Cycles

September 26, 2021

During my birthday this year, I was able to fish my home water. I had enough time alone to get to my favorite hole, which requires some hiking and stream crossings. Needless to say, this hole is my favorite because I have made some of my most memorable catches there. Sure enough, I caught a huge cutthroat there once again during this recent visit. It occurred to me that I have now been fishing this spot for decades. Such a realization is sobering, for a guy who feels relatively young, but it also brings a sense of gratitude and pride.

Back at the cabin, over the ridge, I had been reading the new book Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River by John N. Maclean. The author, while very accomplished in his own right, is the son of Norman Maclean. Norman, of course, wrote A River Runs Through It. I have previously mentioned that my cabin is in the Big Blackfoot River drainage, that my father was a Presbyterian minister, and that my family is rooted in Missoula and Helena. Readers of A River will therefore understand why the book resonates with me. As John Maclean’s new book focuses upon his family and his time in this same area, it resonates with me as well. Home Waters is well-written and the younger Maclean paints an accurate and familiar picture of Western Montana. In the text, he reflects upon his father, his uncle Paul, their relationship, and his own place in the Maclean family.

As I often do, I also found myself reflecting upon my father, my uncle–both very troubled in their own ways, and the rest of my family after I set the book down and went fishing. It’s easy to focus upon the negative aspects of family history or less-than-pleasant events in my own life. But, as indicated earlier, I simply felt gratitude during this outing–gratitude that my father, despite his faults and failures, introduced this place to me, my mom, my sisters and, by extension, our spouses and children. We often hear about how many phenomena in families are cyclical. In such discussions, we tend to focus on negative phenomena. But the good stuff can by cyclical too. Like the return to a favorite spot.

Admittedly, the quality of this return depends upon the health of the stream, which has seen growing fishing pressure during the years I have fished it, but we’ll deal with that topic another time.

Home Waters, by John N. Maclean (Harper Collins, 2001), with Jack Boehme “Balsa Bug” and Norman Means (Paul Bunyan) “Bunyan Bug.” Boehm and Means were famous fly tiers from nearby Missoula. Means’ Bunyan Bug is featured in A River.

Loons

June 8, 2021

The other morning, I woke up early at our cabin to let one of the dogs out. Besides the dog, a pair of loons were awake and calling to one another. Later, during the day, I enjoyed seeing them diving for fish on the lake.

Loons often remind me of my uncle, Maury. He was an unusually kind man but also a troubled one, who struggled with mental health challenges and the lasting impact of profound child abuse. Its a little difficult to know just what his youth was like. My father has not been very helpful in piecing things together, either, as he seems to have coped with the childhood threat of violence by becoming a pathological liar. Regardless, my uncle passed away years ago, and my father already difficult relationship with the truth is complicated by dementia.

Happily, my uncle married a woman who stuck with him through thick and thin. She gave many of my uncle’s possessions to me when he passed. Among these was a painted ceramic loon. When I first received it, I turned the loon over and found a note for my aunt inside. Clearly, my uncle had given the loon to his wife as a gift. The note reads, “To Ruby, with love from a guy that is kind of Looney sometimes — Maury.” The words are both sweet and sort of sad.

My aunt also gave to me, as well as to my father, my uncle’s writings. These offer a bit more insight into his life, as the bulk of these comprise an unpublished poetic autobiography. Many of the poems pertaining to his youth are set at Lake MacDonald, in Glacier National Park. He and my father partly grew up there at a family property. No doubt, both of them saw plenty of loons on the lake in front of the property. I’ve seen many loons there myself.

In his poems, my uncle describes his times at Lake MacDonald as pleasant–as times when he could escape some his parents’ abuse, perhaps enjoying the protection of his grandmother and other relatives. I’m sure, then, that he gave that ceramic loon to his wife in a genuinely loving spirit, recollecting the beauty he might have witnessed during these times and associating it with his marriage.

I have been looking through the poems lately. Some, of course, are heart breaking. They describe the “vulgar” abuse he experienced (this is what his called it, in a penciled edit of a poem). But others describe the beauty and joy found in Glacier. Among these are a couple of fishing poems I share here. I have yet to find a loon poem.

Rainbow Dreamer

I believe:

There’s a pot of gold
To be found
At teh end of a rainbow

And I believe:

There a rainbow trout
To be caught
At the end
Of a fly fishing line.

Fishing Pleasure

I have known
The rush of pleasure
That felt good three times.
It was the feeling
that came with the catching,
the sharing, and the eating
of fresh water trout.

The Ice-out Cometh

February 24, 2021

Like many other parts of North America, my region is covered in snow. The temperatures have been low, and there is another storm on the way. I am not complaining, however, since the snow pack in our area was below average, and we needed a boost. I know the lakes and mountain streams will thaw eventually. And I’m looking forward to the first days on the opening lake; it’s a good time to troll flies for trout.

Having grown up at a lake, where my sisters and I still share a cabin, I really enjoy still-water fishing. Certainly, I prefer casting dry flies to rising trout. But when the conditions make that impossible or fruitless, I’m happy to troll a fly, as I paddle the canoe around and enjoy the scenery.

There is a long tradition of trolling flies in the U.S, particularly in the Northeast. Angling historian Paul Schullery addresses it in chapter ten of his excellent book, Royal Coachman: the Lore and Legends of Fly-Fishing (Fireside Books, 1999). Yet, there are not many contemporary sources devoted to the practice. One of the few is Trolling Flies for Trout and Salmon, by Dick Stewart & Bob Leason. It was first published in 1982 by Stephen Green Press. Maine Outdoor Publications published a second, facsimile edition in 2011. With some effort, you can find the latter at a reasonable price. The book includes some history, techniques, and fly tying instructions with color plates of classic patterns.

Good luck with whatever fly fishing you can do right now. If you find yourself with too much idle time, check out the books mentioned here. All of Schullery’s many texts are great, by the way. Also, please forgive my twisting of Eugene O’Neill’s play title. Speaking of which, you might enjoy some of his work too (though I don’t).

Happy Robert Burns Night 2021

January 25, 2021

Heist

December 21, 2020

I love a good old-fashioned heist story. I wrote about one that involved my university’s library, before, in the post “Public Access and Threat of Theft.” If some of you share my fascination, you might be interested in a recent article written by Mark Wilding, titled, “Tome Raiders: Solving the Great Book Heist.” It was published by The Guardian on December 13. In the article, Wilding describes a 2017 theft of rare books worth 2.5 million pounds from a customs warehouse in England. Fortunately, the subsequent investigation led to the arrest of the thieves, though not to the recovery off all the books. If a first edition of The Complete Angler is among the books that remain missing, please be assured that I do not have it.

Halloween 2020 Repost: Ichabod Crane and the Angler

October 31, 2020

Painting of Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Painting of Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

At this time of year, Washington Irving’s well-known “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is often brought to mind. This, of course, is the classic tale of schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, his romantic rivalry with Brom Bones to gain the affections of Katrina Van Tassel, and his terrifying encounter with the Headless Horseman. It was originally part of a much larger collection of works by Irving, titled The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published in 1819 and 1820. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has subsequently been published many times as a solitary work.

The person who actually reads “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the Sketchbook, will find that it is preceded by a reminiscence entitled “The Angler.”  Here, Irving shows a very clear familiarity with fly fishing and angling literature.  He first describes his initiatory fly fishing trip “along a mountain brook among the Highlands of the Hudson.”  He admits to fishing poorly at the time and finding more pleasure in setting aside the rod and reading “old Izaak” Walton’s The Compleat Angler. Later, he also mentions reading the famous “Tretyse of fishing with an Angle” (Irving’s spelling), as well.

Irving goes on to narrate his later encounter with an old, retired mariner and expert fly fisherman in England. He writes:

I could not but remark the gallant manner in which he stumped from one part of the brook to another, waving his rod in the air to keep the line from dragging on the ground or catching among the bushes, and the adroitness with which he would throw his fly to any particular place, sometimes skimming it lightly along a little rapid, sometimes casting it into one of those dark holes made by a twisted root or overhanging bank in which large trout are apt to lurk.

In the text, Irving accompanies the old seaman home to learn more about fishing and to simply hear about the man’s fascinating life. He notes that “the old angler” kept a book on fishing, the Bible, an “odd volume or two of voyages, a nautical almanac,” and a song book as his library. Irving is explicit in showing his respect for the old man and states that his interest in fly fishing in theory, if not in practice, is renewed. Like Walton before him, he romanticizes all fisherpersons–particularly those in England–as individuals who understand the less-cultivated world of “nature” and who benefit spiritually and otherwise from such understanding:

The sweetness and serenity of Nature and the quiet watchfulness of the sport gradually bring on pleasant fits of musing, which are now and then agreeable interrupted by the song of a bird, the distant whistle of the peasant, or perhaps the vagary of some fish leaping out of the still water and skimming transiently about its glassy surface.

It is worth noting that Irving admits nature is a bit more tame in early nineteenth century England than it is in America. Indeed, his description of the Hudson Highlands is markedly less positive than his description of the English countryside.

Regardless, it is a curious thing that Irving’s recollection of “The Angler” is followed by his tale of the very nervous Ichabod Crane, who is is greatly afraid of so many things rightly and wrongly associated with nature. In Irving’s world, it is likely that Crane would have met a more certain and happy end, if he had been a fisherman, at peace in the woods during his ride home from unsuccessfully wooing Ms. Van Tassel. In fact, in Irving’s world, a more peaceful Crane might have been more successful in his wooing, in the first place (and perhaps it was the demeanor supposedly achieved through fly fishing that made Irving the rumored object of affection to the likes of the widowed Mary W Shelley and others).

Growing interest in classic fly fishing, according to WSJ

October 6, 2020

I thought some of you may be interested in a Wall Street Journal Magazine article published today, Oct. 6, entitled “The Fly-Fishing Boom is Finally Here” (click the title to read). The piece is authored by Darrell Hartman. The subheading of the article is “A new generation of fly-fishing fans is turning toward the soulful history of the sport with sought-after vintage gear.” In reality, the article addresses more than gear, though many of us do tend to obsess over stuff.

Here is a quote from the article, addressing the growing popularity of fly-fishing, in general:

The sport is on the rise. In fact, it hasn’t been this ascendant in decades, industry experts say—not since the early ’90s, to be precise, when images of a young Brad Pitt casting for Montana trout in A River Runs Through It sent droves of neophytes to their nearest Orvis dealer.

Readers will recognize many venerable names in the article, both of fly fisher figures as well as tackle. Before reading, though, keep in mind that high-end gear, trips to exotic locations, and collectible books are not necessary to the enjoyment of this sport. Indeed, I suggest that our fascination with such things really represents a desire for a time when streams were less crowded, watersheds were less polluted, quiet time (away from electronic devices) was easier to find, and so on. So, enjoy the nostalgia, but remember that it cannot replace our need to protect nature and its denizens, including trout. Also remember that consumerism will do little to help our conservation efforts.

Thanks to Munsey Whebe, a humble maker of fine bamboo fly rods, and a guy who understand what’s important, for pointing out the article.

Fire and Fly

September 14, 2020

Ken Burns on Hemingway

September 10, 2020

Readers may be interested in a six hour documentary on angler and writer Ernest Hemingway, which will air on PBS in April of 2021. The documentary is produced by well-known team Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. While Hemingway and Burns have their detractors, albeit for very different reasons, I look forward to watching this. Over the course of six hours, I’m sure there will be some treatment of his fishing life, and it’s influence upon his writing. For a preview, click here.

River Voice: Poems by Gary Metras

July 26, 2020

I have shared the poetry of Gary Metras before. His latest collection of poems is titled River Voice. Gary happens to own and run Adastra Press. Sadly, this book will be the press’ last publication. All of the books Gary releases-those he authored himself and others–are printed by letterpress and bound by hand. So, Gary is not only an artist with words, he is also an artist of ink, paper, and thread.

Like most people, I read a fair amount of digital texts. These range from articles I read for work, retrieved from my university’s library website, to books that my wife and I read for pleasure with each other, on a Kindle, in the evening. Yet, for me, there is no substitute for physical books. If there is a text that I know I may turn to again-and-again, or even which I would simply like to be reminded of, I typically by a hardback copy and put it on my shelf. Sometimes, I even buy a physical copy of a book I initially ready in digital form.

In a world were relationships to our fellow humans, to the animals, to the plants, and to the water are mediated through the glass of a car window, the glare of a computer screen, a phone to the ear, and so on, I value materiality. Without it, I think, we can forget how fragile the world around us is and how fragile we often are when faced directly with it.

So, a physical book–particularly a letter-press book like Gary’s that is manifestation of his hands and heart–is special. I suspect Gary feels much as I do. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have founded Adastra Press back in 1979. There is evidence of his appreciation for the material in his poems, as well. Consider the following, from River Voice.

A Strand of Partridge Feather

The pleasure of small tasks,
tying some trout flies,
reading some pages
of a friend’s new book of poems.
I pick up a pencil to mark
a line beautifully formed
and stuck to the knife-sharpened point,
a single strand of partridge feather
clinging to the graphite.
Some forces need be unseen,
the way words can by-pass
the mind and adhere the heart. Five flies, five poems.
Just enough.

When I read this poem, I can feel myself sitting at a desk, like the author. I can smell the incense cedar of the freshly sharpened pencil, I can feel the crispness of new books pages. Of course, I can see the scene that is the setting of the poem as well. But Gary reminds us the materiality is often more than what we can see.

This is one of the reasons I love books. I can see words just as well on a screen as I can on a leaf of paper. But, reading the former, I lack the touch, and smells, and sounds that remind me the words are written by a person like me. Thus, it is easier for me to enter into a relationship with the author when I read their words on a page. Admittedly, this relationship may be an imaginary one. After all, written words are a form of abstraction themselves.

Even in fly fishing, though so many authors have described it in nearly mystical terms (I’ll spare you the scholarly lecture on mysticism), there is a degree of abstraction–a distance–that prevents us from truly knowing the non-human world around us. I cannot know everything that the water carries from the places it previously traveled, I cannot know what the trout truly feels, and I cannot even be certain what the angler around the bend is thinking about. But I can feel their impact upon me. And I can see their vulnerabilities and their strengths. And that allows for a type of relationship I cannot achieve, when sitting sitting on my ass at home watching fishing videos on YouTube (honestly, this is not something I do).

The colophon of River Voice tells the reader that is was “letterpress printed from hand-set metal type,” in 100 copies signed and numbered by Gary Metras. “Printed sheets were gathered, collated, sewn and bound from July to October 2019 as the poet continued his fly-fishing quest for the perfect trout.” There is also an expended, trade version of the book, titled River Voice II, available through Amazon. I recommend it highly.

 


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