Monday, February 4, 2013

A Discussion with FR&R Editor Greg Thomas

I had a revelation a few months ago. It was one of those things where you discover, as if struck by lightning, that something that used to be one way is now another. In this case, that thing had been changing forever but I didn't realize it. Perhaps my powers of observation are overrated.

The thing that had I had not noticed changing was the magazine, Fly Rod & Reel. Sometime in the past couple of years it had begun to change from a "how to" sort of thing to something different; not exactly literary but clearly not the bait and bullet mold.

I got in touch with Greg Thomas, Editor of FR&R, and he agreed to respond to a few questions about himself and the magazine. The results of that exchange are below.

Growing up in Alaska and Washington is seems like angling has been a part of your life right from the beginning. If fishing came first, are you an angler who writes or has your profession moved to the forefront and you're now a writing-angler? Or does that even matter?

I started fishing with my father, the artist Fred Thomas, when I was three or four. We caught steelhead and king salmon with regularity, plus big sea-run cutthroat. The outdoors has been at my core from birth, pretty much. Because my dad worked for himself he could always take up a friends offer to fish or hunt, when so many others couldn't. I wanted to mimic that. When it became clear that writing was something I excelled at—during high school—I decided that would be my ticket to doing just about whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it, in the outdoors. After college I shunned permanent work and just cruised the West. I didn't want to be a guy, say, from Florida, who fished Montana or anywhere else in the West for five days a year and then thought they would write a book about it. I wanted to be legit. So I bounced around, having fun, fishing nearly 200 days a year, living a pretty good, but lean life. I think that has paid off—when manuscripts cross my desk I know if a person really knows what they are talking about or they're just playing a game for gear or a trip somewhere. To your question, I'm at once a writer and an angler first.

What's your writing story -- when did it start, was it always about angling, where's it going?

At first I wanted to be a sports writer so I could afford to go to all the professional sporting events. Then the idea of fishing and hunting all the time took over. A teacher in high school once told me I was a very good writer and I ought to make a career of it. That was really the first time my academics had been acknowledged. So I enrolled at the University of Montana, mostly because of the fishing but also because they have a highly respected journalism program. Those journalism classes were invaluable. They taught me to write and edit strictly. But instead of going out and getting a newspaper job I always pursued freelance so I wouldn't have to be anywhere at anytime and could fish when it was prime. I struggled like most young writers, but has some early success, too. One day I said, this article that I just penned is as good as anything I've ever read in a travel or outdoors page of a national newspaper. I said I would send it to every major newspaper in the country until someone bought it. I faxed it (yes, that dates me) to the New York Times that night. I got a call in the morning with good news—the article has run in the national edition that day. Big break. Everything was pretty easy after that.

What writers influence you most?

I like reading the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, but his work is so fantastical it doesn't really influence my writing. Hemingway was a great storyteller and I think his work influenced me. McGuane is good, too, the best angling-essay writer alive. A.J. McClane was an early influence. But, really, Jerry Holleran, a professor at the University of Montana was the guy who ran my ass into the ground and made me a good journalist. He's responsible.

What writer, living or dead, would you want to work alongside, learning craft and sharing time on the water?

Probably Hemingway. He liked to tip them back and I do, too. But I think he was way more responsible than he's credited for. He worked hard, got his work done and done well, and then he cut loose. I'd like to work on the writing craft with him and get into his head, check out his mentality. I'd also liked to have learned boxing from him. I'd loved to have kicked his ass around in the ring. Or, yes, I'll admit it, it probably would have been the other way around. I don't know . . . he's just a man's man and was strong willed. He lived his life the way he wanted to and he lived it well with no excuses. There's a lot to be admired in that.

While this is not exactly fair, in Fly, Rod &Reel's pages between William's conservation column and Gierach's end story one has traditionally found the fare of a modern fly fishing magazine's -- go here, fish there, do it this way, etc -- but things seem to have shifted during the past year or so to a different kind of article and voice in FR&R. What's going on here?

I can't really take credit for the shift. I think the former editor, Joe Healy, is responsible for some of that. I worked under him for a couple years and our vision of what was tired in fly fishing and what could make a magazine stand out really meshed. We're both storytellers. And that is the key to Fly Rod & Reel and what separates us from the masses—we tell stories and along the way we give just enough information to allow someone to enjoy the same experience on their own or through a lodge or guide.

It's a big tent and it's all fun
 and games until someone starts
eating someone else's lunch.
Is the editorial shift for FR&R being driven by competitive pressures such as The Drake and The Flyfish Journal?

I've never felt any competitive pressure at all. All I try to do is what I think is best for the reader. I just want to do all of it better than anyone else. Regarding the Drake and Fly Fish Journal, I like both publications and feel that they are important to fly fishing. Tom Bie and I started our magazines at the same time and leaned on each other a little for advice. You know, Tom started the Drake by selling his driftboat; I started Tight Lines with about  a thousand dollars in my pocket. Both publications were successful and I'm proud of myself and Tom for having worked so hard. Tom now has his niche and Fly Rod & Reel has its niche. Steve Duda at FF Journal is a cool dude and doing a great job, too. It's not a matter of whether any of these three titles deserve to exist, it's just a matter of the industry supporting the effort.

Who are some of the new writers of our sport coming up in the pipeline - who are the guys you're reading and expect we'll see more of in the future?

The truth is there aren't very many high quality new writers coming into the fold. And there aren't a lot of old writers who are really good either. I'm not alone in searching for writers who are trained and care enough to turn in a manuscript that lacks errors, moves from point a to point b, and so on seamlessly. A lot of people consider themselves writers but few are writers. I say this because it opens up possibilities for anyone who does write well. Write well. Tell a great story. Edit your work. Provide hi-res photo support with the manuscript. Call me first.

The advent of electronic publishing, blogs, websites, etc. have created lots of outlets for readers to find content. Are books and print dead? 

Print magazine and books aren't dead. It's just an atrophying market. The best will remain. Hopefully the manufacturers and the advertisers will look critically at who's making the best effort and providing the best material and the'll support that. Honestly, I still think the printed word is the best way for people to educate themselves on certain subjects, inside and outside of fishing. If the printed word is lost and all we have is video, the world will continue its dumbing-down process and we're all headed for hell.

Haida Gwaii. I still think
he made it up.
If you could live by any body of water, which would it be?

Not fair. Not a fair question. I love the Big Hole River but after living in a small town for seven years I couldn't go back to rural living. I love tarpon and thought seriously about moving to the Florida Keys back in the 1990s when I spent up to a month a year there in May and June casting everyday for giants. But there aren't any mountains. And most important, I don't have any family there. Family is everything to me. I am from the Pacific Northwest and it is in my core. It courses through my veins. It's where all of my family lives. Maybe I'd live on a particular steelhead stream in Alaska, which I won't mention the name of. Or maybe a stream on Haida Gwaii [1]. The Dean River would be killer. I spent a week there one time in a dreamlike state. It was during my divorce. Life sucked. I could have fallen off the face of the planet and not cared. Then the Dean came along. Life seemed worth living after that.

What's your favorite angling experience to date?

Dean River, British Columbia. Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec. Tarpon out of Marathon, Florida. Redfish in Louisiana. All sick experiences. But my days on Silver Creek in central Idaho, when my sister and mother and father would visit, and we'd grab a Bowl of Soul at Java and race to the creek for the 6 a.m. Trico spinnerfall—that's when everyone was happy and healthy and the world seemed too be at our fingertips. Great times. Wonderful memories. Freakin' giant rainbows and browns on tiny dries.

If you had to give up fly fishing or writing about fly fishing, which would it be and why?

I'd give up the writing because I've achieved most of the goals I set. But to give up fishing? When I'm on the water nothing else matters. It's an escape from reality that helps me through life. That said, I don't know if I'd like fishing as much if there wasn't that overriding sensation to find meaning and a story in my trips to the water. The combination drives me to do it as often as I can.

Does PBR have redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?

Are you kidding me? Rainier, too. Ditto for Red Hook. Actually, I've never met a beer I didn't like, warm or cold.[2]

Not for drinking
Scotch or Whiskey[3]? Rocks or Neat?

Whiskey. Rocks. Tiny splash of water to bring out he flavor. To hell with peat bogs. They're hard to cross and it taste like crap.[4]

Are you cool because you fly fish? 

I saw a bumper sticker in Missoula on a souped-up, lifted Chevy truck. It said, "I don't care if you fly fish." Loved it.

Sometimes I think many of us think we're gods gift to humanity because we fly fish. And we consider ourselves better than most people and certainly better than people who would fish in any other way. I used to think that way, but I changed my stance years ago when I started to consider fishermen, whether jerkers, spin-dogs or even the commercial guys, as a body that can make a difference in government and policy decisions. Hey I'll turn in the  rat-bastard who's taking over his limit or killing a wild steelhead, or fishing with bait in a no-bait area, as fast as anyone. But I'm more accepting at this point. If they're playing by the rules they're ok by me.


You can catch more of Greg Thomas in the pages of FR&R or over on his blog, Angler's Tonic.

1 - Yeah, I thought he just made this up to mess with me, but there's actually such a place. Unless he made up the Wikipedia entry just to boldly manifest the lie.
2 - Clearly Greg has never tried this Belgian cherry wheat beer that tastes like Robitussin. Or maybe he has. That'd certainly say something.
3 - Would "Scotch or Bourbon?" been a more accurate question?
4 - While I'm generally a single malt guy, Woodford has it's charms.


  1. A man after my own heart, good stories and little hand rolled cigars.

    Beer works too.

    I like that last paragraph and as someone that doesn't fly fish much, the first two sentences is what has always annoyed me about the fly anglers. There are some of us spin-dogs out here who try to craft a good story that doesn't involve product placement or how-to's. We just have an extremely limited audience.

    1. There's plenty of room in my tent for a spin-dog. Especially if he brings the beer. :)

    2. There was a brief conversation with Mike Sepelak about invading Quill's domain. We can swing by on the way north. You're not far out of the way. The trunk will be full of beer, so you're gear has to go on the roof.

  2. Three graybeards pulling up with a car full of beer? You three will blend right in.

    1. We need to get this on the calendar. I'll shoot you an email when after consulting SWMBO.

  3. A couple of questions come to mind after re-reading Greg Thomas' responses.

    First, when he says "The truth is there aren't very many high quality new writers coming into the fold" I wonder which fold he means. FR&R's stable? I have looked in his print magazine and FR&R's web site and find no Guidelines for Submission or any other invite to join a fold.

    He says he is "not alone in searching for writers ... ". Where are he and these mysterious others searching? And when he says "Call me first", a phone number would help. Again, I find nothing in print or online. Maybe he meant to say "Send me an email first"?

    It's bad enough, hearing a wannabe complain about not being read while doing nothing to get noticed. It's worse to hear an editor bemoan the lack of good writers coming into the fold from the other side of an apparently locked gate.

    1. A good observation. FR&R has email addresses for all the contacts in each issue but there are no submission guidelines that I could find. I think The Drake does a nice job is laying out what they want though when you read the magazine you get a sense for how those guidelines are flexible. I'll poke Greg to see if I can get his point of view.