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A fisherman's parables reveal human nature with a rod and reel

June 22, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Fly-Fishing the 41st: Around the World on the 41st Parallel, James Prosek,

HarperCollins: 316 pp., $27.95

Here, for time-challenged readers, is a summary of "Fly-Fishing the 41st": Chase trout, drink beer, chase trout, drink beer, forge brief romantic relationship, chase trout, drink beer, cross exotic border, learn the word for trout in a different language, chase trout.

And yet I have to commend it. As a reader who has never caught a trout and who early on feared that the book lacked a proper reason to exist, I have to say it won me over. Author James Prosek is young (born in 1975) and footloose (casting in Nevada and Colorado, Spain and Slovenia, Japan and so on). His voice is self-effacing, direct and occasionally lyrical. His watercolors, sprinkled through the chapters, make evocative supplements.

And his passion for the subject, which comes through his restrained writing like a catfish soaking through newspaper, quietly but firmly insists on your attention.

At a small brook near Mt. Ararat in Turkey, Prosek writes:

"I decided to string up my fly rod and see if I could catch a trout. Out of the mist appeared three young men with the beginnings of mustaches on their faces. One approached me and removed a small golden hook from the leaves of his wallet and began to tie it on the end of my line. He encouraged me to follow him down the hill. Johannes [the author's companion] said that I should, so I and the young man with the golden hook were running down a hill into a thickly green valley, through the damp cool air, wildflowers growing to our shoulders."

As you follow him on the trout trail, he defies all manner of local laws and common sense to see, touch, photograph and paint fish, and it dawns on you: This man and his confederates are half-crazy, and following them will only get more interesting.

Prosek, raised in Connecticut (on the 41st parallel) and educated at Yale, is the author of four previous books about fishing, and as this volume advances, his skill at making international connections and his prominent standing in the fish-fanatic community become clear. He loves trout -- not killing or eating them so much as communing with them in situ, tussling with them, admiring their almost infinitely variable markings, then tossing them back alive.

Around the world he finds fascinating companions, among them a Parisian fisherman who reveals to him eel secrets of the Seine, and Johannes, the hard-drinking Austrian baker (and self-taught ichthyologist) who takes Prosek on perilous missions to secret streams across Europe and Asia, dons a snorkel and wetsuit and catches his fish by hand. (Throughout their adventures, Prosek and Johannes speak Spanish, the only language they have in common.)

In fact, through his deep knowledge and bent personality (and the patience he requires of his long-suffering wife), Johannes threatens to overwhelm the tale altogether. At one point in the book, most of which takes place in the late 1990s, Johannes and the author advance from checkpoint to checkpoint near the Turkey-Iraq border, the pair of hard-core trout fiends dragging Johannes' fearful wife through a region rife with skirmishing Turks and Kurds because there might be a rare trout species around.

This, come to think of it, hints at a key strength of the book: While his eccentric brethren fixate on fish, Prosek pays close attention to human behavior. Doing so, he reveals the strange mania of the trout faithful without requiring that the reader know when fry (hatchlings) become fingerlings or the difference between the genera Oncorhynchus and Salvelinus.

The author's soft voice does create a few problems. Through the book's early pages, readers may find themselves groping for a chapter, or merely a passage, that puts the author's fixation into a broader perspective or that prepares them for the rest of the book, an unscientific foray into the international cult of the trout. Instead, his narrative lives largely in the moment. As a result, the book's beginning and end seem not quite complete.

But its middle rollicks. It's hard to turn away from any book whose narrator, at loose ends in Ulan Bator, seizes the chance to tour Mongolia's premier natural history museum by flashlight during a power outage:

"Some of the rooms had no light at all and the eyes of poorly taxidermied snow cats, the stitches of the craftsman's art showing in places, gleamed yellow in our handheld lights. The experience was altogether odd and fantastic; I felt as if I had to protect myself or light a fire in a corner to keep the beasts from the mouth of the cave."

*

Photos testify to spiritual depths

Pilgrimage: The Spirit of Place, Gideon Bosker and Lena Lencek,

Chronicle Books: 132 pp., $24.95

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