Nonfiction | June 01, 1987

My first job, green out of college, was as chief reporter for the Idaho Free Press, circulation 6,000. I handled obituaries, city hall, school board, and the sports page. In the sports section I ran a daily column and called it Fans’ Forum, in the naive and misguided hope that the public would suggest or even contribute much of the material.

Idaho folks, it turns out, don’t care that much to write. I ended up supplying all the copy myself. After a few weeks, I didn’t mind anyway. My ego was capable of daily inflation at the sight of my own byline.

Outdoor sports was one of the subjects on which I thought myself competent to expound. I saved some of those columns, and I quote a couple of leads below, appalling as they are, to make clear that my comment on the prose of outdoor writers is also self-criticism.

Odds bodkins and shades of Sherwood Forest! In this
age of radar and rock and roll the stalwart men of the long
bow yet walk the green glades.

Once in a while a man has to stop and take stock of his
inmost beliefs. This is nowhere truer than in the art—or
science—of fishing.

Two booted and weather-bronzed men sat silent and still
as stones on the lake shore.

Usually I was better than that. Occasionally worse. But my greatest failing was in never reaching some extreme, either of badness or of excellence. For “outdoor” writers tend to be zealots, men who take up the pen only to rhapsodize a favorite stream or propagandize for a particular lure. Some real writers have also written about fishing (Zane Grey, Hemingway, Melville), and written well about it, and some of the regulars in the sports mags (Trueblood, O’Connor) achieve a wonderful compression and drive in rendering, over and over, the battle of the Big One. But the average book or tract in the field is by an enthusiastic amateur.

Some of the most entertaining of these angling authors are absolutely dead serious in their investigations. At the practical level they undertake to invent collapsible poles or pipe and spectacle cases that clip onto rods or creels. On the theoretical plane, they seek ultimate answers: Can a trout see colors? Do they eat their own young? Are they smart or dumb? Do they talk to each other? What makes them angry? Or sluggish? Do they sleep?

The ichthyologist may classify, or tell us when, where, and how trout spawn, but no one has explored the psychology of fish more intently than these mad old geezers who spend every spare moment thrashing up and down the remote waterways of Maine and Montana.

From an examination of a fish’s eye with a powerful
magnifying glass no sign or “spark” of intelligence is to be
found. There is a consistent lack of the slightest expression
of the eye at all times and under all conditions.

—Charles Zebeon Southard, A Treatise on Trout for
the Progressive Angler

The more fanatical of these scribblers probably do not break into print, except at their own expense. But a number of respectable publishing houses have issued books by streamside monologists who fill up hundreds of pages with their reflections on trout and life. In fact, these tomes, usually unintentionally, contain a remarkable charm and humor. Their intensity, naiveté, and strange organization are more interesting than many smart, trimly written books. Like all great experimentalists, they permit themselves stylistic excesses beyond the usual canons of taste:

The pride of place as regards the very pink of Nature’s
charms must be given to our trout streams; the lavish
profusion of their summer beauty and the ambrosial
essence of their woodland delights will efface the cares
and stress of modern life, and refresh our jaded senses
with the delights of their never ending variety of delicate
beauties. These haunts of the trout will soothe our wearied
eyes with the delicate shades of their leafy surroundings
and with the exquisite pictures reflected in their limpid
depths, while our city-tainted nostrils will be cleansed by
the delicious fragrance of the country side.

—Fred G. Shaw, The Science of Dry Fly Fishing (1906)

(Fred, by the way; was Amateur Champion, Trout Fly Casting, at the International Tournament of 1904.).

In an earlier age, when the educated classes possessed rather more skill in fashioning an artful prose, there were ingenious forms available to the writer. No less a scholar than Sir Humphry Davy, friend of Coleridge and experimenter with gases (including nitrous oxide), took up the pen in the twilight of life to compose a formal dialogue,Salmonia, on the merits of fly-fishing. In these calm, rhetorical glades, Halieus argues spiritedly with Physicus, an unenlightened visitor from the city, to convince him that far from an act of barbarity, fishing demonstrates mankind’s march out of the slime toward the empyrean realms of philosophy.

Hal.—The search after food is an instinct belonging to our
nature; and from the savage in his rudest and most
primitive state, who destroys a piece of game, or a
fish, with a club or spear, to a man in the most
cultivated state of society, who employs artifice,
machinery and the resources of various other animals,
to secure his object, the origin of the pleasure is
similar, and its object the same; but that kind of it
requiring the most art may be said to characterize
man in his highest or intellectual state; and the
fisher for salmon and trout with the fly employs not
only machinery to assist his physical powers, but
applies sagacity to conquer difficulties; and the
pleasure derived from ingenious resources and
devices, as well as from active pursuit, belongs to
this amusement. Then, as to its philosophical
tendency, it is a pursuit of moral discipline, requir-
ing patience, forbearance, and a command of temper.

Drifting back another century, we find anglers resorting as often as not to song or poem. The artifice of verse proves most seemly to describe the elegant strategies and cunning engines of the fly-fisher’s craft, and we may imagine the gentlemen of the eighteenth century, snuffboxes and cards put aside, simultaneously casting over the riffles of a chalk stream and toying with the dactyls and iambs of a new stanza. Hence the mighty lines of blank verse in James Thomson’s The Seasons(1730), a book-length composition often cited as a principal forerunner of Romanticism:

There throw, nice judging, the delusive fly;
And as you lead it round in artful curve,
With eye attentive mark the springing game.
Straight as above the surface of the flood
They wanton rise, or urged by hunger leap.
Then fix, with gentle twitch the barbed hook:
Some lightly tossing to the grassy bank,
And to the shelving shore slow-dragging some
With various hand proportion’d to their force.

Ah, with various hand proportion’d! Something, indeed, has been lost in our conversion to the terse and snippy prose of the Hemingway tradition. (We caught a few fish. They were clean and hard and small. It did not matter. We wrote about the fishing, and perhaps the sun going behind the hill, and of course the whiskey. The whiskey was always there.) These early poets suffused cots and fields and bosky dells and shady rills with all hues of metaphor, and told, upon occasion, more than they knew. One wonders if Herman Boaz, composer of a song in the 1820 Fisher’s Garland, fully grasped the implications of his own figures when he raised a glass to the fair sex:

So Wives and Sweethearts now let’s drink,
Let each man fill his glass,
And may we never speak or think
to disconcert our Lass!—
Then, when our lines are all worn out,
and feeble grows the hook,
They’ll ne’er forget the Angler
that angled in the brook.

Of course no modern outdoor writer of the first rank can afford to linger too long in the dense undergrowth of theory and speculation. The average Joe who buys a magazine is mostly interested in the tackle and trim and technology of the trade (Dash it! These old texts are infectious!). After all, for eleven months out of the year he is probably confined to office and hearth, able only to dream ahead to his few weeks of summer vacation. He must plot streamside strategy in the abstract, while fondling some new gadget like a prayer bead.

Also, of course, advertising pays for magazines, and it is no surprise to find stories laced with references to expensive gear. The author who knows his readership (and his editors) and how to hook them, will serve up a neat mix of action-packed anecdote, sober evaluation of new equipment or technique, and lofty theorizing. The style that results, in an ideal form, resembles Raymond Chandler and Carl Sagan collaborating on an article for Consumer Reports.

This tradition of straightforward, practical commentary is in fact the oldest in our culture, and our first major writer is, remarkably, a woman. Dame Juliana Berners, in The Second Book of Saint Albans(1496), foreswore idle fancy and set forth in her terse and direct Middle English only the facts about angling. The good Prioress assembled two pamphlets, one on hawking and hunting, the other on casting the fly. There we learn that, before reels, one employed a buoyant wooden pole, so that after a big fish struck one could throw in his whole outfit and let the lunker exhaust himself towing it about. We learn also how materials like deer hair and red wool and waterfowl feathers made twelve basic fly patterns, how the best lines were braided from horsehair, the best tippets from three strands of the same material. And the reason for the invention of the hollow, collapsible rod, she reports with a wink that carries across half a millennium, is “so that no man will know the errand on which you are going.”

In the next couple of centuries this shrewd, direct approach remains strong. Though Izaak Walton (1657) and his contemporaries seldom kept entirely to the hard-headed business of catching the creatures (The Compleat Angler is a tissue of wonderful, windy digressions), they argued among themselves over method rather than ultimate meaning. For example, one of Walton’s contemporaries, Captain Richard Franck, denied the convention of the three-strand leader, which had endured since Dame Juliana’s time. He could, he asserted, land any salmon in England with a single horsehair. This claim, like many subsequent ones in the history of this art, reeks of the ale-house.

Still, one misses especially the sentimental rhapsodies, the cranky notions, the garrulous tall tales of the middle period, the Romantic Age and its Victorian aftermath. It is heartening to recall these ordinary mortals—garbed in their inventions and possessed by their hypotheses, no longer ironmongers or bankers or retired railway clerks or vicars—casting, untangling backlashes, scheming, falling into rivers, dreaming, peering into the crystal ball of the trout’s eye. All the quirkiness of humankind, the turmoil of aspiration and disappointment, the need for grace and style in the face of adversity—these ferment in the mind of the enthusiast and spill over into print, giving us a literature that the grander events of famine, plague and revolution seldom equal. The fish story is a true folk art. Even at its most cumbersome and overblown, it is preferable to the sort of prose we have since evolved to deal with our finny friends:

No trout are sold alive. Wet ice is used to market about 25
per cent and all the rest is frozen. In the processing of table
trout the Snake River Trout company is not only the leader
in the field but it is unique in its mechanization methods.
Trout are frozen within 30 minutes after leaving the
rearing ponds. They are kept for 12 hours in a sharp
freezer before being packaged and then in storage from 1
to 30 days before being shipped to market.
—D. B. Greenberg, Trout Farming (1960)

A final fancy—if you will, dear reader, indulge me. Once more we must turn to the Romantics, those tortured geniuses who had heard enough of order, measure, propriety and the “natural” hierarchy of the universe. They were always taking the Other Side of matters, the worm’s eye view, as it were. Byron sneers at those generations of sporting gentlemen and their chief prophet:

And angling too, that solitary vice,
Whatever Izaac [sic] Walton sings or says:
The quaint old cruel coxcomb in his gullet
Should have a hook and a small trout to pull it.
Don Juan, Canto XII, stanza cvi.

Without the sneer, the idea is engaging and even contemporary (Oh adjective most Encomiastic!). There is something Eastern about it, transcendental, the identity of slayer and slain, the angler reborn as a bass, etc. Zen has already infiltrated archery and cookery and motorcycle repair; it is a wonder that few have perceived how closely and naturally these notions of mindless meditation would ally with advanced dry fly-fishing. A wee snatch of feathers has to arrive on the surface of a pool like a gnat suffering an abrupt coronary. To perform that feat on a twisty, brushy creek, with the sun flashing off the water and a zillion other carnivorous insects in the air, is an exercise in self-discipline and concentration that rivals the achievement of the most powerful roshis.

In both cases the casual observer sees nothing extraordinary: oddballs with shaved heads and saffron nightgowns sit cross-legged for hours, apparently asleep; a man stands knee-deep in icewater, still as a heron, periodically waving his hand or scratching himself. The notion that it takes years of frustration and grim perseverance to do those things properly appears absurd. And “arguments” for the two positions are equally weak—are, in fact, nonexistent. Try it, they say with a faraway look. You’ll see.

Lurking in the Lord’s flippant canto is another profound suggestion, this one leading us to a primal archetype, the mysteries of savage communion.

The evidence of anthropology is that countless men and
women, through history and pre-history, have experi-
enced a deep sense of communion and communication
with nature and with specific non-human beings. Moreover,
they often experience this communication with a being
they customarily ate.
Gary Snyder, The Old Ways (1977)

Snyder might have gone further: it is common enough for primitive tribes to elect someone (usually unpopular) to serve as a sacrifice to these edible creatures. The elect may become a ceremonial banquet for the rest. The fish is a traditional symbol of Christ, and so in the famous miracle He fed Himself to the multitudes. In a more balanced universe some of the multitudes would be fed to the sharks.

In my own view there is always, in the faultless presentation of the fly, a thread of holy terror in the pleasure, a hint of this cross-over of stalker and prey. To know both—to be at once the bait and the devourer—is an experience of a very high order. It is the holistic dynamic equilibrium sought as “enlightenment,” the still center where contraries are balanced. The old primal serpent swallowing his tail, making the ring of power.

When one is casting perfectly, attentive only to the fly and its motion, one is that fly, one breathes life into it, one flutters and then rides, apprehensive, over unknown depths where something fierce prowls; the deceiver is himself deceived. When that fierce thing strikes there is a rare fusion. All the hooks pierce at once: addiction and release and nourishment and annihilation. Death and life hover there as one.

The Zen thinkers have always warned that words will not do for these matters. The moon is nothing like your finger. Fishing is certainly nothing like reading this stuff. I aim only to call attention to certain possibilities. I say only that there is, in the act of fishing, something of terror and submission, and something of lust and exaltation; and that when these are simultaneous, and intense, in one nervous system, that organism comes as near as it can to being totally alive. If there is also consciousness of the transience of such a complex, that life will know its own destiny, and such knowledge is, surely, the glory and the agony of our species. There is only a little more to hope for: a sunset, a panful of fresh-cooked trout, and others to listen to these farfetched tales.

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