Review – The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life, by David Coggins

I read David Coggin’s The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life in just a couple of days. Easily one of the quickest reads in a long time. This is due, in part, to the author’s skill with a fast, witty, engaging prose writing style. However, what stands out to me with this read is the fact that it was so unexpected. And, let’s face it, those are often the best kinds of books.

Fly-fishing + Men’s Lifestyle Philosophy = Quick Reading

My wife came back with this book after a trip to the public library with our family. She saw it on the shelf and thought it was calling out for me. Well, she was more right than she even knew. Yes, the title, cover-art, and subject-matter all lined up with some recent – recurring – interests of mine. What she didn’t know was that I had also recently become aware of Coggins, and that I was approaching a summer mindset for which his writing style was a perfect match.

Coggins is a well-known writer of men’s lifestyle topics for periodicals like The Robb Report, Financial Times, Bloomberg Pursuits, and Condé Nast Traveler. His is a style steeped in the traditions of the mid/early-twentieth century travel and adventure writers like Bruce Chatwin. Given his other interests in things like tailoring, drinking and international travel – it appears he is a strong match for the fly fishing set (make of that allusion what you will).

A Perfect Blend of Story and How-to Fishing

I’ve read a handful of books like this over the years. The good ones are a blend of technical – how-to – knowledge on the sport of fishing (or hunting, etc.), with a healthy dose of real-world life stories to add what many would call “human interest”. Thankfully, Coggins finds what I would consider to be nearly the perfect balance of these elements. Just when the non-technical, fisherman/outdoorsman, starts to grow a bit weary of the drier details of casting, bait-choice, and other mundanities, the author brings in the compelling adventure or travel story. This is, frankly, Coggins area of true talent.

When reading this book, I was immediately immersed in the time and place of each chapter’s geographically-bound mini-story. He jumps from his teenage introduction to angling in Wisconsin, to his various escapades in iconic fly-fishing locals like Montana, Canada, Patagonia and lesser-known – but equally legitimate – spots like the Bahamas, New York City, and finally finishing in the tawniest of destinations – ye olde England. Throughout his chapters – which tidily encapsulate these locations – Coggins masterfully crafts an interconnected storyline with an arc that pulls together his central themes.

Fly Fishing in the World’s Best Places

His full list of fly-fishing – geographically-set stories includes:

  • Chapter 1: Wisconsin – where Coggins learns to fly fish from 2 ornery old family friends as a teenager.
  • Chapter 2: Montana – in which he visits the mecca of U.S. fly-fishing and recounts tales of poseurs with $2,000 fly rods and old-timer Montanan anglers.
  • Chapter 3: The Bahamas – where bonefish are the target of the fishing, and fly-fishing is still the minority style despite some famous guys having pioneered it back in the 70’s.
  • Chapter 4: Patagonia – The holy grail for fly-fishing.
  • Chapter 5: New York – Coggins’ hometown, and a place that holds some unexpected delights for anglers.
  • Chapter 6: Canada – Where the author tells of Royal fishing clubs where the Salmon fishing is unrivaled on the globe.
  • Chapter 7: Maine – home of Old Towne canoes, and the purist of north woods pond fishing for trout.
  • Chapter 8: England – Coggin’s get’s aristocratic and finds a gentleman’s sport concerned with a whole ‘nother level of purity of dry-fly top-water brown trout pursuit.

Outdoorsmanship and Humor, Straight-up With a Twist

Along the way his witty style keeps you reading at a blistering pace. I was constantly reminded of that high school/college friend that many of us have, who was the most naturally gifted writer of your circle of literary friends. The one that could write sentences that left you with a wide grin on your face as you speedily moved on to see what other sly witticisms awaited in the next paragraph.

It is a challenge to mark up a library book with dog-ears, and penciled/highlighted passages that you want to come back to. But, this book begged for me to break those rules. Every one of the eight chapters (excluding the solid foreword & afterword) is soaked in memorable paragraphs to come back to. Here’s a solid example from the ending chapter in England: “…It’s all about to end. I make an unusually accurate backhanded cast I’d like to be associated with. A brown trout turns and takes the small fly without hesitation. I set the hook, the fish heads as deep as it can before finally surfacing when it’s netted by Tony, who has returned to my side. I can’t believe it. ‘That never happens,’ I say. He knows what I mean. ‘Four days of that and you’d have been tired of it,’ he replies. I know what he means. I laugh and try to decide if I agree with him. Could I ever tire of casting to rising trout in the last light of a summer evening? We walk back toward the hut in the shadows along the bank and I think I know the answer.”

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