- By: Seth Norman
All Fishermen Are Liars
By John Gierach
2014; Simon and Schuster; www.simonandschuster.com
284 pages; hardcover; $24
jFifty years ago I read Mine Enemy Grows Older, a memoir by Alexander King recently revived by Oprah. Famously described as “an ex-illustrator, ex-cartoonist, ex-adman, ex-editor, ex-playwright, ex-dope addict,” King was a bestselling humorist who tired of high-society egoists telling him “I think I could have been a great writer, if . . .” and so developed a riposte that went something like this: “If you’re not a great writer you could not have been one, because all of them have two qualities: great talent and great perseverance. You lack one of those, at least.”
A bit of asp, Mr. King, unlike John Gierach in any obvious way (King wore pink ties every day for 20 years). And whatever their places in society, I doubt his readers resemble anybody King intended to chastise. Even so, the Enemy anecdote came to mind after reading our back-page essayist’s autobiographical prologue to a new collection, All Fisherman Are Liars. I think there were two reasons for this.
Reason the first: Hundreds of thousands of Gierach fans feel included in his writing. We travel with him to places keenly observed and reported, smile when he contemplates sins like rod lust, and laugh aloud when he describes a pal who, widely believed to shoot at trespassers, merely sets up targets at “strategic places along the river, so that if you were trespassing, you might inadvertently stumble into the line of fire of his flat-shooting varmint rifle. Technically speaking, that would be an unfortunate coincidence.” For those who also lived through a certain era, or any era in which they dream of waters and fish, that sense of inclusion may edge toward a secret identification, and to daydreams of a life we might have lived as a trout bum. A few might even wonder if they too could have been a writer making a living doing what they love.
If things had gone differently.
Reason two: Gierach recognizes this. I’m not guessing, since I know he heard this “if” directly from a fellow who stood ahead of me at a book signing. And maybe—now I’m only guessing—that’s one reason the brief history he presents in his prologue is, unlike any of the pieces that follow, written in the second person and present tense.
Maybe. More likely, the author just wanted to avoid a few hundred mentions of “I” and “me.” Either way, for a dozen pages the author is “you,” now.
If, by chance, you grow up somewhere where a boy or girl can walk or bike “to the edge of what until recently had been the known world, then on into fields, woods and creeks beyond,” equipped with hand-me-down gear in days “when kids are still allowed to run wild as long as they’re home by dark . . . .”
If you get educated and politicized as a young man or woman, but while picturing yourself a poet still plumb a brown urban river with a rod. If you wander to Colorado, San Francisco, New York and back to Colorado, working odd jobs for years while learning a craft that, like fly-fishing, “depends on patience, persistence, diligence and attention to detail.” If you publish little for a long time, and then only for small change, but continue, realizing “You’re neither a great writer nor a great fisherman, but these continue to be the two things you care about most.” If after “a surprisingly long time” it “occurs to you to put the two things together,” and when you do, soon sell a story “for the equivalent of a month’s wages.” If you patch together an income from articles and essays, a local newspaper column, then books, a national column, more books . . . .
It’s safe to say you persevered. As to great talent . . . .
If you have Gierach’s, you pen pieces like those found in Liars, essays about “This Year’s Fly” and “nuclear” patterns for steelhead, Spey-casting, lodges as decidedly dicey business enterprises, and new techniques like Tenkara. You regale readers with your romances with rods—you’ve owned a hundred or so, though keep only about half that many now, a profligacy that helps you offer excellent advice that might also fit other loves of life: “In the long run, it’s possible that there’s no such thing as the perfect fly rod because a rod is a study in paradoxes . . . as long as possible, but as short as necessary; sensitive, but powerful . . . . A good fly rod would fit Aristotle’s idea of virtue as falling midway between two defects, so that courage is well beyond cowardice, but somewhere short of recklessness.”
You also invite readers along on “Have Rod Will Travel” trips to waters in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, finding treasures in both blue-ribbon waters and unknown streams, once after driving through “one of those soulless towns with a solid business plan, but no character or history.” You go further afield, to Alaska and to Canada’s Great Bear Lake, where above the Arctic Circle “ . . . wood is scarce but we only need enough for a quick twig fire” to cook a lake trout for lunch after trolling up one of its yard-long brethren.
Another day’s outing lets you loose prose that’s purely yours, this one to the Horton, “ . . . a typical tundra river: cold, clear, broad and shallow with placid but braided currents and a view to the horizon in every direction without a tree in sight. When five big bull caribou wandered over to the river to drink, I could see them coming for a thousand yards: just their antlers at first, which at that distance looked like bentwood rockers bobbing in the middle distance.”
The Fishing Life
Quirky Tales of Angling Adventure, Mishaps and Memories
By Paul Schullery
2013; Skyhorse Publishing; www.skyhorsepublishing.com
208 pages; hardcover; $24.95
Paul Schullery’s works include a pair of tomes you might expect from an historian and the first executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing; the classic American Fly-Fishing: A History; and Fly-Fishing Secrets of the Ancients: A Celebration of Five Centuries of Lore and Wisdom. Other books by this author fall a little or a lot outside these roles, including a science fiction novel, The Time Traveler’s Tale: Chronicle of a Morlock Captivity; and the tiny Shupton’s Fancy: A Tale of the Fly-Fishing Obsession, a whimsical and inventive mystery that’s really quite funny.
I note the last pair to suggest the author’s range. Book by book, I’m never quite sure where Schullery will go next, only that I’ll find him informed, thoughtful and entertaining.
That’s true essay-by-essay in The Fishing Life. While some address conventional subjects—and several, like “Should Anglers Reinvent Themselves?” discuss serious conservation issues—expect the unexpected here.
Schullery will still surprise you. Often he begins with observations of phenomena that seem familiar, then either opens wide historical, ethical and philosophical implications, or delves deep, exploring the unseen. In “Antler’s Aweigh,” for example, the author spots a deer swimming a large river where he fishes, wonders what drove her into the water (a dog, a hunter?), then if she isn’t simply traveling to where she wants to go. This leads into reportage about swimming deer in the Florida Keys and the Canadian/US boundary waters, and proceeds to a quick history of deer roles in angling, from entire tails trolled for muskie on the Great Lakes, to types of hair used for tying floating flies. In “River in Exile” he considers a tiny, trashed stream “. . . imprisoned by high banks and cluttered with shopping carts, rubber sandals, hamburger wrappers, and less savory urban litter . . .” that ultimately reveals the essential wild nature of water, fundamentals about trout streams and rivers, and finally small fish of undetermined species whose existence offers comfort that still sustains him.
“I have often imagined them and all their sluggish-water kindred, quietly going about their evolutionary business in a million undistinguished little runs and pools—dodging beer cans and backhoes, succumbing to sudden washes of pollution when some moron changes his oil upstream, slowly recolonizing their benighted realms, and all the while sustaining just a faint trace of wildness in a hard-used place.”
And then there really is “quirky.” Schullery muses about mysterious, “Creepy Water”; offers a theory about a “Master Race” of steelhead-strong ten-inch rainbows; reports fish that he, Datus Proper and others have “heard” swim; and composes a long article about crawdads, which only swim backward to our eyes, since theirs see in all directions. Add accidental “fishing” for bats, also deliberate angling for birds, foxes and wolves.
Hey. He’s an historian. It’s in the records.
By the end of my favorite chapter, “A Lot of Strange Stuff,” other pleased readers may also feel they have explored water in new ways, also ground, sky, and occasionally bits of Ether the author presents with proper documentation. w