The FlyLife Years

Rob Sloane reflects on 25 years as Editor of FlyLife magazine

It’s perhaps ironic that 99 editions of FlyLife ended up being the easy bit, with FlyLife #100 stalled for several months while our world has been turned upside down by a virus, and not something computer related.

I can’t complain; it’s been a good run. But as you can imagine, I have been working towards 100 for quite some time, filtering out material worthy of this milestone. By this I’m talking about things that particularly interest me, and reflect my own fishing life. Self indulgent, I know, but surely I’ve earned some latitude. Along with landmark retrospectives from Tasmania, New Zealand and the saltwater world, I’ve chosen to focus on waterbugs, citizen science, environment, and some uniquely Australian species and landscapes, with a pinch of good medicine thrown in.

Usually I put my personal tastes aside in favour of balancing content to appeal to a broad cross-section of interests, skill levels, ages and tastes. As I have come to realise, not all fly fishers have a PhD in sight fishing and a single-minded determination to catch fish. Now I look back, my father hardly ever caught a fish, though he did sigh a knowing sigh when I started adding numbers to his immaculately hand-written fishing diary. I think I’ve now come full circle.

There was no great marketing strategy in place when Libby and I started the magazine back in 1995. If you haven’t guessed, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and was never quite happy with the editorial and design standards applied to my stories in the mainstream fishing mags. Why couldn’t we produce something akin to the American Fly Fisherman magazine, ditch our greys and khakis for bright reds and blues, and capture images worthy of Valentine Atkinson?

Having already served time in fisheries research, management and administration, I was ready to take on a new challenge. Landing the top job in my chosen field (Tasmania’s Inland Fisheries Commission) at age 28, left plenty of time for a career change, and my passion for fly fishing and a suppressed creative gene took control.

Meanwhile, our spare-time publishing sideline (Tas-Trout Publications) had six successful titles already in print (The Truth About Trout, The Truth About Trout Flies, More About Trout, Fly Fishing Fundamentals, Trout Guide and Champagne Fly Fishing) and I was confident that Australia was ready for a fly-only magazine. Not just trout, and not just Tasmania, but by encompassing Australia and New Zealand and embracing the brave new world of ‘swoffing’, I figured a new publication might attract a sustainable advertising and readership base.

Annual fly-only specials were being well received at that time, so why not a quarterly? Through our books, we already had a relationship with a Hobart based printer, and a good network of book stores, tackle shops, fly fishing clubs and mail order contacts. It might seem odd nowadays, but pushing flyers under the doors of every shack in the Tasmanian highlands was how direct marketing worked back then.

With three teenage boys to clothe and feed, it was a giant leap of faith, propped up just a little by Libby teaching full time. I can’t imagine we saw it as a long-term proposition back then, but 25 years down the track the magazine still sustains an enviable fishing lifestyle.

As for my own efforts over the past 25 years, have I ever been happy with a finished copy of FlyLifeback from the printers? No, the first one always goes straight in the bin. But years, sometimes months, and occasionally weeks later, I can flip through a copy and reckon it wasn’t too bad. With Muphry’s law of editing at work, and the vagaries of photo reproduction and the four-colour printing process, there is always room for improvement. (If I don’t get a prompt email from Rick Keam, I know there can’t have been too many clangers in the latest issue.)

While fly fishing for trout was hardly short on good literature back in 1995, the saltwater realm was not quite cricket. My own conversion to the ‘dark side’, led by the likes of Kaj Busch, Peter Morse and Dean Butler, encouraged many FlyLife readers to follow, to a point where chasing bonefish and permit in the ‘closed season’ is now part and parcel of being an Aussie fly fisher.

The magazine certainly led me on a grand tour of the Pacific and right around our coastline, and some of my fondest memories of the FlyLife years relate to those saltwater adventures. In fact, I’m often tempted to say that my best day’s fly fishing ever was an unforgettable session on the flats in the far north of New Caledonia, when everything just clicked — even my supercilious French guide was impressed.

Every skill I had ever developed in sight fishing for trout in Tasmania made perfect sense on the saltwater flats. Battling the wind, spotting the fish, presenting the fly, sensing the take. The only part that had me a bit confused was what the hell to do next, after setting the hook! How hard can you pull with an 8-weight and 20-pound tippet? Everything was new and extremely exciting — like turning back the clock and starting out on a completely new fly fishing journey.

After more than 20 years of fly fishing travel, punching out words and taking pictures, these days I prefer to ration my fishing days while holidaying with my wife. Travelling with a bunch of blokes no longer holds much appeal. Yes, Libby has caught trout on fly in the River Test, grayling in Finland and rainbows in the Chilean fjords, but she is just as happy to sit in the boat and read a good book. Three days fishing in three weeks was our latest holiday effort, in Spain. How things have changed.

It might border on cliché, but through my role as an editor I have come to appreciate that fly fishing means so many different things to different people, and no, it is not just about catching fish. No individual attitude, level of commitment or fly fishing focus is more valid, worthwhile, or fulfilling than the next.

My father, for example, took an intellectual approach, always reading, making notes, tying flies and experimenting — more thinking than doing. Others thrive on the gear and gadgets, casting as far as is humanly possible, or burying themselves in a world of fur and feathers. Some fish clinically with a single-minded precision, whilst others wander aimlessly, staring at the clouds and chatting to a mate. Is it lunchtime yet? Is it beer o’clock?

And yes, whilst my season used to comprise a frenetic parade of travelling, driving, camping, boating, back-packing and bush-bashing, I have now slowed down and narrowed my focus, just a tad. I sometimes joke that I fish one-and-a-half lakes. Mostly Dee Lagoon where we have a shack, and Little Pine Lagoon at mayfly time. Yes, sight fishing in open water still fascinates me, and you just can’t beat a good dun hatch.

But I still fish vicariously through the words and pictures that cross my desk, from contributors far and wide. I love helping young writers and photographers get started, and perhaps value their refreshing contributions most of all. Encouraged by my father Tony (an occasional fishing magazine contributor), I had my first fishing story published in Australian Outdoors (circa 1972), when I was still at school. It was about dun feeders at Bronte Lagoon, and the title ‘Nobody Knows It All’ was brash to say the least.

So, yes, it is wonderful to see young men and women joining the ranks and rediscovering the delights that have sustained the magazine for 25 years. I do fear that in a future world without print, we will lose something that is extremely valuable. If the likes of David Scholes had been content to document their fishing days in ephemeral videos and phone-snaps, would we still have that lasting legacy of their work today?