All the big web from Google to Amazon to Facebook companies subsist by showing you things that you should probably like, but anyone who’s spent much time in analog bookstores will tell you that the pleasure of browsing is finding things that you didn’t think you’d be interested in, that maybe you shouldn’t like, but do. It’s not a bad thing to get away from the tyranny of your own preferences every now and again. I sure enjoy it.
Wholeness Is a Different Thing
Lastly, the price we pay for all the diversity of media content is a kind of fragmentation of thoughts, theories and ideas. The typical web experience is that of skipping from one piece of media to another, our movements defined by code-able things like keywords or headings but rarely by something as difficult for an algorithm to approximate as complexity or attitude. It’s true for video, pictures and certainly for writing. Social media throws a lot of different links and technical articles at us every day (like this one, and thanks for reading), and that’s great because we get more diverse information and differences of opinion than ever before. But the price we pay is that we’re missing certain big picture elements that emerge from the connective tissue of a book. Reading a sustained treatise by a single author gives you something greater than the sum of its parts. There’s something that happens between the lines in the best books, a kind of mentorship across epochs (I should note here I’m talking about more technical fly fishing literature; essay collections are obviously their own cool awesome thing and we’ll save that for a later piece).
Also, because a real book has a real size and shape, I think they more clearly articulate what I feel is one of the cooler aspects of the sport, that being a totally cool geeked-out obsessiveness not often (more likely never) rivaled in sporting literature. I’m looking at Ernest Schweibert’s multi-volume tomes Trout and Nymphs on the bookshelf and feel like their power to induce awe would be lost if their contents were simply committed to a website. That said, I’m actually really enjoying imagining what Vince Marinaro’s Twitter feed would look like.
Last but not least, I’ll tout the merits of dabbling in fishing writing from vastly different epochs. You may not always be entertained, but you will often be surprised. Who knew, for instance, that as far back as 1496 people were already so covetous of their secret spots the first English-language instructions for building a fishing rod called for a telescoping design, so that your piscatorial rivals would confuse it with a walking stick and not learn your secret spots? Thanks for that, Dame Juliana Berners. And who knew that other long-gone fishing communities had such different attitudes about the natural world as our own? Sir Edward Grey did not go into nature to “escape” or “recharge his batteries.” Rather, he was adamant about resting properly before a trip so as to have the freshest and deepest faculties available for not only the fishing, but the experiencing of the fishing. It’s something I try to do with my own fishing trips, though talking about it is definitely easier than doing it.
In short, fellow millennials, if you’re looking for something slower, more single-batch, and less mainstream, then hit up your fly shop, art gallery, or used bookstore for the fly culture media equivalent of an LP, or even gramophone. Dig deep into Google Scholar for scanned PDFs of some crumbling book from the days of angling yore and read it over your lunch break. But then go back to doing what you’re doing, and doing so well. 100 years from now, when some high school student activates their retinal micro-fiche to research 21st century sporting culture on this thing that was called Facebook, they’ll need content, lots of content, if only to come to the conclusion that, except for the ridiculously antiquated flies and the weird hats, those ancient anglers were a lot like us.