- By: Seth Norman
AS I RECALL HISTORY, “Me and Joe” tales started circulating out of the Big Three sporting journals (Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and Field & Stream) in the late 1960s. I was sorry to see them go, but during the early ’70s I learned they were stars of a sub-genre dedicated to faux-simpletons who used lousy grammar to express “sappy” sentiments in silly stories. At least the boys had company in exile, as most mainstream magazines replaced fiction featuring sympathetic characters and conventional plots with alienated protagonists who wandered aimlessly, arriving roughly nowhere (unless “angst” was a destination). Anything called “relevant” or “contemporary” lacked pathos, humor and anybody you might want to meet. To literary savants, “The Short Story is dead.”
So is the novel, insisted several of my college professors. The structures that served Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo, Tolstoy, Clemens and Hemingway had now been done and redone; soon a beginning, middle and end would be found only in Redbook, Harlequin romances, and TV and film productions aimed at a lowest common denominator audience.
By graduation I knew my tastes were old school, but a fine education had failed to convince me that any feeling other than ennui was cheap. If Me and Joe lacked sophistication—and, of course, pursued “barbaric” sports—at least they had each other, and I was still pretty sure friendship mattered. So did stories about families that, however “dysfunctional,” were fond, funny and loving; and I was pretty sure my parents long marriage had “depth,” even if it was absent of adultery.
I still believe that, so I am happy to find writers whose new archaic essays fill fly-fishing books. Not too many of these come out today, compared to the 1990s, but here is a pair for readers who don’t mind a little humanity mixed into their how-to and where-to.
The Trout Bohemia
Fly-fishing travels in
By Derek Grzelewski
2013; Stackpole Books
196 pages; softcover with slip; $21.95
jThe Trout Bohemia sounded intriguing, but the subtitle almost sent this book onto the Other shelf I peruse after reading essays and fiction. That might not have happened if I’d seen author Derek Grzlewski’s previous work, The Trout Diaries; instead it was Bohemia’s Prologue that derailed a trip to the back stack with a single-page scene describing a couple’s break-up. While I wasn’t, honestly, immediately eager to explore this tragedy, the last sentence read “Maybe it’s how it ends,” which I took to mean Now begins a journey, a notion supported by a John Gierach quote on the Chapter 1 frontispiece immediately opposite: “The solution to any problem—work, love, money, whatever—is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be.”
So it does, a narrative that’s at once a fishing journal filled with road trips to famous and secret NZ destinations, and a collection of vignettes about people the author meets along his way. Among the first is Jetske, a French fly-fishing “lioness who with husband partner Cyril left a thriving business to live and fish out of a Land Cruiser Prado. We camped together that night and as we talked into the late hours, and put the bottle of river-cold tonic to good use, there was that sense of recognition, that we were of the tribe.”
That recognition arrests the author, so when Jet says, “New Zealand is a dream come true, the trout Bohemia,” he’s ready to recognize a guiding light: “She is right. Look at us! We are the trout bohemians.”
That phrase resonates, so “Trout Bohemians” is how the author describes these new friends, and soon many others. While not all are “. . . nomads living simply and without pretension . . . happy to forego the trappings and comforts of society,” what they share is a passion for “. . . engaging with the world of trout on all levels, finding joy in every fish as if it was the first one. Or the last.”
Grzelewski’s own passion is a constant on a score of trips to rivers including the Buller, Mataura, Haupiri and Tongariro, the spring creeks of the South Waikato, and lesser (or unknown) canals and ditches so far from beaten paths they have none along their banks. He catches a great many trout, and big ones, but remains modest about his skills and thrills when he improves. While he prefers to sight fish with dry flies, and much admires purists, he’ll also partner with anglers who will only swing a nymph team, or who’ve modified rods to shoot bow-and-arrow casts at giant browns sulking in thickets from which they’ll need to be winched out like badgers from burrows. It’s not that he’ll do whatever it takes to bag a trophy; the author’s just eager to explore everything fly-fishing.
It’s clearly a love affair with the sport. But fishing isn’t the only romance Bohemia reveals.
Grzelewski take pleasure in water and the lands it wanders, often adding history and anecdotes about places he visits, including a jet boat trip on the Rangitikei that threatens to turn train wreck, and an encounter with a band of traveling Buddhist monks modeling Zen through art. But what resonates most is the author’s interest in people, especially those who are passionate about each other; he observes other Bohemians closely, with an open and generous mind, but studies the surprising number of happy couples he encounters with obvious fascination, often awe. Nomads like him, they know something he doesn’t, so are not alone.
Their relationships haunt the author as he explores his Bohemia—a land that is also, for him, a state of mind. He wonders what secrets influenced the ending described in his Prologue, and about a woman named Ella.
Sixty Years of Misadventure with Fly Rod and Reel
By Don R. Alloway
199 pages; paperback; $24.95
jThe jacket copy of Bad Water identifies Don Alloway as a freelance writer, but I don’t know his work and this appears to be his first book. An advisory on the copyright page suggests he took it from pen to print by himself: “PublishAmerica allowed this work to remain exactly as the author intended, verbatim, without editorial input.” There are places where that generous lack of attention is evident, but not enough to distract me from the wit, humor and—fair warning—straight-up sentiment.
Begin with the last of those qualities: Six decades may separate the author from the eight-year-old boy who sat with his father in a rented boat on Lake Erie, but there’s no escaping the immediacy of the scene and the son’s emotions. “Remember to be quiet, now,” cautions his father, because “bass can’t tolerate too much noise.” The boy nods gravely, “fixes his gaze on the oak ribs of the boat,” then on the “silver husks of long-dead minnows” floating in an oil slick on the bottom and “the dried brown crinkle of a sun-baked nightcrawler.” A last pull on the oars, a drift—“Now look over the side,” insists Dad “ . . . tell me what you see.”
His son sees his own reflection, sunrays, then peers deeper into a mesmerizing world that Alloway recalls in precise details: “the dark shapes of fish milling and flitting” in an obscure dance, “shaping the spaces with their tails, moving the gravel about with their snouts, making broad ovals defined by thin perimeters of piled up gravel . . . .”
The author might not fish over spawners today, but in that moment the chance leaves him dizzy, squirming with an excitement that panics the casting stroke his father has so painstakingly taught him. The reel backlashes. His father “shouts a single word into the still air: ‘Damn.’”
Anybody who remembers disappointing a parent can imagine the boy’s dismay. It would be fine if all had also experienced the comforting embrace that followed, the warmth of the father’s apology, and a day of excitement that proves unforgettable not only because of the catching. “It would be years before the boy could give a name to what he felt there that afternoon, and more years before he understood how precious that feeling was, and how fortunate he was to have it.”
There are 32 chapters, drawn from six decades. For this author, that’s been time enough to befriend Jim Deren at the original Angler’s Roost; watch Harry and Elsie Darbee tie flies at adjoining desktops, talking together constantly in what “seemed to be a conversation that had been going on for years”; also to fish 20 countries, enjoy both the “world’s best” and “world’s worst brook trout trip,” and spend hundreds of hours and dollars building a bamboo rod with an action equal to the $50 model he could have bought at the local hardware store. It’s also a span sufficient to acquire two generations of opinions, which Alloway has: Lee Wulff’s introduction of catch-and-release was the “first real change” to fly-fishing, for which all fly fishers should be grateful; those of us seduced by flashy tackle should be embarrassed (and Alloway, who’s among these, tries to be); and young fishers with better Latin than streamside manners ought to read Rod Rage, by Rhea Topping.
He isn’t shy, but he’s often wry, even when it comes to sentiment. Take the day he finally catches his first fish on the fly, not one but many, which he knows aren’t brown trout, so guesses must be rainbows. He can’t wait to show these to his father, but has been so absorbed he missed signal blasts from a Buick’s horn, forcing Dad to bushwhack his way down to the river to find a distracted son. “Did you lose your wristwatch?”
“Nah, I’ve been fly fishing,” the author concedes. “Caught a bunch too. They’re in the bag . . . .”
His father stoops and stares into a soiled lunch sack. “I could see his eyes widen behind the dark lenses of the clip-on sunglasses he habitually wore over his bifocals. He shook his head, made a tch, tching sound and said. ‘My God. My God. You’ve stepped in cow shit and caught a dozen chubs. Come on, let’s clean your sneakers and go home.’” w