Carl Hiaasen 2012 Angler of the Year

Carl Hiaasen 2012 Angler of the Year

“Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.”

  • By: Kirk Deeter
  • Photography by: Brian Smith
Carl Hiaasen

Miami Herald columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen casts all hues of the writing spectrum as well as, if not better than, any American author. From “beach-read” novels and stinging political commentary to wildly popular books for young readers, Hiaasen shows an innate ability to command attention from, inform and entertain the broadest audiences.

However, across the gamut of his works there are common hallmarks: distinctively smooth, efficient prose, scalpel-clean satire and oblique (if not pointed) connection to the natural world, as well as not-so-veiled commentary on the tragic implications of overdevelopment, and the corruption spawned by its result. Critics liken his works to those of Woody Allen and S.J. Perelman, and there’s no doubt his influential words have saved or salvaged what’s left of some of the best bonefish waters in the world.

As expected, Hiaasen is an avid fly fisher, though, by his own admission, maybe not the most “accomplished” angler in the world. That may be false modesty, because in September Hiaasen deftly landed a 13-pound bonefish on the fly, which helped win first-place honors at the Islamorada Invitational Fall Fly Bonefish Tournament—for the sixth time. In 2010 he braved lightning and heavy rain to land an 11-pounder on the fly in the all-tackle Bonefish Classic. But it’s Hiaasen’s words that garner him the most respect, especially in a time when so many of us worry that we’re losing young generations to video games, the digital revolution, “Nature Deficit Disorder” and other things that risk making the outdoors—and fly-fishing—an afterthought in kids’ minds. Basically, Hiaasen does more to connect youth to natural places—through wildly entertaining stories—than almost anyone. That ability to reach and influence our youth in positive ways, along with his passion for fly-fishing—and bonefish in particular—make Carl Hiaasen Fly Rod & Reel’s 2012 Angler of the Year . . . .

Having grown up in the inland stretches of Broward County, Florida, Hiaasen wears his affection for the outdoors—and disdain for those who have savaged wilderness in the name of profit—on his sleeve.

Whammy.Hiaasen began writing for the Miami Herald as a reporter in 1976. He started a regular column in 1985. By that time, he’d also ventured into writing novels, in partnership with Bill Montalbano (Powder Burn, 1981; Trap Line, 1982; and A Death in China, 1984). Hiaasen wrote his first novel on his own in 1986 (Tourist Season), and has followed with 12 additional mainstream titles (most recently Star Island in 2010), all of which have a distinctive edge and subliminal message. Some of his work is very direct, including Team Rodent (1998), where he took on the Disney empire. His success as a commercial novelist led him to roll back his work for the Herald, though he still pumps out a regular Sunday column.

“I’ve been with the paper a long time, and have in some ways always valued being a columnist, though it has been fun and rewarding to branch into different styles of writing,” said Hiaasen.

Perhaps the watershed moment of Hiaasen’s career came in 2002, when he penned Hoot, a novel for young readers.

Based in south Florida, Hoot chronicles the adventures of young characters like “new kid” (from Montana) Roy Eberhardt, a bully, Dana Matherson, the bully-beating girl named Beatrice, and a mysteriously wild-at-heart outcast named Mullet Fingers (who has the ability to catch fish with his bare hands). This youth ensemble is embroiled in a mystery involving developers and rare burrowing owls . . . and, fittingly, only they can solve it.

Hoot earned a prestigious Newbery Honor, and was made into a motion picture (featuring cameos from Jimmy Buffett, and Hiaasen himself). Hiaasen followed Hoot with the young-reader novels Flush and Scat, which also earned tall critical praise. (Writer’s note: Hiaasen earned the tallest praise from this writer’s 11-year-old son, who considers Hoot his favorite book ever. When I told him I’d be interviewing Mr. Hiaasen, he wanted me to ask, “Is Mullet Fingers based on a real boy?”)

“I didn’t have a childhood like he had [a rough home life forced Mullet Fingers to live alone in the woods], but his connection to the outdoors is certainly something I drew from my own growing-up years,” Hiaasen shared. “Where I grew up, there wasn’t much else to do but be outside. We spent a lot of time entertaining ourselves by hunting snakes and going fishing.”

Hiaasen’s fishing passion started with a simple spin-rod setup for bass, bluegills and bream in the lakes around Plantation, Florida. By the time he was in his early 20s, that inevitably led to fly-fishing on the flats in search of south Florida’s bonefish, redfish and tarpon.

“Bob Branham [who is now one of the best-known flats guides in Florida] and I grew up together, and we learned to fly-fish together,” explained Hiaasen. “If we had a mentor, it was Bill Curtis, who kind of took us under his wing. By that time, Bill was already a legend of flats fishing and guiding, but he made a point to help us along the way.”

Flush.Eventually Hiaasen moved to the Keys, and he spent many solitary evenings poling across the flats in search of bonefish (and no doubt cooking up new angles and stories that would eventually find their way to print). Today, Hiaasen still chases redfish and tarpon “seasonally” out of Vero Beach. He still ventures to the Keys now and then for some leisure fishing, and he participates in benefit tournaments. He also devotes several weeks every year to fly-fishing for trout from a second home in Montana.

“I’m not a big nymph fisherman,” he admitted, “but there’s something appealing and gorgeous about trout fishing in Montana. It’s all about the setting on a beautiful river, using 4-weight rods, and all of that. It’s different [from fly-fishing in salt water], but equally captivating.”

Hiaasen now “pays forward” his respect for nature to his young reader audiences, though never in a hard-handed, preachy manner.

“My success in writing for young readers came as a complete surprise, honestly,” admitted Hiaasen. “Nancy Siscoe [executive editor at Knopf/Crown] gave me great advice when she said that the key is to never ‘write down’ to kids.

“The story structure is simple,” Hiaasen added. “It revolves around sensibility and the same moral compass, though you might use some words in an adult book that you wouldn’t use in a [youth reader] book. And kids love irreverence. They like it when I make fun of adults. And actually, I’ve been criticizing and poking fun at adults my whole career, so that came naturally.”

And poking fun at adults includes himself. In 2008, Hiaasen tackled the demographically connected sister sport of fly-fishing—golf—in The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport. The book starts: “In the summer of 2005, I returned to golf after a much needed layoff of thirty-two years.”

Asked whether he thought golf and fly-fishing were philosophically (if not merely ancestrally) connected at the hip, Hiaasen was quick to delineate.

“There are similarities between golf and fly-fishing in that both sports are challenging, and they require a certain degree of hand-eye coordination,” he explained. “But the synergies end there, because golf is far more brutal on the ego. You can spend a day on the river near Livingston, Montana, and catch only three fish, and still feel energized and rewarded when the day is done. When you shoot over 100 on a golf course, that’s just self-lacerating torture.”

Star.Fortunately, Hiaasen fans young and old won’t be tortured with a wait for his next book. Chomp, to be released in March, is based around the adventures of young Wahoo Cray, who lives in a zoo, and is the son of an animal wrangler who has been hired to help the production of a reality television show (Expedition Survival!). Wahoo finds himself tangled in the tension between his dad and the show’s overzealous star, Derek Badger, who insists on using wild animals for stunts. The mystery evolves from the point where Derek disappears after being bitten by a bat, and the cast of young heroes is tasked with solving it.

Interestingly, while many of us are worried about what will happen vis-a-vis generation next and a connection to fishing and the outdoors, Hiaasen remains surprisingly, refreshingly optimistic.

“I receive hundreds of letters from young readers, and what’s obvious to me is that there is fantastic clarity when it comes to a love of the outdoors, ” he said. “I think that’s something we’re all born with. And while some people have doubts about kids today when it comes to their appreciation of nature, what I see is that those kids are better informed, and actually more passionate about nature than most might acknowledge. They love the characters, and they have a fascination with nature, even if they’re from places where they don’t get to experience nature first-hand, regularly.

“I actually have very high hopes and trust in future generations when it comes to nature,” Hiaasen added. “I think the primal instinct of people is stronger than most of us realize.”

Indeed, perhaps all that’s needed are more voices, written or spoken, to convey the messages.

Carl Hiaasen has done his share of the heavy lifting, with great aplomb and effect. And for that, any fly fisher, or fan of the outdoors, should be grateful.

Kirk Deeter is the editor of Angling Trade and is the author of The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing.

Star Island is Carl Hiaasen’s latest book. In classic style he pits a familiar character, Skink, against rogue music producers and bouncers, and allows him to wage guerrilla war on greedy Florida Keys developers.