Shortly after graduation, Blake Davis ’11 set out on a yearlong fellowship from the Watson Foundation. His project: The Culture and Evolution of Fly Fishing Techniques. 
He visited Australia and Thailand before we caught up with him in Puerto Rico. He has since been to Costa Rica and India.

The other night I kayaked into the Laguna de la Torrecilla beneath a cloudless, moonless sky, listening for the swirl of tarpon as I paddled towards the lights of a bayside bridge. After hustling through crowded lanes of Puerto Rican traffic the solitude was overwhelming — the sounds of the highways hushed by the mangroves and the muddy rush of the outgoing tide. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw the stars emerge, reflecting faintly on the glassy water, rippling with the strokes of my paddle. In the peace of the moment I forgot my fishing rod and the tarpon. I leaned back on my kayak and soaked in the starlit sky.

The mosquitos, never much for reflection, descended. Sharp pricks on my arms and legs poked me to attention. Had someone been watching, they would have seen an apparently incapacitated kayaker suddenly begin waving his paddle like a battle axe, swearing madly, unaware of impending reefs and building swells as he drifted into an outgoing current. Absorbed in self-defense, I sped out of the lagoon into open ocean. When I regained my composure I found myself half a mile from shore, riding a riptide into the night. The calm of the water was replaced by the crash of hungry reefs snacking on beefy swells. The mosquitos high-tailed it. I put on my life jacket.

If you have ever read or seen A River Runs Through It and you are considering taking up fly fishing, you probably imagine something considerably more romantic than being tossed against a reef in your modest kayak. More likely you picture yourself along the misty banks of a secluded river, casting long, perfect loops of line. Yet so often that gently flowing river is lined with poison ivy; and the unfurling line of your cast lands to hook, alas, not a spawning salmon, but the back of your neck, the peace of the moment broken by your own curses. The unadvertised truth is that fly fishing is far more diverse than its perception. As fishers have expanded it beyond the banks of rivers to oceans and bays, its traditions have become richer, as have the challenges and the responsibilities 
of anglers.

This year I have been surprised to encounter fly fishers virtually everywhere there is water. I have found them prowling the beaches, swatting flies in lagoons, hunkering along channels, and catching dozens of species of fish. The resulting diversity of approaches in fly fishing is remarkable, as varied and quirky as the individuals who fish. One man I met in Australia used lead-impregnated fly fishing lines to reach ocean ledges hundreds of feet deep. (Traditionally, fly fishing is practiced in the upper few feet of the water column.) In the minute it took for his flies to reach the ocean bottom, he would sit at the front of his boat on a cooler of beer, telling me about his past as a concrete baron and how he spent his fortune.

A middle school teacher I met in Perth netted shrimp and brought them home for observation. His flies imitating these shrimp were so precise they had the same number of meticulously arranged legs as their subjects, the captured shrimp. He used these flies to catch brim beneath concrete overpasses and along downtown jetties, sloshing through the streets in his waders. In Puerto Rico I met an angler so fed up with constantly changing his lures he designed a knot that could be loosened and refastened with a few quick movements. Because this knot tended to break more easily under pressure, he switched to fishing line twice as heavy.

At first I viewed the adaptations of fly fishers as interesting but insignificant beyond their novelty. After all, it is not altogether surprising that fly fishing is practiced differently than it is advertised. However the more time I spend with fishers, the more I realize the impetus for these approaches reflect worrying trends in recreational fishing, including fly fishing, trends that are more often discussed in the context of commercial fishing. One does not make a reusable fishing knot unless one has to change lures frequently, often the case with persnickety fish that have seen extensive pressure from recreational fishers. Similarly, one does not go to the trouble of fishing hundreds of feet deep if there are large and more readily accessible fish inshore.

The more fishers I have met, the more familiar I have become with decline. Decline is a common thread entangling virtually all of the world’s fisheries today. There is nearly universal loss in the abundance of habitat and the numbers and diversity of fish species. This decline is even more worrisome among the people and communities that depend on fish for food and livelihoods. Amidst these trends, I am aware someone retracing my wanderings in a few decades would likely see far fewer fish and fishers. The gods forbid I have children, would they be able to walk the saltwater flats in Exmouth, Australia, and see tuna erupting along reefs?

As I struggle to imagine solutions, I am often reassured by others that the human capacity for creativity is our greatest asset and hope. Those who study fisheries purport that, if anything, technological innovation and clever management will prevail against overfishing and development of vital habitat and pollution. But from what I have seen of fishers, our creative solutions have only allowed us to desperately pursue fish to all watery corners of the earth. Fly fishers are as guilty of this as commercial fishers. When one area is “fished out,” we move on to other more pristine locations and develop more effective methods. By comparison, the steps taken to protect and restore fisheries seem more a matter of persistence, instances where a fair amount of elbow grease has temporarily set a dysfunctional system into motion and helped fish and fish habitat recover.

What we need to ensure the future of fisheries, I have come to believe, is the approach of fly fishers. While the world views fly fishers with misty eyes, its depiction of us has somehow failed to capture the determination of individuals who choose a pastime that is intentionally difficult. Few people see us avoiding the reefs in our modest kayaks, combatting mosquitos, being irradiated by the sun, all for the simple pleasure of holding and releasing a squiggly piece of nature whose name we can pronounce in stuttering Latin.

What we need in our approach to fisheries is a similar balance between educatedness and doggedness, an ability to make a determination and follow through no matter the obstacles, the complaints, and the inevitable injury to some. While I have seen laws being put into place to protect fish and fish habitat, I have seen far fewer instances where these laws were effectively enforced. Few people seem willing to limit the amount of people who can make a living off the water. And yet if 
we do not, dwindling stocks will do 
that for us, perhaps eliminating those jobs altogether.

We need more than innovation or further awareness if we want there to be fish in the future. We need people who are going to push for these changes, because they have felt those losses slip through their fingers. While we have been educated to believe that a greater capacity for thought will be our salvation to so many environmental binds, I would add that we also need to be far more uncompromising and compassionate if we are to inspire more than awareness. What we need is grit. What we need is gusto.

Those who fly fish are usually aware that their method of fishing is not the most efficient. Yet among them there is a commonly held sentiment that the more difficult path renders sweeter results. This appreciation is what fly fishers have to offer. This is also why, if you own a copy of A River Runs Through It, you should burn it. Watching it will leave you infatuated but uninformed, like falling in love after a first date. If you insist on keeping your copy of this movie; or if you cannot find the matches, then you may at least want to take away something else from this famous portrayal of fly fishing. That is, fish are worth saving solely for the sake of there being fish. Not for their being caught, not for peoples’ continued livelihoods, but so that fish can continue to swim. No one understands this better than fly fishers.