Give me an old one with dirt on it

WITH ALL THE TALK I HEAR THESE DAYS about flat-brims, ironic trucker hats, and hipsters, I’ve been thinking about baseball caps and how they function as extensions of identity. A crisp New Era cap with a glittering sticker on the bill is separated from my sweat-stained fishing-logo lid by a cultural gulf as big as the Bering Sea.

For me, ball caps are like trucks or romantic partners: My relationship with them solidifies with time and shared experience. They improve with a few creases and stains. A new hat is like a first date, shiny and exciting, but also stiff and awkward. Sliding into a well-worn cap is like jumping in bed with an old friend—it may not be Hollywood sexy, but you can fart under the sheets and laugh about it.

These days I have way too many hats; I think most of us do. The majority of them hang, rigid and unworn, on a wooden rack beside my tying bench. I really only wear a few hats: two with trucker-style mesh for the summer and another two with solid cotton for the cold months. The rest dangle as monuments to the idea of a hat, or maybe I just have trouble throwing shit away.

I never really thought about a cap as a fashion statement until recently. To me they were more like mojo sponges that shielded my eyes. Wearing the right hat meant the difference between a skunking or landing a big fish. I have always treated caps as sacred objects, at least the “lucky” ones. The hat I was given when I first made the little league all-star team remained my chosen headgear through college, when I went through my thread-the-ponytailthrough- the-gap-above-the-sizing-adjustment phase. That hat shaded the reel as I hauled in my first marlin, mahi mahi, and tuna. It hung above my high-school bed while I lost my virginity (on He-Man sheets no less). The plastic eventually succumbed to sun and salt exposure, and it disintegrated into a bluish ball of cheap Chinese fabric. But I’ve still got it in a box somewhere.

My current favorite was branded as “lucky” in a way that had nothing to do with catching fish. I got it for Christmas, and it sat on the rack with all the other shiny new ones until early February. I grabbed it on a blustery morning and sported it to the put-in at Bear Trap Canyon on the lower Madison River.

Bear Trap has three sections of whitewater, two of which are bubbly wave trains that pose little challenge to an experienced rower. The third is trickier, with a series of drops and boulders that seem designed for flipping rafts. On this particular day, I paddled in full of hubris and idiocy. I even wore my waders. My last words before pushing into the froth were, “No worries dude, I see the line.”

I flipped on the first wave, before I even got to the technical section, and swam the entire 200-yard rapid. Halfway through, my boot got lodged between two boulders in a keeper-hole. I was probably under for less than 30 seconds, but they were 30 seconds of near freezing water trickling under my wading belt. I eventually pulled my leg free and popped back up gurgling and sputtering.

When I finally eddied out and puked river water, my brand new Smith sunglasses were gone, ripped from my face, Croakies and all. My new hat, on the other hand, remained on my narrow melon. That was seven years ago, and I’ve worn the hat ever since. Now it looks like it’s been through the sullied gullet of a West Virginia coal mine.

I’ve given up believing that hats influence fishing success, but I still develop emotional connections to inanimate headgear. My love for hats has nothing to do with fashion. The truth is, I’m embarrassed to wear new-looking hats. What would my dirtbag fishing buddies think if they saw me in an unblemished flat-brim? They would probably ask to see my white-rimmed shades and skinny jeans.

Fishermen wear stained lids as badges of pride and evidence of status. The tourist or recent arrival probably has a few pheasant tails and hoppers buried on top of the brim. The industry guy always has a clean one prominently displaying corporate affiliation. But the best ones feel like oilcloth and look like extensions of the face they shade.

For the crowd I run with, experience is social capital. All those stains and rumples kneaded into a hat are the stitching of time on the water. They are evidence of belonging, like calloused hands and sun-damage.

[MILES NOLTE teaches writing at Montana State University, and is the angling editor for Gray’s Sporting Journal..]