Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: Fly Fishing apolitically, the worst governor in America (Martin O’Malley), and wingnut environmentalism

Matt Labash Columnist
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Mr. Labash, you being a conservative-leaning fly fisherman, I am sure you understand my hesitance to spend my hard earned money in liberal states like Washington and Oregon, when they get enough of it already through redistribution (Oklahoma is a donor state…. ) I am getting married later this year to a similarly minded, equally awesome fly fisher. He wants to honeymoon in the Northwest and fish for steelhead, a species with which neither of us has much experience. However, I would really like to go to Alaska and fish for grayling. No matter what we will go somewhere trout or salmonid oriented….. What are your thoughts? Thanks!! Amanda,  Tulsa

First, congratulations on getting married. Second, condolences on being from the Twister State. You kids have had a rough ride this year, and I salute your stoicism in the face of Mother Nature’s hissy fits. It’s great that you both fish. You will likely have many happy outings together. However, I personally stick by my decision to marry a non-fisherwoman.  Somebody should mind the store, exhibit responsible behavior, and generally make the trains run on time. These are essential life skills not readily compatible with the fishing-bum ethos. One spouse in any marriage should be a fully-evolved human being. So it might as well be my wife. (With both of you being fishing obsessives, who will pay the bills and raise the children?) As a Montana guide once told me that he tells his clients when they ask if he wants to marry a girl who fishes: “F-ck no! I want a girl who rows!”

I’d be a poseur if I weighed in on great fishing spots of the coastal Northwest or Alaska. The furthest west I’ve ever fished is Idaho. Most of what I know of Northwest fishing comes secondhand from David James Duncan. And my Alaska knowledge is equally pretender-ish, derived from reading fishing memoirs, viewing nature documentaries, and watching Sarah Palin club a halibut to death. (While perhaps envisioning Karl Rove.) I’ve never caught grayling, and I just caught my first couple of steelhead last year – some gleaming, chrome muscled missiles making their run out of Lake Erie. They refused all the overhyped egg patterns I got suckered into buying, while they greedily inhaled my boring black krystal bugger — the same one I throw to largemouth bass. (As you can imagine, I’ll be back for more.)

I therefore fail you in the specific honeymoon advice department — other than to make sure to order lots of room service and to have plenty of conjugal relations (good sex, being the only thing that rivals good fishing.) Your question, however, does open up a few avenues for further exploration. While you’re correct that I am “conservative-leaning” and a “fly fisherman,” the two have no business being joined together. I don’t fish as an extension of my politics. But rather, I fish to get away from the sort of people who think their politics and their humanity are inseparable, and who govern all facets of their lives accordingly.

My politics can basically be categorized as sawed-off conservative: don’t overtax me, over-regulate me, abort me, or leave my country undefended, and we won’t have much to quarrel over. But a few years ago, I wrote a piece in which I Lived like a Liberal (based on a program prescribed by author Justin Krebs in his book, “538 Ways To Live Work and Play Like a Liberal”). And what I found most distasteful about my ten or so days in the full-immersion hole wasn’t having to buy overpriced Tazo Brambleberry Herbal Infusion Juice at Whole Foods, or worrying about whether my beer was brewed with wind-generated electricity. Rather, it was the weariness that set in from compulsively politicizing every decision in my life — from what I watched to what I read to whom I socialized with. Life, if you take it on its own terms, tends to be a lot messier and more interesting than rigid, binary partisan distinctions would have you believe it is. Most of our everyday lives, thank God, have little or nothing to do with politics.

Such is the case with my fishing regimen. I am as promiscuous a fishing slut as you will ever meet. When people ask if I tie flies in the off-season, I tell them I didn’t know there was an off-season. Like most fish, I am an opportunistic feeder (albeit, a religious catch-and-release one). I target fast-water smallmouth, and tailwater brown trout, muddy-water perch and catfish, mountain-stream brookies, farm-pond largemouth, bluegill and pickerel, anadromous shad, and Chesapeake Bay stripers. When all else fails weather-wise (and even when it doesn’t), I catch many of the above species at warm-water or cold-water sewage treatment plant outflows. And 90 percent of these fish are caught in the ironically-named “Free State,” aka Maryland, where I live.

Yes, we have one of the worst tax-and-spend legislatures in the country. Though I live in a red county, we are a state so reliably blue that there is a nickname for Republican politicians here. We call them “The Unemployed.” Yes, we have the worst governor in America, Martin O’Malley, coming soon to a Democratic presidential primary near you. Despite O’Malley’s purported charms, he has never met a pocket he wouldn’t pick, along with the help of his rubber-stamp legislature. The watchdog group, Change Maryland, has counted 40 separate taxes or fee increases during O’Malley’s tenure, totaling $9.5 billion. Perhaps not coincidentally, Maryland also has witnessed 31,000 of its citizens flee to other states, and has seen 6,500 small businesses also flee or shut down during the same period. Our elected greedheads have now grown so unabashedly sticky-fingered that they are even implementing a “rain tax,” taxing the already overtaxed citizens of our state, based on the area of their impervious surfaces such as roofs or driveways, which produce stormwater runoff. All, they claim, to help save the Bay, instead of say, helping to save their asses from future budget shortfalls.

Forget, for a second, how unappealing the alternatives for a Marylander like me are: living in the congested parking lot that is Northern Virginia, or worse, God forbid, the District of Columbia, whose most reliable source of  revenue comes from mugging suburban commuters with turtle-crossing speed limits and photo radar cameras, and which makes Port-au-Prince look like it has a low corruption quotient. By all rights, I could justifiably hold a grudge against my state. And I do –  politically.

But with our bounty of fishable water, why would I boycott? Why would I impoverish my life the way the nation’s worst governor, Martin O’Malley (in case I haven’t mentioned), tries to impoverish my bank account? Fish are apolitical. In all my fishing, I have never pulled one from the water  to have him ask me if I’ve read the latest Zogby poll. And most fishermen — the ones worth knowing — largely are, too. Or they can at least put their politics aside to realize there are bigger fish to fry. I’m fairly certain that my favorite fly shop proprietor, Theaux Le Gardeur, owner of the Backwater Angler in Monkton (who I have featured many times in this space) is a commie. Or not. I don’t  really know what he is – I just know that he isn’t a right-winger. And I couldn’t care less.

Because Theaux provides great conversation, clues me into hatches, and tells me which section of the Gunpowder River is fishing well. Just a few twilight hours of hooking into wild browns, upon following his good counsel, provides me more joy than finding ideological agreement with some like-minded windbag on the internet ever has. Relationships that transcend politics tend to be richer ones.

A few weeks ago when I stopped by the shop, Theaux, who is also a fang-baring Riverkeeper in his spare time, told me that a fracker, down from nearby Pennsylvania, was just browsing his fly bins. When he told Theaux what he did, Theaux kindly asked him to leave, on moral grounds. It was an act of conscience that roughly follows the biblical logic that it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a fracker to enter the kingdom of heaven. (At least if you care about water quality and the health of fisheries, as Theaux does.) Plenty of conservatives would find such behavior abhorrent. But not this one. I regarded the act as heroic. And lots of cockeyed environmentalists of the wingnut variety — Hank Jr.-listening  sportsmen who might hang a faux nutsack off the trailer hitch of their Ford F-150 with the tea party tailgate sticker — would concur. For nothing makes you appreciate nature’s most vigilant preservationists like spending lots of time in it yourself. I congratulated Theaux, bought some of his flies, then headed to the Gunpowder and caught more of his fish. On #18 Hendricksons, just as he predicted I would.

So if you  decide to bag Alaska, go catch steelies in Washington or Oregon in good conscience. You won’t find conservative fish or liberal fish, just beautiful ones.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.