Not long ago I posted a blog entry that essentially regurgitated others’ thoughts about the need for increasing participants in the sport of fly fishing. One idea was for some of the *10,000 fly anglers, who are also writers, to begin pitching articles to non-fishing industry magazines. I heeded that call and am happy to report that I’ve already been snubbed twice by certain publications that felt fly fishing was not a suitable topic. This got me to thinking, so I began to dig around for information on the matter of fly fishing’s declining numbers. (* courtesy Tom Bie, Angling Trade, December 2010)

Somewhere in my investigation I came upon some statistics indicating that participation in the sport of fly fishing is down from 6.7 million to 5.6 million since 2000 (see graph above). Based on these figures I did some math and concluded that there are 1.1 million fewer people fly fishing today than there were ten years ago. That represents a daunting decline in dollars for those who make their living in the fly fishing industry, but for the individual angler who thinks there are already too many people competing for a spot on the riverbank, that number can’t be high enough. We are an industry somewhat divided, and we must find unity if we are to succeed.

Let’s dismiss the latter point of view because that’s just plain selfish.  We were all beginners at one time or another. None of us alive and actively fishing today were the first angler to call a particular piece of water our own, and unless one fish’s private water it’s all public domain. In other words we have to share with others, and those who complain about overcrowding need to get over it. Stop with the territorial mentality already–we need newcomers to the sport. There’s plenty of secluded water out there for those willing to seek it out, so take a hike.

Back to the matter of declining numbers of fly anglers—why is this?  Certainly no single person has a definitive answer, because if they did then the problem would have been solved by now. I’m not going to speculate on all that may be to blame, instead I’d like to propose a solution that doesn’t require any amount of work on the part of the 10,000 writing fly anglers.

One needn’t look too far into the world of fly fishing before coming across mention of the dramatic effect had by a certain movie on the industry. Following the 1992 blockbuster hit based on Norman MacLean’s 1976 novel, A River Runs Through It, the fly fishing world saw a dramatic influx of new people coming to the sport. The movie and book certainly paint a pretty picture of fly fishing in a natural and unspoiled Montana, so there was likely that romantically nostalgic attraction. Brad Pitt’s appeal probably didn’t hurt when it came to recruiting some ladies to the sport either, although I’m not sure what the rationale behind that was. Did the ladies really think they’d meet guys that look like Brad Pitt simply by taking an interest in fly fishing? Whatever the exact reason, there was a rise in the popularity of fly fishing for a period of time following the film’s release.  After realizing that not all or even many any fly fishermen look like Brad Pitt, interest waned and continues to do so today. The river that once ran through it has all but dried up and we’re desperately in need of some serious snow pack in the mountains of the industry.

A River Runs Through It, definitely.

In 2010 another fly fishing-themed-book-turned-movie was released, sort of. The River Why was released in April but only to critics. It made the rounds of the film festivals and reviews have been moderate for the most part (here is one review by Tom Bie of The Drake). There were legal wranglings between the movie producer, the book’s publisher and author David James Duncan before the movie was completed, and while the movie is out (sort of), it does not have the love and support of Duncan. Whether the fly fishing world is sitting on the edge of its seat waiting for the movie, and expecting a dramatic after-effect, remains yet to be seen. In order for the movie to be a mainstream hit and capture the allure of fly fishing like A River Runs Through It did, it needs to be better than just moderate.  As a book, The River Why is excellent, but will the movie, if it is ever released to theaters, offer a shot in the arm for the fly fishing industry? That is an unanswered question.

UPDATE: Since this report was published, the producer of the film stopped by the comment section of this blog (the reach and power of the internet never ceases to amaze). Thanks to Kristi Denton Cohen for chiming in with an update on film.

The River Why, who knows?

Recently there was a flurry of excitement on the internet over Oprah’s fly fishing escapades. While it provided something to talk about briefly, Oprah is probably not going to be the voice that will hook new anglers and keep manufacturers and retailers in the black, while also adding a valuable infusion of new blood to conservation efforts. As far as the fly fishing industry is concerned, the “O” in Oprah is probably just a big “zero”.

The River O, no.

One fateful day while seated quietly in the Lotus position and searching for more answers, I came across this YouTube clip of Clint Eastwood on the David Letterman show in 2006. They were discussing the likelihood, or not, of another Dirty Harry movie. Suddenly it hit me: Fly fishing needs a kick in the pants and Dirty Harry may be just the man for the job. Please take a minute to view this short clip – pay close attention at 1:12.

If we go back in cinematic history, we see that unlike A River Runs Through It, Eastwood’s Dirty Harry was no one-hit wonder. On the contrary, it was the first of five successful films featuring detective Harry Callahan: Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988). The span of years between the movies is indicative that the public waited eagerly to embrace the next adventure of Dirty Harry, so we have every reason to believe that after 23 years the public is waiting with outstretched arms for the return of Inspector Callahan. Absence only makes the box office grow fonder—heck, even Brad Pitt’s wife, Angelina Jolie, seems to think Dirty Harry is a hot ticket.

So, why Dirty Harry? How can he fuel an interest in a sport that seems to be in a tailspin? The reasons are many. Here are just a few:

1.  Callahan is not some rich guy. For example in Dirty Harry, rather than allow doctors to use scissors to cut off his trousers in order to treat a wound to the leg, Harry insists on removing the pants himself even though doing so will hurt. The pants cost him $29.50: “Let it hurt,” he demands. This dispels the notion that fly fishing is for the wealthy elite. If Harry were a rich man, he’d not have thought twice about ruining his trousers.

2. Dirty Harry is a real man. Men respect him in ways they could never respect, say, Brad Pitt. Gear chuckers and bait fishermen may even make the transition to fly fishing because of Dirty Harry: he’s a guy everyone can rally behind. Women like a real man, too, though for obvious reasons I personally wouldn’t know about that.

3. Detective Callahan is memorable. Several quotes that came from the character of Dirty Harry can be still be found in use today. For example, everyone has heard and perhaps even borrowed the famous call to action, “Make my day.” Name one memorable quote from A River Runs Through It, besides “I am haunted by waters.”

4. He’s straight-talking and authoritative.  When Dirty Harry speaks, people tend to sit up straight and listen, or get their butts kicked (or worse). A perfect spokesman for the industry, right there: anglers would wait with baited breath for Harry as the keynote speaker at a Fly Fishing Show, or as the emcee for the Fly Fishing Film Tour! Spey claves across the country would welcome Dirty Harry as a featured presenter and one can easily envision crowds of attendees raucously chanting, “Make my Spey!” as Eastwood takes the stage. Anglers and non-anglers alike would flock in droves to hear him, and the result will be more anglers. And when the law is laid down by Dirty Harry, those newcomers to the sport will listen up and take note when it comes to proper etiquette. It’s important that the industry not just attract new participants, but educate them properly: enter professor Callahan.

5. Harry is a man of conviction. Always standing up for justice in his movies, he was unfaltering and steady in the face of a chaotic world. That type of stability is what we all look for in a leader. Beyond attracting newcomers to the sport, Detective Callahan could single-handedly Stop the Pebble Mine, remove dams on the Snake River, and put an end to governmental mis-management of our state and federal fisheries. Hell, Dirty Harry could even reverse the Boldt Decision if wanted to.

6. Dirty Harry is a man for everyone, making him the perfect bridge for the generation gap that many claim exists within the fly fishing arena.  He’s a source of inspiration for people his own age and a beacon of admiration for everyone else. Dirty Harry is the guy who will make old folks get up off their butts, and he’s the guy who will make young people pull their pants up above their butts. Through either intimidation or admiration, Dirty Harry can provide the unity the industry needs.

The list could go on, but with your best interests in mind I’ll stop there.

Obviously, as Eastwood joked about in his interview with Letterman, the Harry Callahan of today is too old to be serving on any police force (except for maybe Twin Bridges, MT). But what about the same man, albeit aged and perhaps a bit mellower, embarking on a retired life of fly fishing with an occasional stint as a game warden? Through his travels he could bring the beauty of fly fishing to the masses, put to rest certain myths and misconceptions about the sport, and send a strong message to wrong-doers, law-breakers and low-holers. Eastwood could pull it off. He’s a man who can make any movie he pleases.

“I know what you’re thinkin…”

Imagine it: Harry Callahan along the edge of a river, clad in waders and wearing his trademark “squint” as he prepares to throw out a cast to a large, wary fish lying behind a distant boulder. He looks down the long graphite shaft of a fly rod and quietly growls:  “I know what you’re thinking—’Did he cast six times, or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a Brand X (manufacturers would pay handsomely to insert their brand and model here) fly rod, the most powerful fly rod on the market so you will not snap me clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, fish?”

It’s not difficult to see the potential for a great movie, but the clock is ticking. Yes, Eastwood appears to be in excellent physical health, but the man is 80 years old so we don’t have eternity to waste in getting this movie made.  While time is not endless, the possibilities are:

And if for some reason a new movie starring Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry isn’t in the cards, CGI technology is wildly impressive.  Maybe we can at least hope for a remake of A River Runs Through It starring a young Clint Eastwood, instead of that other guy.

Mr. Eastwood, are you listening?  Fly fishing needs you.  Fly fishing needs Dirty Harry.

Fly anglers, we need to spread the word if we’re going to get Dirty Harry on board. Eventually Mr. Eastwood will see the industry’s cry for help and hopefully come to our aid. Surely he’s got one more movie in him, and this one could be his magnum opus.

Now, we all realize that the above post was merely tongue-in-cheek humor and a fly fishing movie featuring Dirty Harry isn’t likely to be made. However, here is one that stands a very real chance: Olive the Woolly Bugger