In "Trout Fishing in America," the late poet Richard Brautigan described the trout as a "precious and intelligent metal."
"Silver is not a good adjective," Brautigan wrote. "Maybe trout steel. Steel made from trout. The clear, snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat."
I have read a lot about trout over the years, and that is probably the best description of this legendary fish.
And it is ironic because Brautigan's book is not really about fishing. But it tumbled off the shelves the other day as I was beginning what has become a yearly ritual-- reading about trout fishing, rather than doing it.
I own all the equipment--a good fly rod, waders, flies, leaders, net--and the last time I tried, I was a pretty fair fly caster. Yet, I have been trout fishing twice in 15 years. There are various reasons for this, not the least being a life anchored in big cities and a preoccupation with career and family.
But this year I concluded that the real reason is that I simply prefer reading the books to going after the fish. It is my best proof that books can unleash your imagination and transport you.
The other day, for example, the sports reports were all about the opening day of trout season in California's Eastern Sierra. Crowley Lake had the usual crowd of beer-drinking boaters waiting for the opening gun so they could throw flashy spinners and wormy hooks at trout that are raised in hatcheries to bite anything that is tossed at them.
And there was one story about some intrepid fishermen who decided that experience wasn't good enough. They huffed and puffed to a more remote area. But the reporter noted that they would be lucky to catch anything over a foot long.
Now let me tell you where I was: stalking wild trout with Nick Adams on Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River."
"Nick held the rod in his right hand, letting the line run out through his fingers. There was a long tug. Nick struck and the rod came alive and dangerous, bent double, the line tightening, coming out of water, tightening, all in a heavy, dangerous, steady pull. . . . The reel ratcheted into a mechanical shriek as the line went out in a rush. Too fast. . . . As he put on pressure, the line tightened into sudden hardness and beyond the logs a huge trout went high out of the water."
Unlike the scene in California, Nick was all alone on his river. He camped and ate onion sandwiches and drank the river water from his hat.
"Nick's heart tightened as the big trout moved. He felt all the old feeling. . . . His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him."
A little while later, thanks to my books, I was on the Blackfoot River in Montana with Norman Maclean, author of "A River Runs Through It."
Maclean watched as his brother, Paul, risked his life to get to a pool known for its big trout. For any fisherman (or voyeur), it was an exciting thing to read and fantasize about:
"He jumped off a rock into the swirl and swam for a chunk of a cliff that had dropped into the river and parted it. He swam in his clothes with only his left arm. In his right hand he held his rod high . . . and sometimes all I could see was the rod."
Maclean recalled a memorable hatch of stoneflies, one of the aquatic insects trout like to eat, and that sent me rummaging for my copy of "The Streamside Guide," the benchmark study of the trout's favorite foods by New York State fly fisherman Art Flick.
I thought I might have culled it during one of those moments when I seriously consider the prospect that I will never need a guide to trout-stream insects since I will probably never fish.
But I finally laid my hands on it and spent the next hour entranced. It isn't Hemingway, but if you are obsessed with trout, "The Streamside Guide" can be mesmerizing:
Here's what Flick says about the mayfly known as the Iron fraudator :
"How I welcome the day this fly makes its first appearance each season, for it means that at long last dry-fly fishing has started. It is the first mayfly of consequence to emerge."
(A bit of explanation for non-fishermen: For the trout fishing purist, taking a fish on dry flies--imitations that float--is the ultimate because the fish comes to the top and grabs the fly in plain view.)
Flick: "I have seen so many of the (live) flies floating downstream I could not locate my own fly. At such times, trout will usually gorge themselves . . . within 10 minutes, fish are boiling all over the stream."
On such occasions, the steadiest of fly fishermen have been known to snap off thousand-dollar bamboo rods in their haste to tie on a fly and get it in front of the trout. As for me, I think I drooled on the book.