The Art and Culture of Trout

Lovells (Mi) Township Historical Society, Aug. 2, 2003 (Project supported by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs).

We’re here today to talk about the art and culture of trout. In preparing for this I talked to an ichthyologist, who summed up the culture of salmonids as follows: eat as much as you can, stay out of fast lanes so you don’t have to work too hard, find a nice house with a roof so you don’t get eaten, and look for the girls once a year.

It sounded a lot like retirement.

That same fish doctor  told me that trout make no art and I told him trout are art and humankind, smitten by their beauty and feistiness, has spent thousands of years trying to create art worthy of the subject. Sculptors and painters have been at it the longest, fiction-writers the shortest.

It is daunting to be asked to talk about a sport where my own progress could be labeled the advanced beginner stage. The truth is that for a long while I thought fly fishing as the purview of the privileged. I wasn’t the only one to think this way.

Of fishing and hunting, fishing is the youngest in terms of human attention. Only four years after Columbus’s first voyage a book appeared in England, which elevated sport fishing to the same level as hunting.

1496 and the Book of St. Albans appears. In it is, “The Treatise of Fishing With An Angle,” written by one Dame Juliana Berners (or Barnes). Dame is a formal term for a benighted, aristoctratic woman, which comes as a surprise because Dame Juliana did not address her work to fellow noblemen, but to “all who are virtuous, gentle, and free men,” a rather astonishing audience in a world divided into castes: serfs, free men, and nobles.There was something quite novel and more than a bit disturbing — if not bordering on revolutionary — angler as plain gentleman.

Actually the treatise was written mid-century and only published fifty years later, it’s arrival coming as a bit of a shock to sixteenth century staus quo: a book elevating fishing to the same noble status as hunting, and in it a piece on fishing, written by a woman and addressed not just to the nobility.

Despite this first publication and its revolutionary ideas, most sport-fishing in Britain and Europe remained for centuries primarily the domain of landowners, who under British Common Law owned, “all the creatures that roamed their lands, and all the fishes that swam in their waters.”

Literature with a small “l,” is an umbrella term that takes in prose, both nonfiction and fiction, long and short and all poetry. But literature with an upper case “L”  has come to signify the finest of our written works, though in any era it is difficult to impossible to judge which works will survive the test of time and be included in that august category meant to embrace the best of the best. You see, literature has also come to connote those works done not so much for commercial gain (e.g., to pay the bills) as for work done more for artistic and aesthetic purposes. I find this a silly distinction.

I think we need to remember one William Shakespeare, who in his own time was until Kit Marlowe’s death, considered second banana as a playwright. But Shakespeare became the Neil Simon of his time and his work stands at the zenith of the written word in English. Shakespeare, I would remind us was the ultimate writer for commercial gain — his life depending upon his ability to crank it out and thus in his own time he would have been considered a small-l writer. No doubt the bard would be astonished at his place in history, but I doubt he would be pleased with his body of work (what the Big L snobs call his “oeuvre”) because no writer is ever entirely pleased with his or her work.

My point is that as you sit every day with your quill or computer you need to craft a compelling story or tell a familiar story in a compelling new way, and this done, you let it go and let the critics and time have their way.

Thus I want to tread lightly in any commentary on literature in relation to anything, much less fly fishing.

The written word is an extension of the spoken word and when we write a book we join the tradition of tribal story tellers, who transmitted information, entertained, challenged, and mesmerized their audience for milennia. Before the advent of written language you had to be present to hear the story teller spin his tale; and though you might hear the story secondhand, you did not actually hear the telling, and the version you heard was always different than what those in the actual audience had heard.

With writing, and especially with the invention and spread of the printing press, the audience  for written material became larger and more readers could share in a direct way with the story-teller’s work, and the story-teller’s challenge became less oratory skill than the ability to transmit emotions and feelings and information in crafted sentences images. Our literature is the gift of imagination from one mind and soul to all the rest of us who can read.

The methods of writers are as varied as their personalities.  There is no magic formula for the process. We each do what works for us and we learn what works over many years, mosty by trial and error — very much like fly fishing.

Writers have some principles and specific rules to get us started, and the remainder is personal learning and growth. Some authors work with a defined audience in mind, but I suspect most of us write first and foremost to satisfy ourselves. When we are successful in entertaining and motivating ourselves, and the story is published we hope it will have the same effect on others. If it does, this is a measure our our skill in our craft. And when our stories accomplish this we confirm with our words that we are all part fo the same tribe — the human tribe.

Literature aside, the connection between elitism and fly fishing continues to run strong and as a second generation Black Irishman, it took a great part of my life to set aside the aversiton, not to the sport, but to those I thought were its participants. Remember, Dame Julianna was the first to write about fishing in English at the end of the 15th century and only at the end of the 20th century did significant numbrers of Americans beging to fly fish, including significant numbers of women.

This recent surge was spawned largely by Norman McLean’s novella (later a Robert Redford filem), A River Runs Through It. Despite increased participation over the past 15-20 years it remains fact taht most Americans, regardless of creed, skin color or ethnic background know little or nothing about the sport and continue to see it as the pursuit of eccentric and quirky pipe-smokers with a surplus of money and leisure time.

When I wrote The Snowfly and shipped the manuscript off to my agent she read it, liked it and said she didn’t have a clue what to do with it, this response from an erudite, curious and worldly woman who was also the author (in French) of Hexagon Papers, A Century of Wars in Vietnam, 1959-1972. She called me on the phone and said, “I don’t get this fly fishing thing.” I answered, “Neither do I. That’s what makes it so fascinating.”

I am not sure anyone ever gets fly fishing — or writing. What we get is the bug, which if we allow it, takes us elsewhere and lasts a lifetime.

Most fly fishers go through predictable stages.

First, we want to catch a trout, any trout — with a fly rod.

Then we want to catch lots of trout with a fly rod.

Then we want to catch big trout on a fly rod. (Those over 20 inches.)

Then we want to catch lots of big trout on a fly rod.

And somewhere about this point an odd twist takes place and we find ourselves wanting to catch large trout on infinitesimally small flies a gossamer tippets and the whole process starts again with wanting just to catch a trout with a tiny fly and the fly rod.

Eventually I think we all reach a stage where all that really matters is the fishing — catching being relegated to dessert status.

I would add here that I think most fiction writers go through an almost identical cycle of development and, with luck end up in the very same place, where the writing itself is all that matters. If it gets published, great, but a real writer  “can’t not write,” and a real fisherman “can’t not fish.”

After the Snowfly was published my agent was astounded by the passion of readers and reveiwers and slowly it dawned on her thqta the body of literature surrounding the activity is immense and varied. She was humbled to discover and entire world that had existed throughout her life and about which she had known nothing.

Fly-fishing literature, it seems to me is largely non-fiction, either of the how-to school or memoir. What we haven’t had are a lot of novels, novellas or even short stories growing out of the sport.

A few novels stand out: Richard Brautigan’s Fly Fishing in America; David James Duncan’s, The River Why; Tom McGuane’s Ninety Two in the Shade; and,of course, Mclean’s book.

Michigan’s own John Voelker (aka Robert Traver) wrote Trout Madness and Trout Magic, but these technically fall into the essay category; in my own mind I’m sure they are short stories and they get a re-read from me yearly.

I do not include Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories or The Old Man and The Sea. Old Hem was too secretive a fly-flinger to give away any river secrets in his work. His most memorable characters fish baited hand lines or with worms an live grasshoppers and he changes the names of his rivers to misdirect potential competition.

It doesn’t take incendiary material like a bone dry jackpine stand to spark a writer’s creativity. I think about writing a lot when I’m not catching fish, which is most fo the time, and I’ve decided that fly fishing and writing fiction are both about discovering ourselves — not ways to take bigger fish. Both are a quest for the holy grail of self-awareness — with some entertainment and exercise thrown into the mix.Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is important?

Trout fishing invites introspection, which begins with a scan of the environments we place ourselves in, and progresses inwardly to an understanding that fishing and catching — or writing and being published — are not synonymous.

True introspection begins when you stop agonizing about catching, open your mind, and embrace whatever it is you find, or that which comes to you.

Being outside  a lot has given me experiences that created memories that somehow knit themselves into more or less creative avenues that have helped me to produce novels.

Memories continue to accumulate, some of them mine, some borrowed shamelessly from friends. Be advised: In our heart of hearts, we writers are thieves of experience. If we live it or hear it, we will use it.

There is always so much to see along a river that fishing sometimes gets forgotten and the majesty of surroundings overwhelm. It is such moments that give rise to stories and poems that have less to do with fishing than living life, one species among many others.

Good fiction can be born in any human activity, including fly fishing, but good fiction for me always involves a quest of some sort — obstacles faced and overcome, self discovered or re-discovered.

Why then so little fiction coming out of this wonderful sport? Probably because it has only been the past fifteen or twenty years that there have been significant numbers  of participants. Like virtually all human endeavors, the wider the base of the pyramid, the greater number of people with ability will be at the top. It takes great skill, craft and creativity to write about anything in non-ficiton formats, but it takes a different minset entirely to create poetry or ficiton out of similar experiences. In time I hope our burgeoning numbers will bring forth more fiction, but only time will tell.

I alsdo believe you have to be “at” fly fishing a while before you can ride the effort into the cerebral cortex where fear and hormones mix, and deeper inot the primordial subconscious, that part of our mind which never sleeps and which is recording all we see and do and silently trying to make sense of it, a library with no Dewey decimal sysem to guide us through dreamsa and intuition.

The draws of fly fishing are many, but for me it is solving the puzzle that brings me back againa and again. My many and repeated failures illuminate the occasional perfect moment and that is enough.

About the time I think Ihave all the pieces figured out, new pieces are added or subtracted and I am left trying to understand what has happened. Once we seriously commit to fly fishing or writing we embark on life-long affairs with learning and observation. I find myself standing in water, listening to whispers in my heart and innermost mind.

Let me close by telling you that in picking up a fly rod I have met a group of people varied in background — from elementary school janitors to neurosurgeons and professors of chemistry — all of them very different, yet alike in their passion for trout, people willing to share and to teach and laugh at their own failures. They are as well read an eloquent a group as I have had the privilege of knowning in what continues to be a challenging and interestinglife. I am a lucky man.

Now I’m gonna go fishing, which in my lexicon is just another word for living.

Thank you.

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