With his previous books on manners and style, journalist, author, sportsman, and bon vivant David Coggins demonstrated an ability to impart wisdom with wit and verve, managing to both inform and entertain. In his latest work, The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life, now available on Amazon, he addresses his passion for angling, a suitably literary pursuit, with similar flair.
It's no coincidence that The Optimist is being brought out by Scribner, the New York-based house famous for having published Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (among others). While there are parallels in Coggins' life and work, he never parrots anyone else, and has carved out his own persona, in real life and on the page. The Optimist is a damn fine read, whether or not you've ever contemplated picking up a rod and reel.
With the New York Times having recently proclaimed the return of fly fishing, the uninformed reader could be forgiven for thinking Coggins is merely hopping on the bandwagon. In fact, he has been fishing since boyhood, having begun doing so at his family's lakeside cabin in Wisconsin. In the years since he has visited most of the world's great fly fishing spots, from the upper reaches of Maine to Argentina, and cast his line. Each locale features as a chapter in The Optimist.
"When upstanding yet angling-agnostic citizens find out I’m fishing for a week in Montana, they raise an eyebrow; when they find out I’m going to the Bahamas, they raise two," Coggins writes in the book's introduction. "It’s as if I’m not merely leaving town but leaving society, the society that’s employed, productive, efficient, and to their mind, necessary. Fishing in the modern world, I’ve come to realize, is a contrary act.... to seek sporting opportunities in far-flung places strikes many as decadent."
However, it "didn’t always seem that way," he notes. "I began fishing as a boy not because I thought it was morally redeeming, but because I loved it.... What I enjoyed then I still enjoy now: the solitude and mystery, the bursts of action, the near misses, the occasional triumphs, and, when it’s over, rowing home in silence, the water smooth as glass. As a man, standing in a stream on a weekday afternoon in late spring, casting to trout, is a more conscious decision. I still do it for the sheer joy of being outside, of concentrating.... [and] of the doubts and rewards" it brings.
Of course, being one of his generation's preeminent men of style as well, Coggins has an admitted addiction to the picturesque pastime's paraphernalia, from fishing vests to waxed canvas jackets, and everything else you can cram into the back of a verging-on-vintage Volvo station wagon. And so the bearded belletrist has partnered with a number of brands on some beautifully-made, limited edition Optimist-related items, which are quickly selling out.
For instance, the Coggins Boat Shoe, a Huckberry exclusive created by Coggins in collaboration with Maine's Rancourt & Co., which is down to just a few pairs; and The Optimist glasses by Kirk Originals, the ultimate shades for outdoor pursuits, that he also helped design. It takes one man 18 hours to make each pair, by hand, and the initial run flew out the door, but pre-orders are being taken for the next. Coming up in September is the Coggins x Drake’s collection, which will include a waxed cotton outdoor sportcoat and a barn coat, among other items.
And then there's his collaboration with Quaker Marine (founded in 1949), dubbed The Optimist Collection, including the Swordfish Hat and Angler Shirt Jacket (available for pre-order), with cap colors inspired by three of the places in the book—light blue for the Bahamas, khaki for Patagonia, and olive green for the Catskills. As equally well suited to having drinks on the dock as it is for actually fishing.
All these items play into Coggins' assertion in The Optimist that "A good angler has an attitude that reflects a worldview, a sense of style that communicates a personality. A lucky hat, a few dubious theories, some secret knowledge, an invented fly, a hidden flask, a friend in Scotland with access to a famous river, a sense of the improbable." Of course, it's a club of sorts, but it's open to anyone who makes the time to go out on the water and try his luck—though not at Coggins' favorite secret fishing hole, preferably.