Books about fishing fall into two groups: those that tell readers how to catch fish, and those that explain something about why people fish. The latter question is the murkier one, though this anthology of fiction, prose, and poetry succeeds in addressing it with style and wit.
The book is nicely balanced and casts a wide net. The quiet pleasures of farm ponds are celebrated along with more dramatic surroundings of river and sea. A variety of types, from effete flyfisher to unrepentant worm dunker, populates its pages. There's even a story on commercial fishing, an act of ecumenicism alien to sportfishing literature, though its unfortunate title, "Doing It for Money," suggests that ancestral rivalries have not been laid completely to rest.
Well-known authors like Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane appear along with comparative unknowns. McGuane, unfortunately, is not at the top of his game here. His description of "A New River," apparently intended as transcendental, comes off sounding like New Age piffle. "Our mutuality grows," he writes of a trout.
Actor Rip Torn has better luck with a memoir of trout fishing in California with his friend Richard Brautigan. The story has the manic punch of a good Beat novel, from an introduction in San Francisco's North Beach to boozy long car rides to legendary fishing streams like the Feather. Though the narrative is jumbled at times, its very lack of artifice makes the story all the more poignant as it traces Brautigan's spiritual decline, which ends in suicide after his final novel is a critical and financial bust.
Many of the contributions serve to remind that fishing, like reading, can be a path for escapism, an escapism that can liberate or merely circle back and dead-end in reality. In "The Native," class divisions are preserved in the fishing habits of the residents of Darby, N.H., where the chill waters are "too poor for abundance, too pure for fecundity." It's an odd piece of social scratching, as if Thorstein Veblen had undertaken a study of small-town angling.
Fortunately, Ernest Herbert's funny and biting analysis reads more smoothly than most sociological treatises. His most successful portrait is of the middle-class denizens of Central Darby, forever in hock as they seek to outdo one another in the size and perceived splendor of their high-tech bass boats. "The more these men fish, the less they get away from it all," he concludes.
Their women are just as dissatisfied, despising femininity as "the turn of mind that shackled their mothers." Yet they never would deign to fish. Women, in fact, rarely appear in this book. When they do, it is usually as one of society's annoyances, which their men are desperately trying to forget as they immerse themselves in nature and the atavistic pleasures of the hunt. There is more than one Francis Macomber in these pages. But macho encounters with big game fish are as rare as that bird the sportfishing magazines used to call "anglerettes." The recent defrocking of Hemingway--perhaps frocking is a better word--possibly has inhibited the he-man school of fishing yarns, and that may be the one real benefit of the sordid spectacle. Here, at least, the only time the Earth moves is when Rip Torn and a drinking companion accidentally step on Brautigan in his sleeping bag.
In the last few years, flyfishing has become the sanctum sanctorum of the sport, and the book betrays a slight prejudice in this direction. Wisely, the editor has leavened the serious stories on flyfishing with satirical pokes at the snobbery that seems to accompany its art.
In the most successful of these, "Confessions of a Catfish Heretic," Stephen J. Bodio worries that flaying the water with bits of fur and feathers has become "the blood sport of urbanites and vegetarians, so refined that somebody who actually eats fish is considered to be as spooky and recidivist as a cannibal." He goes on to celebrate the more exotic pleasures of "casting big live animals after big ugly predatory fish" in the "beautiful, nightmarish swampscape" of the Gila River in New Mexico.
In "Jiggermen," Ted Williams--an outdoors writer and former game warden, not the retired baseball player who later pitched aluminum johnboats for Sears--describes a hard-core fraternity of ice fishermen in Massachusetts whose love of yellow perch--"its fins redder than any brook trout's"--and disdain for pickerel and "loudmouth" bass is exceeded only by a talent for phlegmatic conversation. Finding a long-lost secret pond deep in the bare woods, one of the group is "wild with excitement, which, for a jiggerman, means grinning and saying, 'Theah, b'Gawd.' "