Fishing has long lent itself to imparting philosophical parallels and metaphorical life lessons. But these homespun platitudes can, to be honest, tend to get a little timeworn and cliche.
My guest today breathes new life into what fishing, specifically fly fishing, has to teach anglers and non-anglers alike, while also giving us a look inside the skill, fun, and sensibilities of this sport. His name is David Coggins, and he’s a travel and style writer, as well as the author of The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life. David and I discuss the different types of fly fishing that exist, and what they say about your personality, stage in life, and how we all choose the way we’re going to do something. We then discuss the way that pursuits like fly fishing are not just about their mechanics, but the experience as a whole, which includes things like eating hash browns at a diner in Montana. We talk about the importance of mentors, and David’s experience with two old guys who showed him the fly fishing ropes. We then get into why men love getting ready for something as much as actually doing it, before delving into the tension between wanting to nab a fish, and being okay when you don’t, and how part of growing up is learning how to care, but not care. We end our conversation with the best route for getting into the fly fishing life, and how you can get started in a way that’s both affordable and close to home.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What’s so appealing about fly fishing, especially if it’s more inefficient?
- How someone’s approach to fishing changes as their life changes
- Cheating vs. the “old” ways
- Why fishing is more than just fishing (and why it lends itself so well to metaphor)
- The joys of mentorship and teaching someone new skills
- Why getting ready for something is as fun as the thing itself
- How gear can reveal your fishing principles
- Why fishing is really about coming to terms with failure
- What fly fishing can bring to your relationships
- What David learned from a pilgrimage to England
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with David about men and style
- My second interview with David about modern etiquette
- How to Make a Fishing Hook Out of a Can Tab
- How to Get Started About Fly Fishing
- Trout Fishing, Boredom, and the Meaning of Life
- Outfitted & Equipped: Fly Fishing Outing
- A River Runs Through It
- Want People to Hear Your Message? Let Them Overhear It
- A Lesson From Taft and TR on Pursuing a Life You Like
Connect With David
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow other to enjoy it. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now fishing has long lent itself to imparting philosophical parallels and metaphorical life lessons, but these home-spun platitudes can, well, let’s be honest, tend to get a little time-worn and cliche. My guest today breathes new life into what fishing, specifically fly fishing, has to teach anglers and non-anglers alike, while also giving us a look inside the skill, fun, and sensibilities of this sport. His name is David Coggins, and he’s a travel and style writer, as well as the author of “The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life.” David and I discuss the different types of fly fishing that exist and what they say about your personality, stage in life, and how we all choose the way we’re gonna do something.
We then discuss the way that pursuits like fly fishing are not just about their mechanics, but the experience as a whole, which includes things like eating hash browns first thing in the morning at a diner in Montana. We talk about the importance of mentors and David’s experience with two old guys who showed him the fly fishing ropes. We then get into why men love getting you ready for something as much as actually doing it before delving into the tension between wanting to nab a fish and being okay when you don’t, and how part of growing up is learning how to care, but not care. We end the conversation with the best route for getting into the fly fishing life, and how you can get started in a way that’s both affordable and close to home. After the show is over check out our show notes at aom.is/flyfish.
All right, David Coggins, welcome back to the show.
David Coggins: Brett, it’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So we had you on way back in 2017 to talk about your book “How to Develop Your Sense of Style.” And then we had you on again, that’s episode number 282 for those who wanna check that out. We had you again, on again in 2018 to talk about “Men and Manners,” your book. So yeah, you’re kinda like the style etiquette guy, but you’ve got a secret, you’re also an avid fly fisherman. When did you start fly fishing, and when did it become your passion?
David Coggins: Well, a long time actually. I grew up in Minneapolis, and we have a cabin on a lake in Wisconsin. And it’s a really special place. And so, I would go out and fish from a boat, just roll out and fish in a very conventional way for largemouth bass. And then I started to fly fish probably when I was 20 or so, and kind of became addicted in my 20s. So, 20 years of the hard stuff, and it sort of… It was a little bit of a secret, and now it’s less of a secret.
Brett McKay: All right, so those who aren’t familiar with fly fishing, how is it different from just spin fishing that you were talking about, you just go to boat and just drop a line. What’s the difference?
David Coggins: Well, it’s not the direct way to get from point A to point B. You’re gonna catch more fish spin fishing, which is just the first thing to know about it. It’s not really very efficient, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. When you’re spin fishing, the weight of the lure carries itself out to wherever you’re fishing, and when you’re fly fishing, you need to generate line speed, which is that famous sort of back and forth cast and then kind of delicately unfold a cast to a trout. Typically, that’s how the sport began. And that means it’s a little more poetic. It’s a lot more sensitive. Maybe it’s more like squash if spin casting is more like racket ball. There’s a little more nuance, and I enjoy that very much. And I think a lot of people get caught up in all that, and that can be a good thing.
Brett McKay: And then, within fly fishing there’s also different ways to fly fish as well, so what are the different ways you can fly fish?
David Coggins: Yes. Well, traditionally, you’re imitating the hatch of a mayfly, which usually happens every day. And so, trout come and rise to eat those insects, and so, it’s kind of the platonic ideal of the sport is to cast upstream and to let this, the drift of your imitation fly flow down towards a fish that’s eating. And as it kind of lingers over where you know that fish to be ’cause you’ve watched it eat, it comes up and takes the fly and that moment is incredibly exciting. That’s sort of the… What everybody wants to happen. Unfortunately, trout don’t always do that. They don’t always rise, and so you have to make some decisions about if you want to leave the pinnacle of the sport and go down to where the fish are, and then you can nymph, which is where you have a sinking fly. And some people like that because they catch more fish doing that, and other people sort of stick with their principles and always remind you that they’re sticking with their principles to fish on the surface.
If you were in England, for instance, on some of the great famous chalk streams, you’re only allowed to fish on the surface with the dry fly. Then other people could fish with something called the streamer, which you strip in. That would be a little bit more like conventional fishing. A streamer kind of imitates a minnow or something like that and darts, and large fish come and eat it if you’re lucky. And some people like that too because that’s how they catch large fish, but every one of these approaches is informed by your own theories and your own personality. And so, you tell me how you like to fish, and I can tell you something about your personality.
Brett McKay: Oh, okay. So if I said… [chuckle] So like, if someone said, “I just do the surface, nothing else,” what does that say? Is that you? Are you just a surface-fisher guy?
David Coggins: Well, so it kind of changes as you get older, doesn’t it? The same way all sorts of things change. Like if you… Sometimes you wanna catch a fish a certain way because it’s the most difficult way, and that satisfaction is really nice. And other times you’re like, “Forget that. I want some action. I wanna catch more fish.” And so, then you wanna nymph and go down below the surface. And sometimes you say, “I just wanna catch one, the largest fish I can catch, and I’ll do whatever I can to get that.” And so, one thing that’s interesting about fishing is you want different things at different times in your life, the same way you might like an album from a band when they’re playing electric, and you might like it when Dylan goes acoustic. And you… At one point that really upset you, but then as you get older you’re like, “No actually that sounds pretty good.” And I think one thing that’s wonderful about fly fishing is that it provides an insight into a different window of your life and your expectations and what you want from that time in your life.
Brett McKay: So like right now, in your time of life right now, so you’re in your 40s, I imagine?
David Coggins: I’m in my 40s, yeah. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: All right. So, where are you…
David Coggins: So every time I do anything technological that works, it’s a miracle every time I can get on to Zoom call. That’s the age I’m on, where I’m surprised that it works. I like to fish with a dry fly. I usually go through a progression. So I start with the principled way, that’s like the dry fly, and I try to convince a trout to come up and take that fly. And then I can handle that for an hour-and-a-half, [chuckle] maybe a couple of hours and then I’m like, “Okay, now I’m getting a little frustrated here.” You know, your principles shift over time. It depends if you’re with someone or on your own or in new water or at a place you visit a lot. So I like a dry fly. That’s my favorite thing to do, but sometimes you want a little action, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t look down on anybody who nymphs. The people who catch the most fish typically nymph because most of what a trout eats are nymphs. And so I sometimes like to do that too. And if you do that, that can be pretty exciting.
I think one thing just to say about most trout fishing and most flying is that it’s visual and often on the surface, so you see the fish come and take the fly, and that’s really exciting. I mean, that is… I don’t care who you are, that gets you going. And so you’ve got a sport that in many ways is very methodical, very peaceful, very rhythmic, very soothing, but then it’s punctuated by these bursts of action and extreme excitement, and it’s very bracing. And so those long periods of waiting kind of give shape to those moments of action and excitement, and you can’t really have one without the other.
Brett McKay: Right. What I like about your book is that you do it indirectly. You don’t do it like, “This is a lesson for life,” but as you read it, you’re like, “Oh, I can see how this applies to other aspects of my life.” And I’ve been there where like there’s… I have like these principles, “I’m gonna do this ’cause this is the way you’re supposed to do it,” but then eventually, it’s like, “Well, no, actually, I wanna get this thing done. So I’m gonna do things to get this done, even though it’s not the right way to do it.”
David Coggins: Well, it’s like, did you ever have a manual transmission car, and when I did, and my first car was that and I thought, “I will only ever drive a manual,” and that was a big deal. And then my next car miraculously was that too, and I’m like, “Yes, my manual transmission sub,” and I felt very virtuous and connected to everything I was doing. And that’s a little bit like fishing with the dry fly. It’s more difficult, but you feel very connected. And then you finally… They don’t really make many of those cars anymore. You get an automatic and like, “You know what? This isn’t so bad.” Maybe that’s nymphing. Sometimes you wanna try other things, and I think fly fishing… Fishing lends itself to metaphors, and that’s both in a blessing and a curse. The one that got away and a thousand things in Moby Dick and all the rest of it. And I think… But some of those metaphors do apply, and I think it really, fly fishing allows you to kind of understand because it’s often done in solitude, it allows you to kind of assess and because it’s often you’re not catching anything. [chuckle] And so it offers you a chance to assess something about yourself first of all, the pleasures of being alone, but also what you need, what you demand and expect from something that you care about.
Brett McKay: I do that with starting a fire. I’ll try to do it just like the boy scout way. I’m gonna get my tinder, my kindling. And then eventually it’s like, “No. All right. Where’s the fire starter? We gotta get this going. We gotta roast marshmallows.”
David Coggins: [chuckle] No, and that’s why it also depends if you’re alone or with your friends, and then if you’re like, “No, I’m gonna do this in a very pure way,” and then other times, no one’s looking and you’re like putting the lighter fluid on there when people are away. And they’re like, “What’s that smell?” And be like, “I don’t know. I just… ” [chuckle]
Brett McKay: It’s a big fire, though. This is awesome.
David Coggins: Right. Exactly.
Brett McKay: This book is sort of your education as an angler, and it goes over decades. And as I read it, I was like, “Man, I wanna become a fly fisherman,” and I think a lot of people, they’ll watch “A River Runs Through It,” and they’re like, “Man, I wanna become… ” They love the idea of fly fishing ’cause it’s romantic, but very few people become obsessed like you. And I think I’d be one of those people. I think I like the idea, but I don’t know if I actually, if I do it, I’d probably be like, “Not for me.”
David Coggins: Well, it does take… Unfortunately, for a wonderful sport, there is a serious learning curve, and the cast is a kind of a stumbling point for many people, and the cast, the fly cast is a huge part of “A River Runs Through It,” and he talks about his fathers between the emotion between 10 and 2 o’clock. And I tell people, and this can reassure them or frighten them, but there’s so much more than the cast. You wanna get your fly out there and have it delicately land on the water, but then there are so many other things beyond that, which is kind of making it drift down the river in a natural way, if a fish comes, using your hand-eye coordination and being studied to set the hook and fight a fish. And all of that comes together in a beautiful place in a beautiful setting, usually with people you like, and there’s a lot to be said for that. To get to that point requires some doing, and I think that that’s a challenge, and I think that’s a challenge worth doing for anybody, no matter what the thing they care about is. It’s often not easy to get to a point where you’re in control of the skills that are at stake.
And I also tell people, “Fishing is more than just the fishing.” If we go out together, it starts in the morning. And we stop at a diner in Montana, and we kind of have hash browns. And we drive to the river, and they feel a certain sense of anticipation as we put together our rod and assemble the rod and make our tactical decisions. And anything could happen in the day, and we feel great about it. And then of course, we kind of maybe get our asses kicked and don’t catch anything. But right before lunch you do catch something and then that’s great and you have a beer. And then you fish in the afternoon and go back to the bar afterward and sit around a campfire at night. And all of those things together are the fishing, the not catching it, the hopefully the triumph, the communal feeling you have with someone you care about when he thrives or you have success. And all of that together to me, is the experience.
The same way if you go to a great… If you go to the opera, maybe. You get dressed up and you look forward to it and you study it ahead of time, so you know what’s going on. Maybe you fall asleep during it, who knows what happens, but it’s not… You can’t isolate the part of fishing where it’s not just the cast or even catching the fish. It’s all of these things together, and I hope to make the case in the book that those things make a complete experience that can really happen all over the world and be really special and kind of meaningful in your life.
Brett McKay: No, I like that. As I was reading, eating hash browns Montana, that sounds awesome. And then again, going in, this is like there’s a metaphor for life. That’s how a lot of things are in life. It’s not just like a party, but it’s like getting ready for the party that’s a lot of fun, right?
David Coggins: Of course. Well, if you think about going to a baseball game with your dad when you were a boy, there’s so much more. Maybe it’s crossing, entering the stadium and buying a score card, or you maybe you got to have a soft pretzel. That’s the only place you ever had it. And you see the green the first time you come out of the gangway, and to see the field for the first time. And all those things mixed together, and then of course, you wanna see the home team win and your heroes prevail. But it’s all of that coming together, and the book takes place, every chapter is a different place around the world. And I think what’s interesting is all of these, whether it’s Montana or Patagonia or the Bahamas or Canada, each of these places have their own cultures. So they have their own bad beers, and their own food, and their own way the guides are, and their own landscapes, and their own different fish, of course, with different flies and different tactics. And so you can kind of fall in love with fishing in a different place in different ways and also get humiliated in all of these places. You may be an expert trout fishing in Montana, and then you try to go bone fishing in the Bahamas, and you’re like, “Wait a minute. This is completely different.” There are a few of the similar principles, but it’s almost like you’re starting over again, which is humbling and exciting because then you can fall in love again too.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about some of these places that you highlight in the book as part of your education as an angler, and along the way, I think we’ll be… And I’d like to do is maybe give people a taste of fly fishing, but also kind of suss out those life lessons that I got as I was reading this. And one of the big ones that I got was the importance of mentors. And you start off the book talking about you’re in Wisconsin, when you’re in your 20s, you started getting into fly fishing and you fell into these two old guys, who kinda just took you under their wing and taught you the ropes. So who were these guys?
David Coggins: Well, they were friends of my grandfather, and my grandfather, his name is Walter, was a law professor and not really an outdoors man, though he loved the natural world. And there were these two men who were kind of legendary figures on the lake. One’s name was Carter, who was a rationalist, very specific in how he did everything, and the other’s name was Dave, who was not like that at all. He was a very willful person, and I think I was intimidated by them when I was a boy, and my grandfather always said, “You should go fishing with them,” and I wasn’t smart enough to know to be with these guys who were incredible, serious world class anglers. It was my incredible good fortune, my idiocy to not see them sooner when I was young, but my good fortune to start going out with them later. Basically they just needed someone to go on the canoe with them, and I learned… Because fly fishing is learned, you do need someone to help you. In a perfect world, it’s your dad or an uncle or whomever it is, grandfather. It could be a guide or it could be a friend.
And I was lucky to have these two men teach me, and they taught me in an indirect way. I think that was sort of nice about it too. I often didn’t realize that they were teaching me something until much later because they were pretty… For men who were kind of difficult, I think in their family lives, were very discreet with me. And probably they didn’t wanna frighten me off, so I wouldn’t go out with them anymore. They basically needed me to help them kind of do these trips ’cause you need two people to do it, and I think it’s… And now as I fish more, I love to help other people learn, too, in a way, I never would have thought. And it’s really exciting when somebody catches their first trout. You have a strong feeling. I realize now how sometimes adults lose their mind when they’re coaching their kids little league team. And I don’t have any kids, but I get very excited. I’m like, “Right, tip up.” And if someone catches this trout, it’s like this incredible triumph that I’m kinda glad to be able to pass down now too the same way some of these lessons were passed down to me.
Brett McKay: No, and the way you describe your relationship with these guys. I loved how you were able to capture how indirect it was ’cause I’ve had that experience too with mentors. I never really had a mentor who just sat me down and be like, “Here’s the fact, kid. Here’s how you do things.”
David Coggins: [chuckle] Exactly.
Brett McKay: It was just… They let me hang out. I was just surprised they let me hang out with them. It’s like this annoying guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and then it just sort of rubs off on you. Like what they’re doing, you watch, and then they kinda give you some grunts and some positive affirmation that’s very subtle. And then along the way, you figure it out. And it’s kind of magic. You read these blogs about how to be a mentor. I guess the best way to be a mentor is be like Dave and Carter.
David Coggins: Yeah. Well, I think if somebody is really interested in something and obsessed and loves it, you’re gonna feel some of that connection. And when you’re with somebody on the water, a guide, it’s really exciting because they know so much about the fish, of course, but the landscape, about the wild life, about all sorts of things that you just kind of absorb from being around them. And so the first thing you kind of learn is their passion, and then you observe their expert technique. And sometimes, usually people who are good at something, it looks quite easy the way they do it, so you don’t quite appreciate how good it is until you get better at it. And you’re like, “Oh wait. What they’ve been doing this whole time that looks simple.” It’s like look at a sushi chef. That looks easy as can be, and if you think it’s easy, well try it and you’ll see how… See how easy it is. And so I think you respond to people’s passion and their expertise, and people who are smart about it communicate their… They don’t tell you everything at once partly ’cause it will overwhelm you. They give you a little advice that they know you can handle, and then they maybe give you some slightly more useful little secret that you can kind of develop and work on the next time, for the next time you’re fishing or the next time, whatever it is, and that’s a great thing.
And the way something is passed down, I think something in fishing that’s somewhat profound is that you’re trying to understand the natural world and to kind of preserve it in some way, and that preservation happens from acts of love. If you love an area, landscape and you wanna protect it, maybe for a selfish reason ’cause you wanna fish there, but also for people who are coming after you, and I think that’s a noble and worthwhile thing.
Brett McKay: Do you think… For our young listeners like in their 20s, and they’re like, “Man, I can use a mentor.” Can you proactively find a mentor? What do you think? Or is it… Do you have to kind of magically find and fall into him?
David Coggins: Well… I think… It’s funny, by the time you realize you want one often I think young people… Really… Teenagers, you might be afraid of… It’s intimidating if it’s a friend of your grandfather’s ’cause you’re used to their being authoritative or maybe they’re gruff or they talk a certain way. But my feeling with anybody is if you care about something or you’re curious about something and you see an older person who’s good at it. Whether they’re a writer or an angler, or a cook, or whatever it is… A painter… And you… If you like that and you are open and you can kind of keep your mouth shut around them and let them talk to you, they’ll help you. That’s been my experience, and that experience has been very important. I’ve had very important writers and editors in my life were older than me. My father was a very good editor for me and taught me things about everything I know, basically… Not about writing, about just… About living. And I think that if people who… Even rough son of a guns, and that’s sort of the image of an old angler. But those guys will teach you and you just wanna be present, try to pay attention to what they have to say. Try to be helpful.
And I’ll tell you something about fishermen, they need someone to go with them. They need someone to row the boat and to drive the shuttle and to do all this stuff, so it’s in their interest too. So you show up with a six pack. And I think if you… Depending on where you live, if you’re lucky, maybe you and a friend get a guide, or hire a guide to go out with and that’s an investment but you’ll learn so much. And you see if you like it, and then you can kinda go from there.
Brett McKay: So with all the trips, you highlight in the book, and we talked about this earlier. Fishing isn’t just the fishing, it’s the getting ready for the fishing. And that was probably some of my favorite parts, because you talked about… You get into detail of the gear you were buying for this trip.
David Coggins: Sure.
Brett McKay: And the eBay trips… Visits to eBay, you’d make. And then you got into the detail…
David Coggins: Of course.
Brett McKay: You’ve got your car… The back of your car packed so you can be ready for a fishing trip at… Just at the drop of a hat. So why… I think guys really like this. What is it about the gear that… I have an appreciation… I’ll probably never become a fly fisherman, but I really appreciated your well-stocked car. So what’s going on there, you think?
David Coggins: Well, the reason I think men like that sort of thing anyway… I have my friends who have 8000 different cameras… And I think it’s specific to fishing because so much in fishing is out of our control that having the correct gear gives us the illusion of control. Or a minimum… Just as much control as we can have. That’s why people who love to fish are constantly reading articles and watching videos and listening to podcasts and constantly trying to hoard advice because it’s very hard for us to admit how little control we have. And having said that, the gear is great. I love finding old… Particularly… Like the Patagonia wading jackets from the ’80s and ’90s are just so cool and really old wading boots that I just like the style of.
And you can… Very specific bags. And I’ve had bags retrofitted in some way because I want them a certain way. I like old fly boxes. And then some of that old stuff has not been improved upon, and then some of it has been. And then you have… Naturally you have to get then the new reels or the new rods. And sometimes the old ones were just as well, which is pretty fun to have something that maybe your grandfather had. And sometimes it’s nice to have kind of the latest technology and there are some pretty amazing new reels. So you can kind of… It does give people who are obsessed with this sort of thing a whole… Whole roads to go down. And if you think I’m the only one, go on to fly… EBay, fly fishing, because there’s a whole insane number of people all over the world looking for this stuff.
Brett McKay: And again, gear selection can highlight or reveal someone’s principles of fly fishing, because there’s…
David Coggins: Of course.
Brett McKay: You talk about… There’s people who are just like… They’re gonna use just Canvas. The old stuff from the ’40s. But then there are some people who are like, “No, I’m gonna get the latest 21st century material stuff.” And I’m sure there’s some snootiness going on there. It’s like, “Well, that guy using the new stuff, that’s kind of cheating.” It’s like using a streamer.
David Coggins: Right… No… It’s so funny because I didn’t realize this when I started, but there is a complete… Any kind of sub-culture, there’s these hierarchies and ways that the experts can tell if you’re new. So if somebody shows up on a fishing trip and he doesn’t fish a lot, and he… But he spent a lot of money on this trip and he’s got all the latest gear but it’s never been used. So the rod handle has no kind of sweat stain on it and the guides are kinda rolling their eyes thinking that this guy’s got the latest and greatest, and that’s gonna save… If you can’t cast, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a $800 fly rod. But at the same time, I think all of these things express some way we imagine we… What we want about form and function. And sometimes I make the mistake of trying to have old wax canvas jackets and cool old bobbers that were only released in England.
And then you’re like, “Wait a minute, does this even work in the rain?” I’m like, “Well, so what does my principle get me?” It gets me wet. So then you go to Patagonia and you get some lightweight thing, or you try to find some combination of something that works, something that reflects your personality. Then you say, “Well… ” You know for a long time, I had not expensive gear at all. And I didn’t feel comfortable if my rod was expensive or something… And I didn’t think I needed it. And I honestly couldn’t tell the difference. And then you’ve moved to a different point in your life and maybe you’ve worked a little bit with a fishing company and they’re like, “Here, try this fancy rod.”
And you’re like, “Hey, now I can get used to this.” But sometimes you have one that isn’t. You break a rod or all this other stuff happens. And so you want to enjoy it, you wanna have something you like, you wanna get into the design and kind of get a little bit too obsessed. And then also you don’t wanna take it too seriously, but it’s usually too late, once you go down the path… When I go on a trip with someone for weeks before I’m sending them things that I think they might need from eBay and flasks, and just random cool old flashlights and different type of water bottles from Switzerland from the 1920s and stuff that I just think would be fun to have. And it is fun.
Brett McKay: Are there people who fly fish in tweed coats? Is that a thing?
David Coggins: Yeah so… It’s funny because I love a tweed coat, and I do draw a line there myself. The sport began in England, and on wealthy people’s estates. And they did actually wear tweed coats and fish from the bank. So they didn’t even go into the water. They didn’t wade. So they could wear their country clothes, you might call them, while they fished with a bamboo rod. And they would sit down and smoke a pipe. And if you go to England, that’s still how it’s done. You don’t wear those clothes necessarily, but you don’t… You don’t wear waders the way we think of it. The streams are very kind of manicured and often there’s mode on both sides… It’s a different feeling. And I really, really love a tweed jacket, but I can’t quite bring myself to wear a tweed jacket to fish. But I don’t judge anyone who does. And also traditionally, men… Anglers wore ties because the trout… Especially the brown trout is a gentleman of fish. And so you would dress well to show respect when you tried to fish for him. And most Americans completely disregard that and understandably so. But that’s kind of how the sport began as a… It’s become democratized over the years. But if you go to England, it’s still kind of done that way.
Brett McKay: So one thing you show throughout the book is that with fishing, you’re never guaranteed a fish, right? You can get all the gear, you can plan perfectly, you can have the perfect cast, and you don’t catch anything. It’s like, what have you learned about failure from fishing?
David Coggins: Well, it’s about failure. The sport in many ways, is about coming to terms with not getting what you want. And then that makes a philosopher out of you, even an entry philosopher, 101… A college level philosopher, it does something to you. And I think that that’s worthwhile, honestly. And I have been on many trips… And there’s different levels of heartbreak. There’s just, “Oh my goodness, a front came through.” The whole day’s awful, and you know it’s bad… And it’s like when your team starts out, and you’re like, “This is just a lost season, our team’s terrible.” Then there’s a different way when you think you have a fish, you’re at the last moment and you lose it, and that’s like your team almost making the playoffs, and then that unravels. And that’s a heart break in a different way.
And you… It’s hard because sometimes it’s your fault and you know it. Sometimes you can’t explain it. Sometimes it’s physics. You look around and sometimes you’re alone, no one can tell you, a guide or someone can give you advice about how to change that the next time. And I think coming to terms with that is kind of what makes you an adult, to be honest. And that’s why it’s a sport for adults ultimately, because it tells you what you need… Why do you need that… Certain validation. But then of course, you do need it sometimes, which is also maybe humbling in some way. I was just on a trip to kind of celebrate the book. I was in the Bahamas on my own. The happiest place I could be on the flats, and it was a really great day.
The last day, incredible. Everything was wonderful. I was feeling like very triumphant. I was about to go back and have a glass of rum and just listen to Bob Marley and deal with my sunburn. And we stopped at one last place. It was five minutes left. The day has been perfect and all of a sudden we see a fish, which was in itself a surprise… I make a good cast. Hook the fish… Huge fish. The guide’s like, “That’s a big fish.” And just as he’s saying that’s a big fish, which he doesn’t normally say, I’d made a little… Like my line got caught around my reel, so when the fish went on a run, I lost it right away.
And so 10 minutes before I was like, “This is the perfect day.” Now, at the very end of the trip, I’m like, “Wait a minute, I got a little bit of a funny taste in my mouth. I just lost that last fish.” But I didn’t even know about the fish 10 minutes before. So that… Then I was thinking, “Well, what do I want from this? Why do I need that when I had all these other things? I was perfectly happy.” If we had never seen that fish, it wouldn’t have mattered, but because I had made a mistake… A mistake that I flatter myself, I don’t normally make. Which is a terrible thing to hear yourself say, “I never make this type of mistake,” when you do it. And then you’re like, “Hmmm… Now I’ve got a different feeling.” And it’s humbling… You know it’s humbling. I’ve gotta think about it for the entire flight back. I’m still thinking about it.
Brett McKay: No, there’s a lot of metaphors for life there. I think we’ve all had that experience where…
David Coggins: Right. I know.
Brett McKay: You were perfectly happy and then you saw this thing, “I want it.” And you don’t get it and now you’re just miserable.
David Coggins: [chuckle] Right. Right. And then… But the fact that I know that it’s happening makes it way worse because… Like, I also think I’m like, “Let’s keep it in perspective. Nothing can ruin this.” And then you’re like, “Wait a minute.” And it didn’t. And I was… It was half and hour of sort of consternation. And you laugh with the guide and you say, “I’ll see you next year, man. I’ll be thinking about you.” Like, “Keep your eye out for that fish.” And then that’s… You’ve got to embrace the irrationality, I think of it. And I think what I love about anglers who are often crusty old guys, is there’s still this both sense of optimism that they believe they’re gonna catch the fish and they still do it again and again. You’ve gotta believe. But also you’ve suffered or lost in some way, and so you have this kind of scar tissue or this heartbreak, and that that makes you a little bit wistful. And I like that quality in people. And I think that that’s a good thing to have. And I think anybody who… No, not really a golfer… But golf, is a very hard sport, and so… People remember leaping out putts or they were this close.
And I understand that… That kind of exquisite aggravation that they feel. And I sympathize with that. I think that is a… It’s a kind of a universal feeling. And honestly, I think, hopefully, this book can connect with people like you who don’t fish, but who understand the nature of obsession or who care about building a skill over time. Who measure themselves against something that they care about, even if that skill doesn’t have any actual implication other than the meaning, we bring to it. And so hopefully, the book can connect with people about… In that way.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it did… And you talk about that optimism. And that’s the name of the book is called, ‘The Optimist’. Like you say, angling, it’s an act of faith. Every time you go, you’re having faith that something’s gonna happen.
David Coggins: Yes, yes. Well, you have to… I think there’s definitely something in… Where you talk to your friend and you’re like, “Is this a good… ” It’s like when you go to the next bar, when you’re a younger guy, and then somehow you end up somewhere at 5:00 in the morning and it made sense at the time. And that’s kind of fishing in some way. It made sense, but the time when it made sense was sort of a few bars ago, a few hours ago. And I think that that act of faith is… I like it. I’m attracted to it. I like people who feel that way. And also I think it’s an actual… A little bit chemical addiction, because the same… When a fly is floating over where you know a fish is you do get an incredible rush, the same way somebody would get a rush if they’re scratching off a lottery ticket. That chemistry is very similar. And it doesn’t last and you don’t win the lottery and you usually don’t catch the fish, but that’s alright.
Brett McKay: I loved how honest you were with your writing about failure. Because… I think, lot of times… You say a lot of fishermen, “Well, it’s not the fishing that counts, it’s the experience and… ”
David Coggins: Yeah, right.
Brett McKay: And you said, “Yeah, but I wanna catch a fish.” I’ve had that. I’ve had that moment where I’m lecturing my son about, “Oh, well, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
David Coggins: Right. Sure.
Brett McKay: Like, deep down like, “No, it’s fun to win.” That’s… And like you say that’s completely fine. You don’t have to be philosophical and sort of just stoic about your failures. Try to be, but it’s okay to want to catch the fish. That’s completely fine.
David Coggins: Right? Well, yeah. It’s like we… It’s all very human. Ultimately, all of these things are human. And I think that we recognize our different… When you start to fish, there are actually specific things you can do with kids to try to get them into the sports. So that would be like fishing for panfish, like a bluegill or a perch, because those are really easy fish to catch on a fly rod, and there’s a lot of action. And it kinda gets kids going. That’s a good way for 10 or 12-year-olds to start. And that’s natural. That’s completely natural. And then there’s something about either your personality is such that you like to do something that’s slightly more difficult, or your personality is not like that. Or… And you give yourself time and maybe you’re not that way when you’re 25, but when you’re 35, you just like something that’s a little more methodical. And that’s… I think fly fishing is an easy way to kind of understand where we are in our lives, and that’s a good thing. And I have friends who fly fish and they wanna catch fish. And even though they like to… They’re fly fishing, but they want action and they wanna fish in a way that gets them action. And there are of course ways to do that.
And then other people just wanna be in a beautiful place. They wanna catch a wild fish, a native fish that grew up in that place, and they don’t care how big or small it is. And they want some some other experience from it. And maybe they wanna catch it on a fly that they’ve made themselves. Maybe they don’t even wanna catch it, they just want the fish to come and take the fly, so that shows that maybe that’s the moment… The same way some people who hunt for turkeys… Just wanna call and have the turkey respond to the call, they don’t necessarily wanna shoot them. And sometimes… You just wanna test a certain part of your own kind of arsenal of skills, and that happens when you’ve done it a lot more and you’ve caught a lot of fish, then you don’t… Catching them, you wanna do it a certain way. And that’s part of the sport too, and a good part of it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and that’s part of life. It’s figuring out what you want.
David Coggins: Yeah, right, exactly.
Brett McKay: And it just carries over to your book about style, that was kind of what… Your style book wasn’t like, “Here’s what you need to wear.” It was like, “Figure out what you want… Figure out your style and go with that.” And like…
David Coggins: Sure.
Brett McKay: And I think that’s pretty much life is figure out what works for you. So fishing is often a solitary thing. You went on a lot of fishing trips on your own. You just went to the Bahamas by yourself. But you also… You fish with friends, it’s kind of the stereotypical archetypical like…
David Coggins: Oh yeah.
Brett McKay: “I’m going on a fishing trip with my buddies.”
David Coggins: Yeah.
Brett McKay: How does fishing with a friend change the dynamic with the fishing, but also with the friendship?
David Coggins: Oh, well. So I always joke that the most important women in my life, of course, are like my sister and my girlfriend, but also the wives of my friends, because the wives of my friends, they’re the ones who ultimately decide if they can go on fishing trips with me. So I always try to stay on good terms with them ’cause it’s usually the guys who are coming with me. And fishing with a friend is a really great thing… To me, I don’t… I’m not competitive about fishing. I fish with some incredible anglers who do things that I cannot dream of doing. And I don’t get upset about that. I like watching them. I’m inspired by them. The same way I was inspired by Dave and Carter. Different things are at stake for different people. It’s like a golf handicap. And then now I have friends who are beginning and I just… Am happy to be out with them. I’m happy to spend time with them, especially as they have families, and it gets harder to do that. There are are no more kind of dirt bagging road trips across Montana. Now, it’s like a day or two. And I really value those days. And you know you want them to succeed, especially if it’s your trip and you’ve planned it… You want them to catch fish, you want them to be happy. That you also want it…
The planning is fun too. And like, “Should we bring a fancy bottle of scotch and who’s gonna bring the cigars? And I’ll bring these flies. And I know a great guide. And we’ve gotta stop at this bar.” And then… In a perfect world, everyone catches fish about the same numbers, and sometimes they don’t. And then you can navigate it from there. And you try to give someone an advantage and they’re on the front of the boat, if you’re floating ’cause then they’re in a better shot. And then sometimes you switch around and… It’s pretty funny, if you go bone fishing and you need… You can’t have clouds because you need the sun to see the fish. And it’s also complicated if there’s a lot of wind, it’s just very hard to cast. And usually one person fishes at a time.
So one person’s up in the bow, and then you get a chance at a fish and if you mess it up then you sit down. Your friend goes up there, and as soon as he gets up there, the sky clears up, the wind dies down, the fishing seems like much easier. And you’re like, “What’s going on here?” Of course, you’re like, “God is taking his side.” But psychological things like that happen, but it’s still just great to be with your friends and hopefully in a perfect world you start a tradition and you do… You cut out these days and you go to Maine with one friend or you go to the Bahamas with friends. And sometimes I got invited on the trip because someone cancels at the last minute, and then it started a whole new tradition that I didn’t even expect. I was just the spare guy, and the next thing I know I’m completely obsessed with the Bahamas and I couldn’t stop going.
Brett McKay: No, and you also… It’s… Fishing with friends also highlights the dynamic, how it’s easier to be philosophical about fly fishing when someone else is having a hard time. But then when it’s you…
David Coggins: Of course.
Brett McKay: You’re like, “Yeah, this sucks.” And you talked about you went on a trip with your friend Andrew, and you were hoping it would be a really good trip. And he wasn’t catching anything. You’re like, “Well, you know… You’re doing everything right. And it’s the experience that matters.” And then he started catching fish and you weren’t catching fish, and all of a sudden you were no longer a philosopher, you were getting upset about it.
David Coggins: Right, well… Yeah, so this was a classic example of my friend Andrew, he’s got a wife and kids, very busy life. And so I somehow managed to pry him away from all this to go to the Maine North Woods. And he doesn’t fish too much because he’s got all that full life. And so he was struggling a little bit. And I felt badly and what we were doing was pretty hard anyway, and it was just difficult. And I was saying all of these… Serving up these platitudes right and left. And I’m sure I was completely… Exhausting for him to try to cheer him up. And then all of a sudden, he starts catching the one fish after another, and I’m sort of not catching them and it’s like, “What’s happening here?” And then he was too polite to start using any of this philosophizing back on me, but it was… It’s good to do that and it’s good to have those experiences where somebody… You can laugh about it or something happens that’s crazy and somebody’s whatever falls in the river. And it’s nice to be able to share that with someone else.
Brett McKay: So you finally make it to England. And actually this is where the sport is began.
David Coggins: Yes.
Brett McKay: And this was a big deal for you… You actually… You purposely waited to make this trip to England. You wanted to make sure you got your education as much as you could… Polish your skills here in America, and you go to England. What did you learn about fly fishing by fishing in the sport’s birthplace?
David Coggins: Yeah. Well, it’s funny, when you start to really care about something, and wanna make these pilgrimages you kinda wanna be ready for it to do your part. And this got very complicated because the book was being written, and then COVID happened, so to go there… And the last thing… Place I was supposed to go was England. So I went there last summer. If I didn’t go, the whole book would have been postponed for a year. It would have been a very complicated situation. And I quarantined… So first thing when I land, I quarantined for two weeks so I could fish for four days. So that basically tells me I’m insane. But that’s alright. And it was in the English countryside. It was actually quite beautiful and a good time to be there. And stayed in a farmhouse with my girlfriend. And then I was… It’s funny when you do anything as you get older you both… I don’t know if I want it to be demystified or if I still wanna have these illusions about it. And I learned that it was very challenging. I was there at kind of the wrong time, partly because of COVID, so I already had my excuses about why I wasn’t gonna catch fish.
But it was… The sport operates at a different pace there, and it’s funny… I like England a lot. I’ve spent a fair amount of time there, but you don’t… They have a slightly less democratic way, then you have fishing. The water’s not public… Basically, you have to pay a landowner to fish a specific section of a river, a beat, it’s called. And it’s much more, I guess you’d say gentlemanly. And that’s absolutely not for everyone, but it’s still pretty fun for a few days. And it was… I got there and after waiting all this time, it was the… The conditions were really rough and I was kind of getting frustrated, even though I knew all of this thing. And I’ve just been writing a book, been totally obsessed about perspective and the long view, and you can’t put too much emphasis on one hour or even one day. And that just wasn’t getting me very far. I was… I still… This is where you’re like, “I wanna catch on fish.” But the fish basically weren’t rising and it was too late in the season. And it was… You can’t use certain tactics there. And finally on a famous river… But I don’t wanna give away too much. But it… ‘Cause this is the very end of the book… But it aligns all right and I did okay, and I left with my pride intact. But I was embarrassed to admit it mattered so much to me. I’m sorry, that’s part of the thing…
Brett McKay: Yeah, no that’s fine. Yeah.
David Coggins: It’s like… Is that you both… You know it shouldn’t matter, and then of course, it matters. And I think coming to terms with that dynamic is a very human moment, and that can happen in anything. Like, you can say, how much success do I want in my life and it shouldn’t matter, but it does. Or I… How much does this matter? But it doesn’t and you try to navigate that, and that’s a real moment of self-knowledge.
Brett McKay: Yeah, learning to care but not care. That’s… It’s true.
David Coggins: Right. It’s a tough one, and not always flattering either.
Brett McKay: So for those who are… They’re listening to this like, “Man, I wanna become an angler.” What’s the best way? Is just to go hire a guide somewhere?
David Coggins: In a perfect world, what I would do with… A lot of things depend on, as we call it, the current situation. But what I recommend to people is to pick a weekend and try to hire a guide and go with a friend. And so you’re like splitting the costs. And hire a guide for a day. And that guide will have gear. Don’t… Even though I love all the gear, don’t get caught up in getting rods and reels and waders and all that stuff. It’s just… It’s too complicated. You don’t know… It’s too much of a… It’ll keep you from doing it. You get a guide for a day, and if you’ve got a second day, you can rent that gear from him and go back to nearby water and give it a shot on your own with your friend. And then you’ve gotta… You’ve had this nice… In a perfect world, maybe you get the guide both days but that gets a little more expensive. And that’s a way that you’re… You wanna be on the water one day with an expert that just is… It honestly accelerates everything by a year of you just being on your own. Once you do that, then you can start worrying more about learning to cast better, kind of what line management, as we say, and a few other things. And so I think it’s great to do it with a friend because then you’ve got someone to kind of…
That you learn with, that you can start traditions with. And that you make these trips with and… Or your dad or your son, or whomever it is. Somebody that… Or daughter for that matter… Who would probably be a better fisherman than her dad in no time. And… Or couples… I don’t want… Women learn fly fishing much faster than than men, that’s just a basic fact, as any guide will tell you. And so I do think that that’s… Even though the gear is fun, I think slow down on that, try to get on the water with someone who really knows. Orvis has these schools… They’re bringing them back. They were slowed down because of COVID. Those are really good to do. And fish near you know. It doesn’t have to be trout fishing. There’s great ways to fly fish all over the country, whether it’s for strippers, whether it’s for red fish, whether it’s for smallmouth bass. And I think it’s good to… It’s great to go to Montana, or Idaho and do that, but you wanna have a place that you can go within a few hours of your house and nearly everywhere in America there’s good fly fishing two hours away.
Brett McKay: I think that’s a good point. ‘Cause I think a lot of people they think fly fishing is… If you gotta fly fish… It’s gonna be expensive. You’ve gotta buy all these expensive gear. You’ve gotta travel. But you even said, like, “My favorite… ” You’ve been to all these great places, but you said your favorite spot to fish is like in New York, somewhere.
David Coggins: Yeah. You’re gonna have different connections to different places. Also it’s like you go to a fancy restaurant sometimes, and that’s maybe good once a year. And then there’s a place you go all the time that you like because of the way it is. So I fish in the Catskills, that’s my local water, my home water. And I love it at different times of year, and I can see it as it changes. And fishing is about being outside in the simplest way. You’re usually in a beautiful place, not staring at your cell phone, and that’s a good thing. You’re already doing the right… You already started your day, right, already. And I think it’s… I love all of the kind of mythology around the sport, but I also think it keeps people from getting into it, and that’s too bad because getting into it is a good thing to do.
Brett McKay: Well, David, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
David Coggins: I’m in the little media ecosystem now too, you can subscribe to my Cod newsletter… This is how long it’s been since I’ve talked to you. I’ve got a newsletter, The Contender on Substack. But you can find my book. You can order it from your local bookstore, which is a good way to do it or you can order it from the usual suspects. And you can find me on Instagram where I link to all of this nonsense at @Davidrcoggins. It’s always great to talk to you, Brett. I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: Likewise, David Coggins. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure. My guest today was David Coggins, he’s the author of the book, The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his Substack, thecontender.substack.com. Check it out. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/flyfish where you can find links to resources, and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check at our website at artofmanliness.com where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you could think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code and “MANLINESS” at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android, iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support. Until next time this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.