WC is a fairly serious fly fisherman. The virulence of his affliction varies from time to time. As he reported earlier, WC spent a three month sabbatical in 1993 fly fishing in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
WC started fishing fairly young.
They are just Chums – Dog Salmon in a Yu’pik town like Bethel – but they weren’t bad when carefully smoked. WC has fished pretty much ever since, including twenty-plus years of trips to the Situk River near Yakutat, chasing spring run Steelhead Trout. For those who don’t fly fish, Steelhead are salt-run Rainbow Trout, and it can take 20-30 minutes to land a big one on fly gear. This particular fish involved a fight of more than half an hour.
Yes, WC released the fish after the photo was taken. The Situk River has North America’s largest purely wild Steelhead Trout fishery, with the small 20-mile long stream supporting a run of 7,500 steelhead, as well as large runs of all five salmon species. It’s a crime against nature to eat a fish that, unlike salmon, can return to salt water and spawn year after year.
The problem now, of course, is that, in Thumper’s phrase, the water is all stiff on top. Fly fishing is past impractical. So instead, WC reads about fly fishing. And there are some very, very good books on fly fishing. WC willl briefly discuss three.
The River Why, David James Duncan [Amazon Link]
First, it’s not really a book about fishing. Duncan uses fishing as one kind of bait, along with wonderful humor, beautiful writing and memorable characterization, to make a much larger, much more important set of points.
Second, the plot isn’t about fishing, or living in harmony with nature; it’s about a young man’s discovering what life really is. The Perfect Schedule – young Gus’s plan for getting in the absolute maximum number of hours a day fishing – turns out to be a horrible failure. It takes a long time for Gus to realize something is wrong, including a harrowing adventure with a drowned man and some pretty serous sickness. Now it may be – ahem – that fisherpersons are more stubborn or more stupid, but Duncan has Gus discover that there are things more important than fishing, and that those things can lead to still greater things. And that all of that can make the fishing better.
Third, while Duncan and Gus poke immense amounts of fun at it, this really is a re-casting of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Fisherman, although Walton is nearly unreadable and Duncan writes extraordinarily well. This book is also about more or less the same thing as those “witlesses” that Ma brings to grief, although both Gus and the Witlesses would likely deny it. One of Duncan’s subtle messages is there, too.
Fourth and last, like a fish taking a fly, when you read this book you will be so dazzled by the gorgeous fly of Duncan’s humor, writing and characterization that you will miss the hook and line of his real message until, like Gus, the line of light has you and you feel that gentle tug in your heart.
Beautiful and subtle, hilarious and passionate, charming and amazing, this book is simply an astonishing piece of writing. It’s one of my ten or so favorite books, and likely will be one of yours, too.
A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean [Amazon link]
Sure, the book has been Redford-ized, turned into a pretty movie, but if you can get the movie out of your head, this is a fine book, probably the best written of the three. MacLean can turn a phrase as well as any English writer, and when he says, near the end of the novella, “I am haunted by water,” you feel the meaning in the small hairs at the base of your neck. This is the story of a profoundly dysfunctional family, united by a love of fishing, and especially fly fishing. When MacLean tells us, at the start, that in his family there was no clear line drawn between fishing and religion, he is telling nothing less than the truth. A life framed in four steps, between ten and two.
Where The River Why is generally upbeat, MacLean’s story is a tragedy, not just because of the death of the younger brother, Paul, but because of the utter inability of the brothers to understand, let alone help, one another.
Exquisitely written and ineffably sad, this is a wonderful story wonderfully told.
The Earth Is Enough, Harry Middleton [Amazon link]
This is the story of a young boy growing up in a military family, stationed at a staging area during the Vietnam War. When one of his friends is killed – and Harry badly injured – playing with a grenade they found in the jungle, Harry is packed off to his grandfather, a subsistence farmer in the Ozarks of Arkansas. There, with his grandfather, granduncle and the old American Indian, Elias Wonder, Harry is healed, not just of the trauma of seeing his friend disappear in a “pink mist” but healed as well of a great deal of other things he may not have known ailed him.
As Harry learns the rhythms of the land and the mysteries of Starlight Creek from his grandfather and the irascible Elias Wonder, he grows and the reader grows with him. Like David James Duncan’s The River Why, this is a book about growing up and coming of age, and flyfishing – that “hopeless addiction to trout and the push of water against your legs” – is simply the author’s narrative tool.
Harry must have been a more patient and willing teenager than I was, or perhaps time has colored over Harry’s experience, but there is nothing else to criticize. Beautifully written, exceptionally well told, full of life, sadness, humor, death and understanding.
And if flyfishing became an addiction for Harry, that was to haunt him in his later years, well, he was warned and in any event there are far worse fates.
So there you have it. Three stories to read on cold winter nights, while we all wait for the creeks to melt, the streams to clear and the fish to rise. You don’t have to like or enjoy fly fishing to enjoy any of these books; in each, fishing is the frame in which larger, more important matters are drawn. But if you do fish, it’s a bridge towards liquid water and the twitch of the fly rod in your hand as the grayling takes the fly.