20 Years of Trout Bum

20 Years of Trout Bum

Remember the first time you picked up a copy of John Gierach's Trout Bum?

  • Photography by: Stephen Collector

Fly-fishing for trout is a sport that depends not so much on catching fish as on their mere presence and on the fact that you do, now and again, catch some. As for their size, the bigger they are, the better, to be honest about it… I own a number of flies by A.K., who is well known for his crisp dry flies. He tied Eastern-style flies in Michigan for years, but his style changed after he'd lived in the Rocky Mountain West for a while. His dry flies now have heavier tails and hackles, but somehow they retain that fine, delicate silhouette we associate with Eastern flies.If I needed a reason for holding on to some of these, that would be it, but to say something like, "these flies represent the meeting point of two fly-tying traditions" would probably amount to a load of pretentious crap. The flies are just neat, and I'm not a scholar. The fisher of small streams can come home tired, maybe with sore knees or a bunged elbow for a souvenir…he'll remember how far he went, all the pretty brook trout, and he'll feel like a kid. That night he'll probably sleep like a kid, too, drifting off on the comforting wings of egotism--a man with, he tells himself, an aptitude for rugged country, honestly bushed. In fact, the Adams is symbolic of fly-fishing itself, a sport that, at its best, mixes the basics of science with dark powers on one hand and bumbling luck on the other. It's a good pattern for fishermen who catch trout by suspending belief in any particular system and who don't feel driven to know everything. It's a cowboy's fly, notwithstanding that it comes from Michigan. For that matter, so do pickup trucks. You'll also meet a lot of non-fly-fishing types on the ponds…Most of these people won't be automatically impressed by you; some will be curious, others amused. If you persist in wearing an up-downer hat over a clean chamois shirt and a bulging, jangling fly vest, you'll begin to feel overdressed. All you need is a Harley Davidson T-shirt, baseball cap, and a small box of wet flies. If you catch fish you may attract some favorable attention, but even then someone will sooner or later kindly inform you that a spinning rod is a hell of a lot easier. Big-Fish Syndrome…That's a disease that affects people who have a mild character flaw anyway and who then fish Bristol Bay, the Big Horn, or some other water where the landing of countless fish over 20 inches (that mystical number) "ruins" all lesser fishing for them…I've actually heard people claim that. When I was a boy in the Midwest, the same condition was known as the "Mopus," in which the sufferer became filled with crap right up to his heart. I remember us wondering then if we weren't getting too busy for our own good and speculating generally about the nature and meaning of success. Is a man who's too busy to go fishing a success?…Fly-fishing is a sport in which fish are caught properly only in a certain way, often against all odds, and that using rods made from a weird kind of grass that grows in China seems somehow appropriate. I was still married to my second wife at the time, and I can recall the long, serious, discussions over the kitchen table at two o'clock in the morning over the relative values of $300 worth of fly tackle (plus $80 for a bigger vest to carry it all in) and, say, getting the leak in the roof fixed. A trout stream should be approached with a degree of reverence, for practical as well as aesthetic reasons: if you jump out of the truck after five hours on the road and hop into the stream, you'll not only wade right through a pod of rising trout, but will probably fall down and get your ass wet, too. The only luxuries you've allowed yourself are a full-sized coffeepot, a notebook, and a modest-sized bottle of good bourbon--but maybe they're not entirely luxuries, at that…The coffeepot doubles as a saucepan…and whether the whiskey itself is a luxury or a necessity isn't worth worrying about at the moment. The notebook might be considered nonessential except that you generally use more of its pages to start fires than to jot down lines of poetry and notes of cosmic significance. Supper is trout fried in oil with pepper and lemon juice, rice, and whiskey cut lightly with stream water--eaten by firelight. Then, lying in the down bag, you let the fire die to coals, think of the trout, the hike, home, people, career, the past, and you are asleep. nIt's eleven-thirty, too early, but if I'd stayed home any longer I'd have had to have a drink or two, and night-fishing is problematic enough when sober. Standing on the spine of the Continental Divide, I urinated into the drainages of two oceans more or less simultaneously (a little childish, maybe, but a required ritual) and then perched on a flat rock that would be the ideal vantage point for someone who decided to just sit and watch the universe run down. Lightning is the only outside force in the mountains that is actually dangerous, regardless of how well prepared you are, and a man standing out in the open, in the water, waving a long stick is a prime candidate for termination. When I take off on a trip I always think, Please if I'm going to get killed on this one, let it be on the way back, after I've caught some fish. The fact is, I can get just as aggravated with fishermen who are more snotty than I am instead of less so and it may be, in the final analysis, that there are only two kinds of anglers: those in your party and the assholes. Just to be on the road is good in a deep American way, but to be on the road going fishing is almost too good for words. In the end, it's probably best to travel with established fishing partners, no more than two at a time. The old hands are like your regular brand of beer--less than perfect, perhaps, but predictable. So I hike and fish because it's petty country and the trout are out there, with red slashes on their jaws and their fine, efficient coloring that changes from lake to lake. I look for two things, mostly: trout and solitude, in that order.