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Fishing and Writing

So many writers flyfish or write about flyfishing, it has become a literary pastime. Hemingway did it — he was not above skewering a fat grasshopper and fishing it like a fly. Norman Maclean did it, of course. Jim Harrison does it, and Kittredge and McGuane and the wonderful poet-essayist-novelist James Galvin, and they join a phalanx of musicians who can't help singing rhapsodic songs about it.

I fish. It's one of my favorite things to do, and there is a lot of fishing in The Dog Stars. Our hero Hig has fished his whole life. He says,

When I lost my high school girlfriend, I fished. When I quit writing anything in a fit of frustration and despair, I fished. I fished when I met Melissa and barely dared to hope that I had found someone I could love in a way that surpassed anything I had known. I fished and fished and fished. When the trout got hit with disease, I fished. And when the flu finally took her in an Elks Hall converted to hospital and crammed with the cots of the dying not five hundred yards from our house, I fished.

Unlike Hig, I came to it pretty late. When I was 30 I moved to a tiny town in Western Colorado up against a wilderness of rugged mountains called the West Elks. Paonia has one gas station in the center of town run by three generations of Reedys. Bobby, who is my age, and his son Mike, took me up to a creek that flows out of the West Elks. A single dirt track strings along it, dropping down to the gravel bars and riffles and climbing away to leave the stream alone for miles at a time where it flows through its steeper canyons. Canyons is grandiose. The whole creek runs through a cut covered in dense spruce and fir. When you are in the water the banks of black timber rise steeply on either side and upstream in the V of the cut you can see Mount Beckwith presiding over the whole country. The wind stirs downstream and carries with it the strong scent of the trees, and moves the rags of Spanish moss on their limbs like pennants.

It's in the deeply shadowed places where the creek leaves the road that the deepest pools hold the biggest trout. The fir trees are huge here, untouched ever by loggers. All along the fine silt at the edge of the gravel bars you are likely to see the tracks of deer, elk, bear, but it is in these quieter spots I have most often seen the bear, himself, hucking straight up some precipitous bank to get away from me.

I had wanted to fish for years but it always intimidated me. Flyfishing, I mean. The way all these great writers wrote about it, it seemed like an art. All the books of essays by professional fishermen, the instructional guides, called it an art. It seemed to require a lot of hard skills, but also the je ne sais quoi of art. Art is exactly what I didn't want to do in my spare time. It had taken my whole life to learn to write a decent poem — the jury, really, was still out on that — and all I wanted to do was wade around in a cold stream in a beautiful spot and catch dinner.

Bobby and Mike took the fear factor out of it. "Hell," Bobby said, showing me how to tie on a streamer, "throw that thing out there and bring it back in. Simple." Keep it simple. The one piece of advice that always works. The one tool you can take with you anywhere and find useful, like a Leatherman.

Writers tend to be pretty bad at that. They like to embellish and complicate and ramify. They can't help it. They have these hyperactive imaginations that are always trying to alchemize meaning out of the thinnest air, out of grapefruit juice and gunpowder, trying to grapple with images and characters that have heretofore refused to be in the same country, much less sentence. Always trying to extrapolate a life, a world, a story, from some scrap of overheard conversation. Poor bastards. It's tough to relax with a mind like that.

It occurred to me after I'd been fishing for a few months that this is why writers must love to fish. It is so frigging simple. Not easy, that's a different thing. But simple. You walk to the stony bank. The afternoon sun is balanced on the ridge and warms the gravel bar, the willows, the little asters, the white moths flitting in and out of the light. You feel the wind on your face. Upstream. Good. You squint over the dark water that is running silver in the riffles. Small pale gnats in a cloud over the surface, some large brown mayfly-looking bugs flying up. Good. You snug the sections of the rod together, line up the guides, thread the line, tie on two flies, one to drift on top, one to drag on the bottom. Step into the water. Ahh. Cold. No waders tonight. Cast into the current on the edge of a small black pool beside a deadfall spruce. Step up and cast again. The sun makes a backlit fringe of the trees on the ridge and slips beneath them. Good. Good night sun. Now only cool shadow, easier on the eyes, easier to see the top fly floating on the water. Still two full hours of daylight. Step up and cast. A goshawk cries and a kingfisher lands in a box elder upstream, cocks an eye at you, flies again. Beckwith sits above everything, still warmly lit above the darkening stream. Can see aspen on its shoulders just beginning to yellow.

Cast again. The pale ring of a feeding trout touches the quiet pool above. Step left to get a better angle, a clear shot into slow current so as not to spook her. Cast. The mind quiet now. Miraculous. Quiet and happy, concentrating on the simplest things. And as it does — focus on the next touch of the trout to the surface, the quiet spreading ring like a single raindrop, the knock nearby of what must be an antler, as the mind settles and clarifies, given completely to the fall of the fly, the drift of a tuft on water, the whole circle of the world around it comes into focus, too. The mountain, the redrock outcrops, the bird we call a dipper hopping stone to stone. The waterskater, the moth, the shape of the next bend. Cast.

It's a great relief for the writer who has to name everything, all the time, to forget for a minute even her own name. And if the feeding trout hits, tugs, strikes — well. You get an entirely different kind of fun. You get a surge of adrenalin and glee and you want to shout Oh my god, oh my god, I got one!, and you feel like a little kid again. Which is also wonderful and not literary in the least.

÷ ÷ ÷

Peter Heller is an award-winning adventure writer and longtime contributor to NPR. He is also the author of several nonfiction books, including Kook; The Whale Warriors; and Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River. The Dog Stars is his first novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Kook: What Surfing Taught Me about... Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. The Whale Warriors: The Battle at... Used Trade Paper $7.95

  3. The Dog Stars
    Used Hardcover $8.95

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