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Gone Fishin'

July 18, 1993|JIM KRUSOE | Krusoe teaches writing at Santa Monica College. He will be reading from his work on Sunday, July 25, at 4 p.m. in the Lannan Poetry Garden

Some years ago, unaware I was suffering from a depression of considerable proportions, I found myself going fishing. One or even two days a week I'd drive out to the creeks and streams surrounding the Los Angeles basin, and then at night, as often as not, wander out to the Venice or Santa Monica piers to fish or watch others fish and listen to their stories. Still, something in me wanted more. In order to surround myself with water, I began to read books of fishing stories and instructions on how to fish, and when I slept I dreamt of streams. It was what I needed in those days--escape, pure and simple.

But along the way, I discovered something I hadn't bargained for, and that was the special quality of much of the writing done on the subject of fish and angling. The Austrian poet and dramatist, Von Hoffmansthal, once wrote that what he loved about singing was that it was the only time the human voice ceased to be an instrument of pure self-serving; and strangely enough, those who write about their fishing experiences seem to share this selfless quality.

As a teacher of writing I had been only too familiar with the often self-promotional and self-declarative aspects of literary writing, where one of the writer's eyes is on the subject while the other watches the audience. Those, it seemed to me, who wrote about fishing appeared to be a gentler breed, not concerned with winning or losing, or being right or having power or creating an image they could parlay into a following, but simply to share with others what happened on the water.

To tell the truth, my first memory of the sport is of a fool (it may have been from a child's alphabet) who is sitting patiently dangling his line and a bobber in a bucket waiting for a bite, and to this day, I think that's what I like best about the sport: foolishness and concentration. I think some of the happiest hours I ever spent were (mercifully) without witness, wrapped in a cocoon of fly line or unraveling explosions of monofilament from my reel, slapping bugs, ripped by thorns, reddened by nettles and grinning like a you-know-what. And when, inevitably, mere time and repetition made a more competent angler out of me I grieved, and still do, the loss of those earlier moments of pure imbecility. The writers I love best understand that fishing is not at all about catching fish, but wading or floating above something greater than one's self, in fact the very source of life, then throwing in a line and waiting to see what bites. (My own favorite fishing adventure was one January when I caught only two pathetic trout, but so lost track of the hours that I was unable to return to camp by dark, and was forced to spend the night, cold and shivering, wrapped in a large English setter.)

Here, then, is a sampling of a few writers and books, some out of date and out of print (though available in libraries and used book stores) but all, at least to me, sharing the qualities of intensity and innocence that make them, no matter when they were written, an enduring pleasure.

Bill Barich: His long piece, "Hat Creek and the McCloud," in "Traveling Light," catches much of the attraction of the sport, and he is a beautiful writer. Here he is starting the day on the Fall River: "There was frost on my windshield when I left the lodge the next morning. I was tempted to go back inside, crawl under the covers, and read Family Circle until the sun was higher in the sky, but I pushed myself forward into the wintry air and then out into the valley. A man and his son were launching a skiff into the Fall, and they both waved and smiled blowing clouds of breath. The leaves of the Aspen along the river had died some more during the night and they were a brighter yellow than ever."

Harold Blaisdell: "The Philosophical Fisherman." The title tells it all. I'm not really sure how great this book is (it was the first book I happened to pick up), but the philosophy is forgiving and there is something wonderful about a grown man 1) trying to figure out how to get a six-inch perch to take his hook, and 2) believing others are just as interested. If, he writes, a fisherman "attains the proper state of objectivity, he will see in himself all the ludicrous qualities which made him the human being he is. . . . And, no matter how puny and contrived, he will not be ashamed of his efforts to make something of his nothingness."

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