May 19, 2022
By Matthew L. Miller
Early in Casting Onward, author Steve Ramirez visits Walden Pond and contemplates a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”
This being a book in no small part about the healing power of fly fishing, you might expect Ramirez to do just that: to grab a fly rod and put the world behind him. In his varied career, Ramirez has been a Marine and a law enforcement officer, by his own admission coming up close and very personal with the absolute worst humanity has to offer. He’s suffered a fair share of disappointments and setbacks. And he loves nothing more than casting a fly to his beloved native bass in a remote Texas Hill Country river. In the great tradition of nature and outdoor writing, it would almost be expected that he strike out on his own into the great wide open.
Ramirez is not that guy, and this is not that book. He admits it was his first impulse. But he recognizes, correctly, that if we are going to get out of this mess—personal, societal or planetary—we need each other. He does indeed go fishing to heal. But he does so by seeking out others.
Casting Onward involves Ramirez’s travels across the United States, each journey organized as a quest for native fish in their natural habitat with a person who cares deeply for both fish and place. He fishes with professional conservationists like Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood, fishing guides like Cinda Howard, and artists including Bob White. (Full disclosure: I am one of the conservationists featured in the book.)
Such a book could easily become a catalog of blue-ribbon adventures, endless stories of 50-trout days and big ones that didn’t get away. I’ve read a lot of such books, and there’s nothing wrong with that particular strain of fly-fishing writing. But Ramirez’s book is the richer in that he meets people for whom fly fishing is not so much a lifestyle as it is an integral part of life. Enjoying others’ favorite home waters, Ramirez strives to fish with purpose, attentive to each detail of the experience. As he writes, “we are all better off mindfully catching and releasing a single fish in a special place than catching countless fish anywhere, mindlessly.”
While he enjoys his experience casting to Lahontan cutthroat trout on the famous Pyramid Lake, he also feels troubled by the fact that the fish are sustained by hatcheries. He would rather stalk a small redband trout in a desert stream than a “trophy” in a contrived situation.
Ramirez has a knack for capturing the totality of the fly-fishing experience. Yes, the hatches and flies and techniques are all here. But he knows those factors, as important as they are in catching fish, are just a small part of the overall experience. In the best tradition of essay writing, there are diversions that explore different topics, from the wildlife that he observes—the birds, the seals—and big topics like personal responsibility and what constitutes freedom. And he eloquently celebrates the often-overlooked details of a fly-fishing trip: the barbecue with a friend’s family, the road coffee, the soundtrack of loud Mongolian heavy metal on a bumpy road en route to a “cutt slam.”
Ultimately, Ramirez knows we won’t conserve what we don’t love. In eloquent prose that is at times hilarious and other times heartbreaking, he captures what he loves most: native fish and wild rivers and good friends among them.
In one adventure, Ramirez goes fishing with the often-fiery conservation writer Ted Williams. It’s notable that Williams actually says very little about conservation, but instead shares his deep love of casting to stripers and bluefish off the Cape Cod coast. Ramirez asks Williams what he loves most about this pursuit and he replies, “Everything . . . I love everything.”
Ramirez would say the same, as would every angler featured in this book and, hopefully, you. We love fly fishing not just for the fish or the streams or the perfect days. We love, well, everything. Few books capture that spirit, that totality of the experience, so well.