During his 30 years serving as an editor for The Seattle Times, Steve Raymond adhered to pre-modern journalistic standards of objectivity. He did the same during the decades when he was the editor of Flyfishing and Fly Fishing in Salt Waters. And while authoring nine non-fiction books about fly-fishing for trout (and two more on the Civil War), he “always tried steadfastly and carefully to stay within narrow factual bounds . . . .”
Ah, but then . . . .
“One can keep doing the same thing only so long before it starts to wear a little thin,” he remarks in the prelude to Trout Quintet: Five Stories of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Fly Fishing; so now he will move into fiction. “Once I started, I discovered how much fun it was to give my imagination free reign for a change and let it roam over the trout-fishing waterscape in any direction it chose to go.”
In Quintet’s first piece, “any direction” of waterscape proves expansive, including in, under and from beyond this lifetime as another species. “The Man Who Came Back as a Trout” does just that, when a narrator is reincarnated—not too enthusiastically—with gills. “Yes, he was certainly a rainbow trout,” he realizes, and if “That probably wouldn’t have been his first choice,” decides this is probably superior fate to returning as a carp, catfish or gar.
Not surprisingly, our Pilgrim Pisces’ metamorphosis initially proves as awkward as Kafka morphing to a beetle. But he’s grateful to find himself rather a fine, medium-large specimen, swimming his home-water stream. There he wins a fine lie from which he can observe—and expertly critique—the flies, presentations and veiny calves of his living fishing pals, sacrificing himself, almost, to one; and takes care to avoid a pariah fisher who kills limits of trout to fertilize roses. Spawning, however, creates challenges physical and moral, as he’s driven toward a sort of one-night stand nobody would wish to reproduce—worse even than a trip to the dentist.
If this is light work with several sharp points—fish get more stressed than we might understand and live romantic lives of unquiet desperation—“An Honest Angler,” carves from beginning to end. The prologue provides a presumptive resignation from a fly-fishing writer and editor who confesses he’s not been objective when describing outfitters from whom he’s accepted gratis trips. What changes him, we soon discover, is a visit to paradise—a billionaire’s new lodge in Montana that is as magnificent as the narrator’s inflated prose has made mediocre operations appear.
And a trap, he discovers. In a series of painful conversations, his host reveals himself as a purist convinced trout are “honest,” incapable of deceit; so fishers must be, willing to pursue prey with a minimum of fraudulent practices and devices. Host’s arguments force Pilgrim to confront a secret shame, regardless of consequences.
Not all anglers will celebrate Pilgrim’s conclusion. Some may insist it’s easier to promote purist principles while lord of carefully engineered .001 percent quality waters—the brown trout in the ranch’s spring creek were imported directly from Germany. But it’s fact that these arguments started, metaphorically speaking, not long after Frederick Halford’s bar mitzvah and remain today. True, too, that readers served them succinctly and emphatically, in dialog-tensioning meals and clouding eyes that, glaring across a snifter of priceless cognac, clear . . . maybe.