The Problem with Fishing Stereotypes (AKA Profiling)



Jay Nicholas

I quite resent being chained by stereotypes. I resist being herded by labels. I can’t help it though; none of us can. We are neatly shunted into various categories, bins and silos, all to satisfy the needs of advertisers, and ultimately the needs of the businesses who want to sell us stuff. 

We’ve been categorized by our age, skin color, income, gender, the fish we aspire to catch, our brand of waders, our boat, where we live, and more.

It’s inescapable. 

We’ve been caught in a net strung across our lives by our computers, our phones, and wherever we shop. They sweep us up, drop us in a bin and show us “content” designed to make our hearts sing, our imaginations soar, our wallets (virtually) open.

I don’t mind when I’ve been coaxed into buying stuff. That new fly line, camera, or maybe those rubber legs in the fluorescent holographic colors have been on my mind for months. My life will be better, I’m convinced, for buying those things. I’m sure I’ll catch more bass, trout, crappie, or whatever too. 

The part I rather don’t appreciate is when the machine of demographic messaging serves to shape my thinking in ways that diminish my opinion of anglers who live in a different bin than me.

Objectively, the brainiacs sure got me nailed: I’m an old, white, male, fly fisher, boat owner. But please, people, don’t message me in ways that make me live in this little slot thinking that my kind of people are somehow better than folks who live and fish in another bin. 

What's this frog's fishing stereotype?  Does his spinning rod make him a "snagger" anymore than another's fly rod?

What’s this angler’s stereotype?

What if I also like to flip jigs into some lily pads in a nearby lake and try to catch a bass? What if I’d love to spend an afternoon in a lawn chair on a dock with some kids, watching my bobber jiggle while bluegill nibble at a gob of worms? What if I like to tie rubber-leg jigs to bounce off the bottom of the ocean where lingcod live, or troll a feather jig on a handline for albacore? What if I’ve got a centerpin reel that I tape onto a Spey rod every once in a while. 

I may wear my ball cap old-man style with a curved bill down over my eyes, but what if some of my friends wear the trucker variety. And what if I like to go out of my way to help Hispanic novices figure out the best baits where I fish? 

What about all that?

Please let me roam around the world of fishing if I want to.

One problem with demographic categorization is that it limits what people are able to see, on our computers, our phones, and our YouTube offerings. 

I don’t like it when all the images I see in fishing ads feature 70-year- old rich white guys dining on catered meals on the banks of rivers where it costs 50-grand-a-week to wet a line. 

The profiling is everywhere we fish. You know what I’m talking about.

“Those fly guys, you know the type?” 

That’s how the conversation starts, and it is usually downhill from there. 

“Those bobber-doggers, you know the type?”

“Those jig-and-bobber-guys?”

Here’s a solid example and a suggestion for how to foil the demographers best efforts to drive us anglers apart. 

The year was 2003, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I was new to the business of fly fishing for chinook salmon, although I had been gear -fishing for kings forty years. 

Here I am with one of my first Kings caught with a fly rod from the Rogue River.  My goodness I was proud.  I guess this makes me a stereotypical fly guy?Here I am with one of my first Kings caught with a fly rod from the Rogue River.  My goodness I was proud.  I guess this makes me a stereotypical fly guy?

Two hundred yards apart, two groups of anglers fished for salmon on the Rogue in 2003. “My” group was composed mostly of old white men, fly anglers from Oregon and California, anchored in prams. In my fifties, I was the youngest of the lot. The other group fished from the bank downriver, gear anglers mostly, with diverse skin color, age, dollars invested in their gear, and gender.

“They’re all snaggers.” Someone in my hog-line proclaimed. “They’re all fishing Corkys, all snaggers. Fish-hogs, all of ‘em. No respect for the fish. Just out to fill the freezer, that’s all they care about.”

Two days later, I stood among “those snaggers,” wearing chore boots, listening and watching them fish. 

They caught salmon that morning, just as my buddies upriver had the previous morning.. Some were flossed, and a few were hooked in the tail, or the dorsal fin – but roughly 85% were fair as could be, inside the month and down the gullet. Their percentage of fouled salmon was about the same as I’d seen upriver in the “fly-guy” hog-line. 

Then I heard it, the proclamation uttered by a man wearing black hip boots beside me. He said it so casually, so matter-of-factly, that I almost missed it. “They’re all a bunch of snaggers; rich old men, fly guys from California. Catch-and-release idiots, all they’re doing is wearing-out snagged fish for the seals.  

How sad. Two groups of people fishing two-hundred yards apart, kept apart by false narratives and demographic profiling. And there’s something else at work here too. There is a real “thing” that happens when I’m out on the water. People see me in my fancy waders, with my fancy fly poles, and my boat, and a GoPro camera – all of a sudden some of these folks, the ones who don’t know me, often think that I’m aloof, that I think I’m better, somehow, than they are, and wouldn’t take the time to stop and visit a while.  

I bet you know what I’m talking about – and I’m not even a betting man.

While this is real, I’m not falling for it. I’m defying my demographic, stepping out to share adventures and stories with people who might fish differently than the demographic analysts say I should. 

Here I am, a fly-guy, with a spoon-caught summer steelhead on the South Santiam. Oops! Now what’s my demographic?

Here I am, a fly-guy, with a spoon-caught summer steelhead on the South Santiam. Oops! Now what’s my demographic?

Fishing is about having fun, and no matter what our age, skin color, or what and how we fish, we have something wonderful in common – let’s keep it that  way.

Remember, when someone tries to convince you that you are the best of the best, or think less of someone who’s different, resist. Fight the tribal tendency, make friends with people who fish differently than you do.

You might be surprised at how nice “those people” are, and how much your own fishing might benefit from sharing tactics and fishing psychology of anglers in a different demographic,

So ends my blather on the dangers of demographic profiling, and my suggestion for kicking it in the ass. 

As always, thank you for your kindness, we all need a lot of that right now. 

Jay Nicholas