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Reeling in some winning fish tales

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I’m prone to comically obvious metaphors in my dream life, and when something’s gone well I often dream I’ve caught a fish. In my waking hours, I may have landed an assignment, or finished a project, or finally swept the porch: The degree of relief or well-being doesn’t matter. My brain defaults to the first joy of water and light and the fish at last secured. This comes from childhood, predictably. In these dreams, I’m fishing on the lush banks of the Croton River, in New York, where I grew up, and a leaping trout flashes bronze and jade and cream in the sun. Sometimes I’m dockside, peering down at a drowsy pickerel on my line. It’s August; I’m 7 years old; and Vermont’s Lake Bomoseen is as unevenly smooth as old glass.

Fishing and dreaminess go together, as any angler knows. “[O]n the water, fly rod in hand, my dreams never desert me,” wrote David Halberstam in his lovely foreword to “The Best Fishing Stories Ever Told” (Skyhorse, 2010). Nick Lyons, the esteemed fishing writer, edited this fine fact-and-fiction collection. Dreams abound within, but there’s bait for the scholar, too: I liked the piece on the history of fishhooks, for instance, dating from the Neolithic and made from stone, thorn, and shell. And if you’re burning to know who first tied a fly, it seems the Macedonians get the trophy. To lure fish from the Astraeus River, they fashioned insect stunt dummies from red wool, chicken feathers and wax.

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Any fishing compendium must include Izaak Walton — “no less a figure than Dante” in the literature. Here, Walton praises angling as “a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts” while Lord Grey of Fallodon lauds how it teaches restraint. Ever bent your shadow freely over the water? Then you’ve found “[t]he impulse to see the trout destroyed all chance of success.”

Washington Irving, Howard Frank Mosher, Lord Byron, John McPhee, Dave Barry: There’s something for everyone. Barely any female contributors, maybe because “[t]he women cooked our meals and plowed mules in the small fields during the day while we were fishing,” as Jimmy Carter writes of a boyhood trip to Georgia’s Little Satilla River. One wishes Miss Lillian demanded gender parity, but I relished his story even so. Young Jimmy’s job was to tend the group’s line of caught fish. When it breaks from his belt loop in the river’s current (“a great tragedy”), the future president dives in fruitlessly to retrieve the line as “the tears and water ran down my face together each time I came up for breath.” His father, “rarely patient with foolishness or mistakes,” sees his son’s devastation and puts his arms around the boy. “I worshipped him,” says Carter.

Fathers and sons, of course, are foundational here. “It was casually easy for us to get along fishing; the rest was a bomb,” writes Thomas McGuane of his dad in his resonant essay collection “The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing” (Vintage, 2001). That life includes working the streams of Ireland where the fish “wore me out with their valor” and Russia’s Ponoi River, casting in a “trance state” for salmon, and a remote Alaskan tundra pond with his son: “With fly rods in our hands, we had dropped through time. Fishing had given us this.” He’s also got delicious stuff on the Florida Keys, beating the blue-green flats for bonefish, the maddeningly cagey permit, or a tarpon he hooked but lost, its jumps “wild, greyhounding, end-over-end, rattling.”

I have spoken of the peace fishing bestows. But grand fishing literature, of course, is drenched in struggle and loss. Norman Mclean’s “A River Runs Through It” (University of Chicago 25th anniversary edition, 2001) remains the most beautiful, heartbreaking fishing story — and family story and religion story — of all. Others might lobby for Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” but ever since “The Best of Bad Hemingway” contest (the winners were gathered into book form by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1989 and 1991) I only see parody. Here’s Papa for real: “ ’Fish,’ he said, ‘I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.’ ” And here’s Papa, for fake, via “The Old Man and the Seal,” by finalist Mark Silber: “He was an old man who fished alone when he fished by himself. For 358 days now he had been fishless. Maybe if I used bait, he thought. And a hook.”

“The River Why” (Sierra Club, 2002, first out in 1983) opens itself to parody somewhat, too (it’s like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for fishing). The cover of David James Duncan’s madcap cult novel features a fishhook turned into a question mark. And the narrative concerns the son of a bait-fishing mom and fly-fishing dad who goes off on a quest. If you like your fishing metaphysical, Duncan’s your guy: “Fishermen should be the easiest of men to convince to commence the search for the soul, because fishing is nothing but the pursuit of the elusive.”

Speaking of the elusive, note “The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish” (Grove, 2009), the marvelous chronicle of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. The book opens with derby legend Lev Wlodyka asking whether author David Kinney has brought beer. “If we can’t catch a derby winner, at lease we can catch a buzz,” says Wlodyka, who is a reporter’s dream, a sort of garrulous Zen master party boy who visualizes his bait drifting below and the bass approaching. “That’s why a lot of people miss,” he says. “They’re just on the surface. You’ve got to be three-dimensional about it.”

And so Kinney covers this famed derby, meaning 838 hours of fishing passion in which sleep-deprived plumbers, teachers, doctors, electricians, the old and the young deploy skill and luck in pursuit of glory. Surprises abound: One year, a 12-year-old girl won. Meanwhile, everyone conceals their choicest fishing spots with hot paranoia (many not-so-jokingly threaten to kill Kinney if he reveals locations). If bass have hooked you irredeemably, turn to “On the Run: An Angler’s Journey Down the Striper Coast” (It, 2003). Author David DiBenedetto travels from Maine to North Carolina, following their migration, artfully splicing natural history with spot profiles of various fishing obsessives. My favorite? The guy who wades out so far in the waves to cast for bass, he ends up “skishing” (as in fishing plus skiing, since the huge stripers tow him like a water skier).

“No Shortage of Good Days” (Simon and Schuster, 2011) is the latest collection from master fly fisherman John Gierach. To return to our father-and-son theme, I like the passage where Gierach’s dad spells out the superiority of artificial lures to real. Live bait is bush league because the fish “thinks it’s a worm and it really is a worm. Where’s the skill in that?” Whereas tied flies elevate fishing to spycraft. These 20 little jewel essays coast from Gierach’s home state of Colorado to Wisconsin, Canada, and Mexico. He praises milky-sky days perfect for blue-winged olive mayfly hatches. He says it’s always a good sign if a stream has no trails beside it. And he loves when “the known world consisted solely of brush and water, [and] fat, eager trout . . . ” A lovely image, that. Maybe I’ll see it in my dreams.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore
@comcast.net.
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