Dylan Tomine is the author of the new collection Headwaters (Patagonia). We met via Zoom the evening of March 1, 2022. Tomine is relaxed and informal in his speech, chooses his words thoughtfully, and laughs easily and often. This night he wore a blue fleece jacket, glasses and a Patagonia ballcap, looking less professorial than his official author’s photographs would suggest, and more the steelheader that he is. On the walls behind him were pictures of family and fishing. Below those a table with assorted coffee cups, a few pop cans, stacks of paper, a printer and an old manual typewriter. To his right, a darkened window reflected some of the room’s contents, but not the writer himself.
Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Dana Sturn: Thanks for joining me tonight Dylan! You live in Washington State, right? Have you lived there all your life?
Dylan Tomine: Glad to be here, Dana! Yes, I live on Bainbridge Island, but I grew up in Western Oregon and went to school in California.
DS: What drew you to Washington?
DT: After college I wanted to get back to steelhead country, and I had a buddy who was living in a house in Seattle that had an empty bedroom in the basement. So I thought, “Well, that’s great!” and I moved there, really so I could be close to the Skykomish River, about 40 minutes away. That was in about 1992. Once the Skykomish closed and the Skagit River winter steelhead run went into serious decline, I decided to move here to Bainbridge because it was closer to the Olympic Peninsula steelhead rivers.
DS: You probably don’t remember this, but you and I met on the Skykomish once many years ago. This would have been in the very early days of speypages. You and I were there with friends, and it was one of the first times I had ever fished the river. Our friends struck up a conversation, and you and I exchanged pleasantries, but I could tell by the far away look in your eyes that you really wanted to get back on the river!
DT: (laughs) Yeah! I remember! My antisocial tendencies were shining through!
DS: (laughs) I knew right then you were a serious steelheader! How did the closure impact you?
DT: It was heartbreaking. I used to fish it pretty hard in February, March and April until it closed in 2001. And then I didn’t fish it again until just this past summer. That was a weird day. Kind of uplifting, but also sad. Like when people go back to their hometown after being away for many years.
DS: That’s difficult, when you lose a river.
DT: Yes, and it turns out that, just like your river the Thompson, the Skykomish was kind of the harbinger of things to come. First it went away, and then the Skagit went away, and now it’s looking the same for the Olympic Peninsula rivers, too.
DS: Sad times, the loss of a way of living for so many who love these rivers. (Pause) Let’s turn the page here for a minute. How did you happen to get into the whole writing gig?
DT: I started college as a premed major, and by the end of the year it was pretty obvious that premed wasn’t for me. But the marks in my English classes were pretty good, so I decided to become an English major, with a focus on creative writing. When I graduated the only jobs available were in advertising, so I took a job as a copy writer in an ad agency. I spent the first part of my career trying to win awards and move up through the ranks. But after a while it became abundantly clear to me that all the writing I did was an irritant to readers—an intrusion—that pays for the thing that they really want to read. So I started really thinking that I wanted to write something that people were choosing to read. Then I just started writing fishing stories, because that’s what I knew about and that’s what I was reading.
DS: And how did that go?
DT: (laughs) Well, I got horrible rejections. I still have one of them from those days that reads “We publish stories. This is not a story.” So I quit for a while, thinking okay, I’m not cut out for this. And then I started writing for the Sage rod company. I did that for eleven years, writing ads for them and copy for their catalogue. And the marketing guy there, Marc Bale, was really encouraging. As you know, it’s almost impossible to make any kind of a living writing fishing stories. But I was lucky because I was able to write fishing stories for Sage and get paid like a commercial writer.
DS: Sounds like a great gig. I remember those catalogues. They were really unique. And yes, with the fishing stories, don’t quit your day job!
DT: No! And then one year I got this idea for the catalogue to interview fishermen that people looked up to. Sage asked me who I wanted to interview, and I made them a list. And one of them was Tom McGuane. So Marc Bale called McGuane and asked if I could come out and interview him. A photographer and I flew out to Montana, drove out to his ranch, and that’s how I met McGuane. And to me you know McGuane was like this god.
DS: (laughs) Still is!
DT: (laughs) Yes! Sentences that…you can’t even believe how beautiful his sentences are, you know? I mean, he has the same toolbox as me with the same 26 letters to work with as I do. How come his stuff is so good and I sometimes I feel like I can’t even say what I want to say?
DT: So then everything is all set up and I head out to his ranch and introduce myself, and he says “Are you Dylan so-and-so”--some other last name--and it turns out he’s expecting someone named Dylan from the New York Times! Clearly there had been some sort of miscommunication. But he invited me in for a brisket lunch, and we did the interview and had a great time, and just ended up becoming really good friends. We fished together on the Bulkley for steelhead and spent a lot of time talking. Eventually I asked him if he would look at some of my stuff, and he agreed and really became this mentor to me. So the lesson that I would take out of this, from Marc Bale, to Tom McGuane, to later on David Guterson [author of Snow Falling on Cedars], who helped me find my agent, is that if you ask, there’s all kinds of people willing to lend a hand. So it was kind of a team effort.
DS: How was it having McGuane look at your work?
DT: (laughs) Well, as you might imagine, Tom McGuane is a pretty tough editor. But it was what I needed at the time—it was kind of like that tough love thing that I really needed to hear that helped shape me as a writer. I don’t pretend that my writing is anywhere near the crystalline beauty of McGuane’s, but I think a lot of the spirit I put into writing and my sense of how to think about writing really came from McGuane.
DS: How is writing like steelhead fly fishing?
DT: I think Tom McGuane has answered that in a much more articulate and beautiful way than me, but I’ll try my best here. I think there are a lot of similarities. For example, even if you’re driving to a river with a bunch of buddies, you are still fishing alone. If you’re trout fishing from a drift boat or salmon fishing from a skiff there’s always this constant conversation going on. But if you’re steelhead fishing you’re always a distance from your buddy—too far to just have a chat—and other than yelling “Hey, I just had a grab!” you’re really doing it alone. I make the cast, I make the mend, and I’m thinking the whole way through. “Should I take one step or two?” “Is this the right fly?” In steelhead fishing you spend a lot of time trying to figure things out in your head by yourself. It’s just like in writing, where you are constantly asking yourself questions about the choices you’re making. Every time I hook a steelhead it’s like some small miracle has happened. And it’s the same thing if I finish a story and it turns out good, it feels like some small miracle.
DS: This makes total sense to me. Whenever I steelhead fly fish or write, it’s like this anxiety-ridden process where I’m worrying about every little thing. And then a steelhead takes—or an editor or another writer I respect likes my work—and I’m like, “Oh, wow—I must have done something right!”
DT: (laughs) Yeah, I somehow did it right!
DS: And often, I don’t even know what I did that was right!
DT: I’m really glad that you’re reinforcing this, because these are the same kinds of thoughts that I have! When I steelhead fish, every single cast has 47 doubts attached to it.
DS: Earlier we talked about the Skykomish, and all around us now we see great steelhead rivers in serious decline. The internet has made it easier for steelhead anglers to connect and discuss or argue about these things. What responsibility do steelhead anglers have to the fish?
DT: I think we’re at a point now where if you are a cold water fisher—steelhead and salmon and trout—if we are to have any shred of hope of having these fisheries in the future, we are probably at a place where we are needing to spend an equal amount of time and/or money on conservation as we do on fishing. I think that’s a minimum. You know, I’ve had many conversations with conservationists about this and they say, “No, it’s too radical. Nobody’s gonna do that. They’ll disregard it.” But I think that’s how you have to earn your right to go fishing now. And if you have unlimited money and little time, write the cheques. If you have more time than money, volunteer. Maybe if you normally spend 40 days fishing a year, spend 20 fishing and volunteer the other 20. Or if you normally spend 100k/year on fancy fishing lodges, donate 50k, or if you’re really rich donate another 100k to the non-profits. Does that seem too extreme to you?
DS: I don’t think so. In fishing I think for a lot of us it’s take-take-take, and let somebody else—the Steelhead Society, or the Wild Steelhead Coalition for example—worry about the rest. People just seem to want to go fishing.
DT: I think too that the attitudes we have today about recreational angling evolved at a time when there were a lot more fish around, and fewer fishers. But those days are gone.
DS: And what about the responsibilities of people like you and me, the writers? What’s our role?
DT: That’s a great question. I think it’s very hard to write about fishing without glorifying it, and making people want to do it. So I think that kind of writing needs to be leavened with at least an acknowledgement of the real issues in play. I feel for all the people who have a business interest in steelhead fisheries—how long it took them to develop their skills and build a business. It would be really sad to have to watch that opportunity evaporating. And as writers we are also somewhat dependent on the resource. When we were looking at the stories for Headwaters, with some of the straight-head conservation pieces there was some debate about whether those stories were too dry or boring, or will they make people too angry or depressed? But I put them in there because I think it’s important information, and if somebody can use that to make their argument or to motivate people to get more engaged or involved, then I feel like I’m doing my job as a writer. I think it would be really irresponsible now to just be churning out fun fishing adventure stories about steelhead, salmon or trout fishing.
DS: But in much of the angling press that sort of story isn’t going to sell a lot of magazines. People want the how to/where to stuff.
DT: I have sort of a love/hate relationship with all of the how-to stuff that dominates fishing literature. I don’t do a lot of it, because I really don’t know 32 ways to use Euro-nymphing to catch more rocky mountain trout. I mean, do we really want people to be more effective at catching fish, or do we really want people to take better care of the fishery? The kind of writing that I want to do is the kind that hopefully causes people to really care, to really have an emotional investment in their sport.
DS: Makes sense. We can’t pretend that everything is fine. But when we say everything isn’t fine, we aren’t saying that people shouldn’t ever go fishing.
DT: No, it’s not saying, “We shouldn’t go fishing.” It’s saying that we need to get focused on fixing the problems that caused things to become this bad.
DS: What’s next for Dylan Tomine?
DT: Well, we will be on the road promoting the book for April, May and June. So I hope that all goes well. Creatively, I think that once we’re finished with the promotion of Headwaters, I’m going to make a push to finish this novel I’ve been working on for the past 15 years. I’d like to work on that and make it as good as it can be. As a career non-fiction writer, I find fiction to be pretty tough sledding. But there’s also a lot of freedom to it.
DS: Any hints about it?
DT: It’s about eco-terrorism and the north coast of British Columbia. It’s a story I really like and I’m looking forward to having some sustained time to focus on it. I’m also hoping to spend as much time as possible with my kids over the next few years. And with the easing of the border restrictions, I’m hoping that maybe this fall I might be able to get up to Canada and do some readings in Smithers, and a little steelhead fishing too.
You can read Dana Sturn’s review of Headwaters in FFI’s February 2022 edition.