Written by: David Coggins
Do I have a lucky fishing hat? I’ll only answer that question if you answer it first. It’s a delicate thing to admit to superstitions when we should be working on our double haul or stealth-emerger tactics. But let’s just say I did have a lucky hat. It was slate blue and performed many years of trusty service. I wouldn’t say it ensured successful outcomes, but it was on the endearing side of serviceable. Like an accountant who may not be a genius, but you’ve gone this far together and can’t be bothered to change.
This hypothetical story gets more complicated. I was in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, my favorite place in America. But it was a horrid day. I hiked over to the Lamar River, but there had been a bear sighting in the area, so the river access was shut. I went upstream, but the water was high and off color. I persevered, which is what good anglers do, right? But when does it cross into foolishness?
That question takes a lifetime to answer. I tried big stimulators. I tried nymph rigs. Nothing. I couldn’t climb a muddy hill in my wading boots. It was a disaster, and the hat was not helping. I walked back through the park, trying to keep my perspective.
In that part of the park, you can leave your car near Soda Butte Creek, a very popular place to fish. Because of the bad weather, it was absolutely empty, just as the rain let up. Conditions were perfect, and fish were rising everywhere. It was on. I was laughing at this unexpected possibility at redemption. The creek was charged with life, I landed a few lovely cutthroats, and I felt a reprieve as I returned to my car.
That night, drinking bad beer in Gardiner, I realized I had left the hat back on the bank. I’m embarrassed to say that, the next day, I drove 45 minutes two ways to try to find it, as if it wouldn’t have moved in one of the a famously windy valley. I’m not sure what possessed me, perhaps some misguided sense of symmetry, which often takes over my mind when I fish. (Like if it starts to snow, then things must be so crazy I’ll catch a salmon—which didn’t happen.) In this case, the hat was gone. I tried to dismiss its power. It was just a hat. I looked on eBay, and there were none left. I decided I didn’t love it that much anyway. The bill was crooked, the color was faded—realizing these are all classic tropes of the spurned lover.
I settled on a new hat, which I claimed to love. When I was getting skunked the first time I wore it, I didn’t love it as much. And when I still hadn’t caught a fish halfway through the following day, I was in a state of extreme anxiety, like a child who’s coming to term with the unreality of a cherished childhood myth. No Santa Claus. No lucky hat. I think I had to acknowledge its power before I could move on. Things evened out the way they do. And cosmic forces seemed to fade into the distance.
I focused on what was in front of me. We look for meaning when we can’t explain why fishing humbles us. Why do we deserve this reversal of fortune? I’ve moved through a variety of hats and settled on one from Coop’s Bait and Tackle, the legendary outfitter in Martha’s Vineyard. Green, waxed cotton, with a striped bass on the front. It’s been a good relationship.
Recently I was separated from this hat in the airport. I couldn’t remember if I had left it in the taxi, but it wasn’t in my bag and it wasn’t at security. It was a catastrophe. I was about to head to my flight when, on its own, the hat arrived in a plastic tray through the X-ray machine. Joy! It was meant to be. The gods smiled upon me. Yes, this hat is the chosen one. Yes, it brings me luck. I have no doubt—none at all—that next time I’m on the water will be a very good day.
David Coggins is the author of Men and Manners and the New York Times best-selling Men and Style. He has written about travel, fly fishing, design, and drinking for numerous publications, including Esquire, Robb Report, the Financial Times, and Bloomberg Pursuits. He lives in New York. Check him out on Twitter and Instagram.