The Optimist
A case for the fly fishing life
By Dana Sturn
The Optimist Cover

When it comes to the writing life I’m not particularly disciplined. In fact, you might consider me lazy. I tend to rely on flashes of inspiration, which isn’t the best way forward if you want to be serious about it. Sure, sometimes when I’ve got something particularly interesting or good underway I can really get after it and stay focussed until I finish, but most of the time it just isn’t like that. I need motivation. And lately this has come in the form of my editor reminding me that I promised him something about a month ago, and when could he expect it? 

And so we come to The Optimist, David Coggins’s newish book from Scribner. Published long ago in 2021, a year which we all would probably prefer not to remember, The Optimist is Coggins’s “case for the fly fishing life,” which also happens to be the book’s subtitle. It’s a great title for a book published during the pandemic: if you’re feeling a little like you’re carrying The Weight on your shoulders in the post-pandemic scramble to get back to normal, it’s a gentle reminder that all burdens are eased by an unhealthy addiction to fly fishing.

The Optimist is a great book, largely because David Coggins is not a lazy writer. In both his subject matter and the language he chooses to explore it, Coggins is careful—even precise.

His thesis is simple: in fly fishing you can learn most everything Life has to teach, and participate in most every experience worth having. And he lulls you into acceptance of it with his easy-going, conversational style. You won’t find many polysyllabic words in The Optimist. He’s straight forward in his approach, avoiding the clever stuff and allowing his experiences to become yours, and ultimately speak for themselves. But every once in a while he’ll launch a curveball your way just to see if you’re paying attention:

“Carter is always fiddling with his tackle box,” Dave would say, with the emphasis on ‘fiddling’ which implied a needless, even feckless, lack of belief. This sort of fiddling, if left unchecked, upset classical trains of thought; it was the type of thinking that led to New Coke.”

Coggins is an enviably well-travelled angler. And each of the international fishing locations he discusses serves as the backdrop for an exploration of a particular facet of his fly fishing philosophy, and the experiences and species that best exemplify it. “Canada” for example, is subtitled “Atlantic salmon” and “Patience,” which will make immediate sense to anyone who’s fished for them; “Wisconsin” is “Smallmouth Bass” and “Timing”; and in “Patagonia,” we find “Rainbow Trout” and “Loss,” a chapter that reminds us of how important it is to lose a fish and leave a much-loved locale. Each subtitle, of course, provides the chapter’s organizing metaphor, and as you read along you begin to realize that it’s all thematically connected. “Bahamas” is about bonefish and vision, and in it we learn to see bonefish and perhaps other more important things at the elbow of a trusted flats guide. And in this learning (and failing) by the side of another, the organizing themes of mentorship and struggle are illuminated as two important aspects of the philosophy Coggins shares with us.

Along the way Coggins gives us gentle instruction to help us along as anglers, whether we choose to embrace the philosophy or not. In “Wisconsin” he gives us pointers on the fly cast; in “Montana” he details his system for organizing his Troutmobile, beer and pretzels included. And in “Patagonia” he teaches us how to set the hook on a large fish that has taken your dry fly.

The best of fly fishing writing takes you to places you’ve never been, experiences you’ve never had. In The Optimist Coggins wades us along an impossibly clear stream in South America; and he suggests the best approach to appreciating the beauty of an aria at the end of The Marriage of Figaro. And the very best writing can take us back to familiar places made new again when seen through a different eye. You’ll find this and more in The Optimist. For without stating it directly, Coggins makes a case for the angler’s eye, a way of seeing the world that thankfully lacks the clarity and focus of those cursed with binocular vision. One part misplaced priorities, one part taking your lumps, with a liberal splash of those breathtaking moments that make us continue the questionable decisions that led to them, The Optimist is a book to take along on your next trip, and every one after that.

The Optimist: a case for the fly fishing life by David Coggins (2021) is published by Scribner (Simon & Schuster) 256pp; $26

Dana Sturn

Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn