THROUGHOUT HISTORY, mankind has settled around specific resources that promise survival. Humans have gathered around rich soil for farming, rivers that provide food or travel, or mountain ranges to offer cover from enemies or elements.
Today, most of our innate needs are met by technology, industry and transportation. As such, we are free to settle for other reasons. I have been observing lately that there is another function of settlement and it is one that interests me to the point of mild fascination.
There are, scattered throughout my travels, fishing towns where the main interest, industry and reason to gather is a specific sport fishing opportunity. A recent trip to West Yellowstone, Mont., allowed me to fine-tune my observations and undertake this interesting observation of anthropology.
In West Yellowstone, people are there to catch fish. Those who aren’t actively pursuing fish are tending to the needs of those who are. Fly shops, restaurants, hotels and fishing guides are all in place to support the anglers who have gathered there. West Yellowstone is a fishing town and, with the exception of a few busloads of tourists passing through, filled with people of a common goal and interest. Not surprisingly, I feel right at home there.
Fishing towns all over the world share the same traits and characteristics. There is a base of local residents who accommodate the temporary invasion of their town and offer goods and services that support the nomadic anglers who visit. I have been to towns with a fly shop on every corner. Each shop sells rods, reels, waders, flies and anything else necessary to catch fish. In some regions, they are as common as coffee shops in Seattle or dollar stores here in New Hampshire. Each offer similar products with subtle differences and services.
Walking into a fly shop, wearing waders and soaking wet boots, the customer is quickly greeted by the proprietor who may ask: “How’s the fishing? What are they biting on?” ... or “Hope this rain doesn’t bring the river up.” Updates on grizzly bear sightings are not uncommon.
There is a welcoming comaraderie unlike any other shopping experience.
While mingling among other fishermen, I enjoy the conversation and banter that can be heard while searching for a new fly pattern, fishing vest or an exotic local sticker to put on my truck back home. Most of these shops will offer a hot cup of coffee to warm the blood of those customers fresh off the river. The steam of the coffee swirls through cold hands, frosted mustaches and, despite being brewed seven hours earlier, is immensely satisfying.
I am never in need of fishing equipment but purchase it frequently when visiting a fishing town. I like to support the locals who are doing their best to support me. It is not strange to return from a trip with twice the gear that I brought. When I pay for my goods, there always seems to be a small box of one-dollar flies at the register. Next to a hand-written sign that says “No Credit Cards,” this selection of flies is mismatched, unorganized and often holds flies with no practical value. I usually grab between five and 10 before my visit concludes.
Fishing towns are special places where adults with similar interests gather. Perhaps it helps them justify their sport and normalize the pursuit of fish that other people simply can’t understand. For me, they are a unique part of the American landscape and a significant part of my adventures.