Against the Stream: One Man’s Story of Obsession, Rebellion, and Fly-Fishing

January 13, 2012

Originally published in Denver Magazine

August 2009

“I had a strong taste for angling, and would sit for any number of hours on the bank of a river or pond watching the float.” –Charles Darwin

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” –W.H. Auden

“Everything technology does for you that you could do for yourself diminishes you as an organism.” –John Gierach

According to at least one theory, life on the planet Earth began in a dirty, brown puddle of water. Teeny, little atoms clustered together in the warm, salty goop to form slightly less teeny molecules, which in turn developed into amino acids, proteins, carbons and cells—the building blocks of living organisms. These cells had an extraordinary ability to replicate and adapt. The microscopic narcissists produced billions of identical clones, which clung to one another like LEGOS and eventually evolved into larger, more complicated entities. Some of the cells clustered together and formed pond scum. Some of the cells needed to travel, so they developed fins, tails and long, sleek, torpedo-like bodies. Another group of cells wanted to leave the puddle, so they grew arms and legs and stumbled clumsily onto land.

Approximately 350 million years later, on a bright, gusty afternoon in the Rocky Mountains, a bipedal cell cluster named John Gierach took me fly-fishing. We each put on a pair of rubber waders and stood testicle-deep in another dirty, brown puddle of water for about an hour or so, repeatedly casting metal hooks decorated to look like insects onto the water. Gierach didn’t talk much during this process, aside from the occasional piece of advice on how to improve my casting technique, which was more or less the same mantra I’ve heard from coaches and sportsmen my entire life: It’s all in the wrist. Baseball, basketball, tennis, golf and now fly-fishing—my wrist has a lot of responsibility to live up to.

Gierach is 60something, slender and charmingly Midwestern, with eyes the color of a winter sky and a white beard that is frayed just slightly around the edges in a dandelion-gone-to-seed kind of way. He has authored more than a dozen books on fly-fishing and is one of the most celebrated writers of the genre in North America and the United Kingdom, although he’s reluctant to admit it. His books feature self-deprecating, existential titles, such as Standing in a River Waving a Stick, Trout Bum, Dances with Trout, Fool’s Paradise and, my personal favorite, Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing. During the course of our interview, he chain-smoked at least a dozen cigarettes and drank enough coffee to kill a small rhinoceros.

Gierach lives a stone’s throw from Lyons, Colorado, with several cats and his girlfriend, Susan, who is also a writer and sometimes wears a hot-pink T-shirt that says, “Not Tonight, Honey. I’m On Deadline.” On an average day, Gierach wears blue jeans, an earth-toned button-up shirt, a tan safari vest with many zippers and pockets, and a beat-up fishing hat that resembles an upturned bucket. I have seen numerous photographs of him taken over the past thirty years, but I have only seen him once without a hat. We were riding in his old, blue Chevy at the time, and he took the hat off for a moment to smooth back his hair, which is as fine and as white as spun cotton. I wanted to know what the hat felt like, so when he wasn’t looking, I reached over and pinched the bill between my thumb and index finger. It felt like a leather baseball glove that had been sitting out in the rain for about thirty years.

The place where we went fishing was a picturesque, ice-cream-scoop of a pond called Lily Lake, where tourists of all shapes and sizes stopped to snap photos with disposable cameras and young lovers walked around with their hands in each others’ back pockets. It was guarded by an elderly ranger named Robert, who wore a crisp, brown uniform and asked anyone carrying a pole if he could please see your fishing license, sir? And by the way, are you aware of the catch-and-release policy, sir? There was a well-worn dirt path around the outskirts of the lake and several crude log benches that looked as though they had been made crudely on purpose to give tourists the feeling of an authentic outdoor sitting experience.

By fishing standards, Lily Lake isn’t exactly what you’d call a prime spot. It’s too open, too commercial. Fly-fishermen can be a bit on the misanthropic side, and they generally gravitate towards more remote locations. Lily Lake’s only real claim to fame is the fact that it’s stocked with greenback cutthroat, which are a rare subspecies of trout that were thought to be extinct until someone pulled one out of the water in the 1950s. These fish have brown tummies and emerald backs covered with black speckles, and they are shaped more or less identical to their ancient brethren.

The greenback cutthroat are not the only fish that have faced extinction in Colorado—the pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, the plains minnow, the humpback chub, the Rio Grande sucker, the northern redbelly dace and the southern redbelly dace are just a few that have been placed on the endangered list at one time or another. As the human population on the Front Range grows, the aquatic population suffers. In many ways, it’s a battle over water, which both species need to survive. Fly-fishermen like Gierach have been working for decades to protect the rivers and streams where the fish live, but it’s been an uphill journey. Colorado is a semi-arid state that suffers through regular drought cycles, and water shortages have been a concern here since the Anasazis abandoned the area in the 14th century. The current laws governing water rights in Colorado were primarily created in the late 1800s, when the state’s population was much smaller, the economy was focused more on mining and agriculture, and few people were concerned about conservation. In general, Coloradans love nature, of course, but modern society has changed the way the average citizen interacts with their environment. Often, urban residents don’t understand how their actions are impacting the surrounding landscape.

Gierach has spent most of his life in nature, and he knows all about the plight of the greenback cutthroat. He also knows about salmon and mule deer and cottonwood trees. He can tell you when the damselflies are going to hatch and the difference between a fox squirrel and a rock squirrel. Over the years, he has informally studied biology, zoology and various other ’ologies, but like any good outdoorsman, he continues to be wary of science, relying heavily on experience and instinct to guide him. While we walked around the lake, he kept rattling off facts about the various birds and insects we came across as though he planned to quiz me on them later. Sometimes, he gets so caught up in his observations that the modern world seems to fade away. Once, while driving his pickup down a mountain, Gierach stopped talking mid-sentence and nearly ran the truck off the road. “Take a look at that,” he said, peering through the windshield at a large hawk circling overhead. “That’s something you don’t see every day.” I nodded and reached for my seatbelt.

*     *     *

My favorite piece of information that I learned about Gierach during the course of writing this article: He once had a regular column in the New York Times, but he quit because, as he says, “They were assholes.”

My second-favorite piece of information that I learned about Gierach during the course of writing this article: When he was a child, his aunt and uncle had a pet raccoon named Agnus.

*     *     *

Fly-fishermen come in all shapes and sizes. They are rich, poor, old, young, black, white. They are farmers, truckers, CEOs, accountants, cowboys, hippies, yuppies. Notable fly-fishermen include Robert Redford, Liam Neeson, Charles Darwin, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ernest Hemingway, King George IV and Henry Winkler. Washington Irving described fly-fishing as a spiritual pursuit. Tom Brokaw says fly-fishing gives him humility.

Overwhelmingly, fly-fishermen are male, but not exclusively. There is a popular story of a female angler whose husband wasn’t happy with all the time she was spending on the river, so one day he sat her down and forced her to choose between their twenty-year marriage and her favorite bamboo rod. It wasn’t much of a choice, really. She sure did love that rod.

Fly-fishermen can often be obsessive and meticulous. They like to perform an act over and over again until they get it right. Sometimes this drives their friends and family members to distraction, but it can also be a huge asset in life. It’s reassuring and rewarding to repeat the same function, each time expecting a different result (although some have also called this the very definition of insanity). When Gierach is on the water, every cast looks identical to the last, but you can see him working things out in his head, making small, strategic adjustments with each metronome-like swing of the rod, getting closer and closer to perfection. A psychiatrist in Washington who uses fishing as a counseling tool once told me that fly-fishing has more than a few things in common with gambling. They are both occupations that require countless hours of repetition, instinct and skill, but in the end, the respective participants are still hoping for that lucky strike.

To be a fly-fishing writer is to become obsessed with this strange, unpredictable sport to the point that it starts to take over your life. Arguably the first substantial piece of literature in English on the topic was a mysterious essay called The Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle. Although no one knows for certain who the author was, credit for the Treatyse is most often attributed to a Benedictine nun named Dame Juliana Berners. It was written in the early 15th century and hand-copied by monks until the printing press came along in 1440. Berners discovered that insect swarms varied according to the season, and she developed twelve different fly patterns, one for every month, that anglers could use to successfully catch fish all year round. The descriptions were so detailed and precise that fly-fishermen continue to use those patterns to this day.

More than five hundred years later, writers are still describing fly patterns and struggling to find the right words to capture the fly-fishing experience. You’d think they’d have figured it out by now, but the elusive nature of the sport is part of why it has endured for centuries. As a favorite uncle of mine liked to say, “Fly-fishing ain’t just about fly-fishing.”

Consider this passage from Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing in which Gierach examines the life of an insignificant, little insect and ends up combining ideas from entomology, religion, philosophy, literature and the Kama Sutra:

“A mayfly spinner lies on the surface of the stream in what fishermen call the ‘spent’ position. To picture it accurately, remember that the insect has just had the first and only orgasm of its life and is now, in the natural course of things, dying from it. His body lies flush with the water, wings spread, legs out flat, tails splayed wistfully. Usually he’s limp. If he struggles at all, he does it feebly at best. There’s probably a silly look on his face, although it’s hard to tell with insects.”

It’s not the type of paragraph you would get from an academic or a guy who is just interested in killing fish. This is an extremely talented writer/naturalist/philosopher wrestling with ideas that have plagued humanity for centuries. Like theologians or string theorists, the best fly-fishing writers are the type of whimsical, tenacious SOBs who are willing to spend their entire lives thinking about something they know they will never completely understand.

*     *     *

Gierach never planned on becoming a fly-fishing writer. In fact, he never even planned on becoming a fly-fisherman. As a child growing up in rural Ohio, he was raised by a family of avid outdoorsmen, but they practiced a more relaxed fishing technique, which Gierach describes as “getting drunk and drowning a worm.” His father was a small-town conservative who did not understand the 1960s counter-culture that was creeping across the country at the time, and was perplexed by his son’s shaggy hair and liberal politics. “My dad believed very much in traditions and following the rules,” said Gierach. “He was confused by my generation. I don’t think he ever figured it out.”

In college, Gierach studied philosophy and aspired to become a poet. He listened to psychedelic music, read about the Beats, experimented with a few recreational drugs, played very bad rock music, participated in protests, and hitchhiked to San Francisco to see what all the fuss was about. After graduation, he packed his meager belongings and moved to a cockroach-infested apartment in New York City’s East Village, where he landed a job as a bicycle messenger for a photography lab. “I was young and ambitious at the time, which is a good combination for making stupid decisions. I thought I needed to live on the East Coast in order to be taken seriously as a writer. The idea of the New York art world was appealing to a lot of us back then.”

But city life didn’t sit well with the country boy. Gierach did publish his writing in various small, literary journals around the nation and managed to put together two slim books of poetry, but the New York lifestyle began to take its toll. Also, the bike-messenger job wasn’t really working out. “It was a pain in the ass. I was robbed three times—once at knife point. They didn’t want money; they wanted the yellow courier’s bag that I carried all over the damn city. Apparently, they thought there would be nude pictures in it.”

Tired of being burgled by sexually repressed New Yorkers, Gierach followed Horace Greeley’s sage advice: Go west, young man! Go west! “I moved from New York to Colorado, and within two weeks ended up working for a share in a silver mine that never materialized in Montezuma. I was living in an unheated cabin with no running water or electricity, but it was like a penthouse in the Plaza compared to where I was living in New York. If I got hungry enough, I’d go out and shoot a deer, and if I needed firewood, I’d find a dead tree and lop it up and burn it.”

When the mining project didn’t pan out, Gierach found part-time work as a landscaper and settled in with the writing crowd in Boulder, which at that time contained such visiting luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs. He wrote poetry and worked odd jobs to pay the rent. When he ran out of food, he simply made a quick trip out of the city to hunt squirrels or catch trout.

This was an exciting time to be a young artist in Boulder. The city had become a hotbed for the hippie culture, and there was electricity in the air, a sense of excitement and optimism about the future. Young men and women descended on the Front Range from all over the country, hoping to reconnect with nature and create a place for themselves outside of mainstream society. “The trend was to find some task that was small and seemingly insignificant and really focus on that,” said Gierach. “A lot of people were getting back to the basics—making your own clothes, growing your own food, creating craft art, things like that. I wanted to do something I was passionate about. The mainstream culture was telling us that we needed to subdue our enthusiasms to get ahead in life. And we were saying, ‘Ahead of what?’”

It was at this time that Gierach first became, ahem, hooked on fly-fishing. Several of his writer friends were anglers, and Gierach decided to tag along on some overnight adventures. Soon he was at the local tackle shop, purchasing his own rod and picking out flies. The individualism of the sport appealed to the libertarian in him, and he enjoyed the repetitive, thoughtful action of the swinging rod, which had an almost Zen-like quality. But mostly he just thought it was fun.

“I wouldn’t over-analyze it too much,” Gierach said when I asked if his philosophy degree influenced his passion for the sport. “I think it’s trendy to link flyfishing with spirituality these days. There might be something like that involved, but most of it’s crap. In the end, it comes down to this: I like catching fish.”

However, Gierach wasn’t catching as many fish as he wanted. And he wasn’t writing as much as he wanted, either. It wasn’t enough to enjoy these activities as pastimes; he needed to spend every waking hour on them. For him, minimum-wage employment and paying rent were a waste of his valuable time.

As fate would have it, Gierach’s father passed away suddenly at this point in his life, leaving him with a small inheritance, exactly enough money to buy a secluded little house up in the mountains. “That was really a turning point in my life in more ways than one. It wasn’t much of a house. In fact, I’ll bet it was the cheapest house in Boulder County. You couldn’t buy a garage door now for what that house cost, but at the time it was a lot of money. All of a sudden I could live for property taxes. I could live on nothing. I could just do odd jobs and hunt and fish and grow a garden and keep chickens for food and cut my own firewood. And I just had all this time to write.”

And write he did, mostly on an old typewriter that made a noise like an angry woodpecker when Gierach was particularly inspired—rat-a-tat-tat-tat! Now that he didn’t need a full-time job to pay the bills, Gierach was free to attack the blank page. He left poetry behind and transitioned naturally into prose. He wrote clean, spare narratives in a Hemingway-esque style and published several short stories, receiving “thank you” notes and contributors’ copies for his efforts. The “thank you” notes were nice, but contributors’ copies wouldn’t cover his tab at the local bar. Finally, in an effort to completely remove himself from the nine-to-five grind, Gierach decided to try his hand at writing fly-fishing articles for one of his favorite magazines. He thought it would be an interesting side project, but he didn’t take it too seriously at first. “When I started, I never thought it’d become my career. You have to understand that fly-fishing was this underground activity at the time. Nobody was doing it except a few weirdos like me. Now it’s mainstream. Now everyone wants to be like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It.

Gierach doesn’t recall the exact moment he stopped working on fiction and became a true fly-fishing writer. It was an accident, he says, a fluke. However, eventually that fluke became an obsession. Articles in prominent magazines turned into book deals from small publishing houses. Small publishing houses turned into large publishing companies. Best-seller lists followed.

It took a few years, but Gierach finally accomplished a rare feat: He was able to financially support himself with his art. He had a roof over his head, a steady source of income, and an opportunity to grow and flourish as a writer. He had separated himself from modern culture. He had beaten the system. Or so he thought. “The world has a way of sucking you back in,” said Gierach. “I thought I’d escaped society, but it eventually caught up with me. I began noticing that some of my favorite fishing spots were drying up because someone was taking all the water. I didn’t want to get involved, but I didn’t have much of a choice.”

*     *     *

The Rocky Mountains have always been a magnet for obsessive idealists—gold and silver prospectors, pilgrims, hermits, religious fundamentalists, mountain climbers, etc.—and in the past decade or so, the Front Range has become something of a mecca for fly-fishermen in North America, as well. According to a survey conducted by the Leisure Trends Group, total sales on fly-fishing-related products in the U.S. came to $804.8 million in 2007, and a whopping 37.8 percent of that money came from stores located in and around the Rocky Mountains. In the same year, while fly-fishing sales slumped throughout the United States, the Rocky Mountain area continued to thrive, showing a 6.7 percent increase from 2006. The Federation of Fly Fishers has announced plans to move its headquarters to Loveland, Colo., and in the meantime, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) has beaten them to the punch and relocated to Louisville. When I asked AFFTA president Gary Berlin why they decided to move to the area, he seemed to think the answer was fairly obvious. “Colorado is the place for fly-fishing right now, and the Front Range is the center of everything. If you’re in the surfing industry, you go to California. If you’re in the fly-fishing industry, you go to Colorado.”

This feeding frenzy has prompted what Denver Post outdoor writer Charlie Meyer has called an “industry stampede to Colorado’s Front Range.” Meyer said that when he first moved to Colorado in 1966 “there was one fly shop in the whole damn state. It was in the front of a former motel and the size of the shop was about the size of your kitchen.” Now, there are dozens of fly-fishing outlets up and down the mountains, selling everything from graphite rods to carbonite reels to exotic-looking flies with whimsical names, such as Zonkers, Nervous Minnows, Royal Humpies, Psycho Princes, Vanilla Buggers and Crazy Charlie Browns.

Gierach is not the only successful fly-fishing writer in Colorado. Nick Lyons is a giant in the genre, as is Gierach’s good friend A.K. Best, just to name a few. Together these men have helped popularize and define a sport that was once thought of as a cult activity. They also put the Rocky Mountains on the map, and the result has been a boom in the local fly-fishing industry, which has had both positive and negative effects. With popularity comes population.

Over the years, as Colorado’s economic focus has shifted away from agriculture and mining towards tourism and technology, the state’s population has grown dramatically, and some projections say there will be more than six million citizens living here by the year 2030. Eighty-eight percent of Coloradans reside on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, concentrating specifically around Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs; however, 80 percent of our water is on the western slope. In order to satisfy the needs of these sprawling communities, water is constantly being diverted from the western slope, causing alarming drops in stream flow for many rivers, which wreaks havoc on fragile ecosystems.

Ask any environmentalist and they’ll tell you that Colorado is in the middle of a water-shortage crisis that could become a full-blown catastrophe in the next couple of decades. The crisis has many causes, including inefficient irrigation practices in the agricultural industry, an unwillingness in the political arena to make water conservation a priority, greedy land-development companies, and a growing apathetic human population. In the West, water means money, and those in power are often more interested in cash flow than stream flow.

In order to make the type of large-scale systemic changes that would be necessary to avert catastrophe, the public would need to unify and force political action. But for the most part, the public has no idea that a crisis exists. “People in the cities aren’t really connected to nature on a personal level,” said Gierach. “Nature is a weekend activity for most Colorado residents. They go up to the mountains, hike around, look at the chipmunks…and then they go back home and dump a bunch of water on their lawns. It’s stupid.”

In other words, people are moving to Colorado because they want to be close to nature, but in doing so, they are helping destroy the natural environment they love so dearly. This is the conundrum.

Gierach first became involved in water rights around the time his writing career was taking off. “I could see what was happening right in front of me. The water levels were dropping, and every year there were fewer fish. It was happening fast, and it was scary.”

In the beginning, Gierach jumped into the battle with the same type of tenacity and passion that he had for his other life pursuits. The self-described misanthrope volunteered to attend long, litigious meetings conducted by politicians and lawyers. He spent nights attempting to understand the Byzantine language the water-rights laws are written in, and he published articles in local newspapers on the subject. He was never a ringleader in the movement, but he was a dedicated soldier for the cause.

However, results were either slow or nonexistent. The good guys won a few minor victories regarding stream flows and whatnot but that did nothing to solve the larger problem, and after a few decades in the trenches, Gierach lost faith in the system. “It just felt dirty. Every time I went home after one of those meetings, I wanted to take a shower, even if we’d won a victory. Especially if we’d won a victory. Every victory came with strings attached. It was really demoralizing.”

After one too many demoralizing losses and victories, Gierach went back to his house in the mountains, and he didn’t return for a long time.

*     *     *

Gierach no longer has to work odd jobs to pay the rent. Several of his books have become best-sellers, and he is free to explore his passions. He travels all over the world to fish, and when he goes on a book tour, loyal readers line up for his autograph. Every editor of every fishing magazine in North America knows his name, and they all return his phone calls. He now owns a five-acre piece of property in the foothills, which contains rabbit brush and buffalo grass, as well as juniper, aspen, cottonwood and elm trees. Over the past ten years, he has identified more than seventy species of birds on his land, most of them attracted to the seed, nectar and suet feeders he puts out for them. There are also bull snakes, garter snakes, cottontails, coyotes and elk. Sometimes a black bear or a bobcat will wander through, but that’s a rare occasion. The house has active and passive solar, several wood stoves and a propane backup, and it’s situated at an angle to align with the mid-winter sun. When the weather turns cold, Gierach still goes into the backyard, finds a dead tree and chops it up for firewood.

He has finally reached a level of personal and financial independence that he always wanted, but modern society still beckons once in a while. “I do the two things I ever wanted to do: fish and write. I live up in the country with my cats and my girlfriend. When I have to come down and deal with the real world, it’s just agony. I understand the problems with water rights and I’ve fought for it any number of times, but I just don’t last. I just burn out. A lot of this stuff just gets forced on you in the end.”

Despite his frustrations, every couple of years Gierach will drag himself down from the mountains and once again take up the fight to protect Colorado’s rivers and streams. At this point, he’s not sure if his actions are making a difference, but he won’t surrender the cause. He’s got that rare combination of dogged tenacity and skeptical optimism that only a fly-fisherman could possess. “Effective environmentalism is a long haul requiring patience and a clear head,” said Gierach while sitting at a picnic table outside a coffee shop in downtown Lyons. “If you start out expecting to change the world overnight, you’re bound to be disappointed. The simple truth is that most of the world doesn’t want to change. Most people aren’t necessarily evil; they’re just lazy.” He took a long drag on his cigarette. “I have no idea if anything I’ve done will make a difference in the long run, but you have to try. Every generation has to try. Because if you give up, the bastards win.”

7 Responses to “Against the Stream: One Man’s Story of Obsession, Rebellion, and Fly-Fishing”

  1. troutseeker Says:

    Great article. I envy Gierach’s profession, as do many anglers, and I really enjoy his stories. Thanks for sharing this insightful profile of him.

  2. […] Several years ago, when I was just starting out as a freelance journalist, I sold a feature story to a local magazine for $1,000. At the time, this was an astonishing sum of money for me, and it paid my rent for two months. The article was titled “Against the Stream: A Story of Obsession, Rebellion, and Fly-Fishing.” […]

  3. […] Against the Stream: One Man’s Story of Obsession, Rebellion, and Fly-Fishing « dale bridges. Share this:EmailLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Uncategorized by mayflytyer. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  4. […] Against the Stream: One Man’s Story of Obsession, Rebellion, and Fly-Fishing « dale bridges. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  5. […] interview (found via Moldy Chum) was conducted by a Colorado writer, and it’s long and detailed and while the writer occasionally heads a little far afield into gonzo journalism territory, he […]

  6. Bamboo Bill Says:

    Par excellence….Bamboo Bill – Pine Grove, Colorado

  7. Hershel Says:

    Stunning quest there. What happened after? Take care!

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