Tom Brokaw has practiced the art of fly fishing for more than 30 years. The renowned journalist and author is one of the sport’s most famous advocates. Brokaw has fished all over the world with the likes of Yvon Chouinard, Tom McGuane and the father of modern fly fishing himself—Lefty Kreh. He’s landed monster salmon in Russia, hosted a popular fly-fishing show on the Outdoor Channel and was honored with a Heritage Award from The American Museum of Fly Fishing. Despite those unrivaled experiences, Brokaw still considers himself a student of fly fishing. “What I’ve learned is that you never stop learning,” he told Men’s Journal recently.
The seasoned angler, who recently celebrated his 78th birthday, shared some insight from his travels, wisdom gained from more than three decades of casting a fly.
Where have you fished that impressed you the most?
I thought Kamchatka was phenomenal because you had grizzly bears 20 yards from you fishing for the same prey. Then, in the not too far distance, you had volcanoes going off. When I was there, you were the guest of the Russians. That made me nervous at first because we’d had some bad experiences with them. But by then, they had gotten their act together—and the fish were huge. I didn’t fish with Gorbachev, but we talked about it. I did talk to Putin, who fishes. It turns out that I’d been to more places in the Far East and Russia than he had been at that point.
What did you learn from fly fishing overseas?
The universality of it. I had a memorable experience fishing in Mongolia on my own, walking down a river and coming back through a camp of nomads. We couldn’t speak each other’s language. It was my last day, so I gave them all of my flies. Then they got a wild, young stallion for me to ride back to my camp. It took everything I had to keep the stallion going in the right direction, accompanied by a bunch of kids. My wife will never forget the sight of me coming over the hill, holding my fly rod in one hand, with my knees up to my chin because the saddle was so small, and all these kids whooping and hollering. That was a memorable occasion. You don’t get that if you are sitting in a café somewhere on the Rue du Four in Paris or if you’re in some place in Italy, which is as grand as they are. What fly fishing requires is that you step into nature and accept it on its terms.
It’s nature at its complete best. And you don’t have to talk to anybody. It’s just you and nature and the water and trying to outfox the fish—which is not easy to do.
Do you have a favorite fly?
No, really I don’t. It depends on what’s going on at the time. I like dry fly fishing, and in sequence, I like dry fly fishing for trout. I like bonefishing next. I haven’t done enough of the salmon fishing, but I love the ritual of salmon fishing as much as anything and the big, beautiful flies that come with it.
Having lived and worked in New York City, do you have a favorite fly-fishing destination in the East?
In West Cornwall, Connecticut, the Housatonic River is kind of a legendary old river and we had a place up there. What I loved about it, I could have a terribly long, difficult time during the ‘90s when all hell was breaking loose all over the world and go out there at dusk and see these wonderful old Yankee fly fishermen with their poetic casts. With the trees beginning to turn in New England, I didn’t care if I hooked up or not. I just loved being there. It was therapeutic.
Which river is your favorite to fish?
I think the river I have [access to] in Montana will always be home for me. It’s not a great, great river. It’s a very good trout river in Montana that runs right through our ranch. I can be working on something, get stuck, turn around, jump into my waders and grab my rod. Within 10 minutes, I’m over a good riffle with my dog behind me. So I think that pretty much qualifies.
What have you learned from a life of fly fishing?
I think fly fishing is spiritual because you are so one-on-one with nature. It’s not just the water, it’s what’s going on in the riparian zones. While you are looking at that, you’re also keeping your eye on the osprey to make sure that they are not invading your fishing grounds. Then all around you, whether it’s saltwater or fishing for salmon in Nova Scotia, it’s nature at its complete best. And you don’t have to talk to anybody. It’s just you and nature and the water and trying to outfox the fish—which is not easy to do. And then when you catch one and release it, it’s a beautiful act.