How to be a modern-day trout bum

John Gierach cemented himself as a legend in the world of fly fishing writing (a world that’s too small for my liking, but that’s a discussion for another day) in 1988 when his first collection of essays was published under the title, “Trout Bum.” Gierach was a successful author before this time, working for the New York Times (a place he said was inhabited by “asshole” editors, and while it was prestigious, he wasn’t making any money so he quit writing for them) and publishing two books of poems before compiling his insightful essays into books in the late 80s. In fact, he’s the one to thank for popularizing the term “trout bum.”

But the world has changed a lot since Gierach first started writing about the blue-collar lifestyle of the average angler. It’s probably obvious, but Gierach is one of my role models when it comes to the craft of writing. The man has an impeccable way of getting directly to the heart of fly fishing without sounding pretentious, a rare feat among today’s fly fishing writers. Take this excerpt from his 2011 book “No Shortage of Good Days” for example:

“You’ll hear fishermen talk about being humbled by a river and we all know what that means and how it feels, but somehow the language of competition doesn’t quite ring true. It’s not so much that the river beats you; it’s more that the river doesn’t even know you’re there.”

When I first started writing about fly fishing (and getting paid for it) I had this notion in my mind that I’d become the next Gierach. After all he’s old – he’ll soon enough live a niche in need of filling, and what better person to fill that niche than myself?

There’s two things wrong with that statement – it’s arrogant as hell, and the fact of the matter is, Gierach and I come from two completely different worlds. Now, I was young when I first started fly fishing writing, so I believe I can rightfully claim the ignorance of youth in my embarrassing display of arrogance. But as I’ve thought about that over the years, I’ve realized that being a trout bum in today’s world is vastly different than it was back when Gierach first started living his life that way.

A nice brown I pulled out of an Oregon tailwater two years ago.


Being a trout bum is regarded as either an admirable aspiration or an indifferent laziness, depending on who you speak with. Folks with a 401(k) and a mortgage will look at a modern-day trout bum and scoff at his old truck that barely runs, lack of a “real” job (and in most cases a college degree), and general apathy for the workings of the world at large and see someone who’s pissing their life away. Put the shoe on the other foot, and weekend warrior sportsmen and outdoors enthusiasts will admire trout bums for chasing after their dreams and living each day with a purpose and a passion – two things that are largely lacking in today’s world, and this is coming from a Millennial-aged author, mind you.

Of course, I admire modern-day trout bums because I’m one myself. My life revolves around hatches, runoff, and the never ending promise of a good hole right around the next bend of the river. If only I had the skill of the other anglers with whom I’d fish, things would be downright peachy.

While I don’t have fishing skills that would be considered anything above-average, I do have some unique insight as to how to live life as a 21st-century trout bum. Maybe what I share with you will inspire you to quit the 9-5 grind, buy an old truck, and spend the summer in the Wyoming Range, exploring the endless array of cutthroat streams that populates the area. If so, I apologize to your significant others in advance. Or maybe you’re on the verge of diving headfirst into allowing fly fishing to be your lifestyle, but you need a slight prodding over the edge – these tips might be just that. Either way, I hope what I’ve written helps you choose to deliberately live life one way or the other – half-assing your way through life isn’t any way to live.

A job is important

The modern-day trout bum has to have a job of some sort, and it has to be something that pays a bit better than minimum wage. Taxes are hell, insurance is the biggest legalized Ponzi scheme in the history of the world, and to quote Ronnie Dunn, “The cost of livin’s high and goin’ up.” The job can be sweeping the cork dust at a fly rod shop, but you do need some form of income if you’re going to successfully pull off the trout bum lifestyle – which, I suppose, is defined as spending every spare moment you have out on the water.

To paraphrase Gierach yet again, “If you’re too successful to fish whenever you want, one could argue that you’re not really a success.”

Gierach himself laments in his writing that writing itself hasn’t given him nearly enough time on the water but in the same sentence admits that he couldn’t do what he does without his steady stream of income. So to all you aspiring trout bums ( I do salute you) remember employment is a must.

Learn how to cook trout

Today’s conservation-heavy fly fishing world has led many to believe that killing and eating a trout is tantamount to murder. While I’m personally glad to see a greater awareness in the angling community about selective harvest and recognizing some waters can’t handle their state-allotted limit being harvested on every trip, it is important to know how to cook fish if you’re going to be a trout bum. Largely because food is expensive and trout are cheap – relatively speaking. Grilled trout, rice, onions, and bell peppers have been a staple of my diet for the past few years, simply because I can’t afford to spend $150 at Wal Mart every other week in groceries.

Chris Hunt, a man among men in the fly fishing writing world, penned a great piece about eating trout over at Hatch Magazine that’s worth a read for any uber-conservationist who refuses to even lift a trout from the water when removing a fly (and yes, I’ve met folks like that).

Don’t let class wars get you down

In my experience, there are two types of anglers: those who fish for the grip-and-grin shots and Instagram likes, and those who either don’t know what Instagram is or don’t bother to have one (I have an account, purely for work purposes; otherwise, I wouldn’t be there).

One of my favorite rod and reel combos – my Winston BIIIX and Abel TR-2


In both camps are anglers who will tell you that only the latest Sage or Scott or Winston is fit for fishing with. Others will still be fishing their venerable Z-Axis or IM6, while some folks fish vintage glass and bamboo. I have a few friends who religiously abide by disc drag reels (which are overkill for 90% of trout fishing, in my opinion) and others who only fish click-and-pawl.

The point is, it’s easy to get lost in the “class wars” of fly fishing. The reality is this: go buy what you can afford, stock up on Aquaseal so you can patch holes in your waders, and take care of the gear you buy. I have a 6ft 4wt J.S. Sharpe’s of Aberdeen Featherweight Scottie bamboo rod built in November of 1981. I bought the rod nearly a year ago from a fellow who’d never fished it. Since I’ve owned it, the only evidence it’s been fished (and it has been fished, I promise) is some slight wear on the cork. If a rod that old can still catch fish, rest assured you don’t have to buy the newest of the new in order to be a “successful” trout bum.

Don’t forget the why

We all fish for different reasons. I recently wrote a post here at Trout Life explaining, in part, why I fish. When money gets tight and your girlfriend’s broken up with you because you supposedly love fish more than her (I’ve had that accusation leveled at me more than once) it’s easy to start questioning why you chose to live a life that isn’t easy. Trout bumhood is like knighthood – it’s not for everyone.

So in those times, remember the words from this timeless poem, “Testify.”

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Posted in:Words of Wisdom

Spencer Durrant

Spencer is a fly fishing writer from Utah and author of the soon-to-be-published YA novel, “Learning to Fly.” He’s a regular columnist for the Standard-Examiner, where he authors the monthly Trout Bum column, in addition to writing the Cutthroat Chronicles for Fishwest. His writing has appeared in Hatch Magazine, On The Fly Magazine, The Orvis Fly Fishing Blog, and If he’s not on the river, he’s at home tying flies or writing. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram @Spencer_Durrant.

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