Fly-fishing: Distinguishing appearance from reality

One of the gratifying aspects of being a fly-fisherman is the primitive manner in which you perceive the weather: right now, for instance, I am thinking of the approach of spring like an early hunter and gatherer.

Still, there are some other experiences that fly-fishermen share that are not so pleasant as the increasing excitement attendant on the approach of spring, and one of these is having been asked, "My god, what were you doing all day out there on that river? You only caught four fish."


Now, the first time you are asked this question, you might even try to explain that you were interested in the way the current folded together so as to make places where trout were likely to feed, or that you were watching what insects were on the water.

Still, if you are feeling adventuresome in answering this question, you might try to explain the pleasures of what is known as a compound, complex hatch (in which more than one variety of at least two species of insects are hatching at the same time). The first time you try to explain this, your interlocutor's eyes glaze over with the psychological version of a fisherman facing a compound, complex hatch: are you crazy and if so, are you dangerous?


Anyway, what the fly-fisherman is doing out there is thinking. And one of the things about thinking is that it naturally leads to writing. It is this cerebral progression in fly-fishing that -- or so it seems to me, anyway -- produces so many books about the sport.

These volumes are an attempt to make sense out of and to give voice to the beauty, too, of the almost astronomical complexities that can be involved in catching a trout on a fly. And then there is another mystery that seems to enter into the conversion of fishing experience into books. One often learns all he can about the insects and the fish, and then one day, with a mysterious new certainty about the entire process, the fisherman is no longer so concerned about these complexities anymore and decides that it is time to tie on an Adams and start fishing. So, as you can see, there is a philosophical element to all this as well. Herman Melville, for instance, was obviously a wet-fly-fisherman.

This year's crop of books is even bigger than usual. And one of the things that becomes clear, almost immediately, is that each generation produces a handful of really top fishing writers. My nomination for one of the best is John Gierach, who I am glad to say has written two books this year, "Standing in a River Waving a Stick" (Fireside, 240 pages, $13, paper) and "Good Flies" (The Lyons Press, 144 pages, $22.95).

The first is a collection of essays about such activities as fishing a new pond, or new stream, or an old one, or an account of a fishing trip with an old friend, but the item that makes these essays so enjoyable (just like all the other collections, such as "Death, Taxes, and Leaky Waders") is that while they are told with great knowledge and with a perfectly attenuated sense of humor, they also suggest a keen and accessible sensibility about life and the pursuit of happiness. Also, this year, Gierach has produced a book about tying flies, which I found informative and inspiring.

Now, in a less philosophical but equally important mode, I ran across a little book from another fishing writer who commands the same kind of respect as Gierach. In fact, one of the things about Lefty Kreh is that he is consistently inspiring or constantly informative, which is to say he is the Johnny Cash of fly-fishing writers. His "101 Fly-Fishing Tips" (The Lyons Press, 96 pages, $14.95) is one of those books that can only have been written after a fisherman spends 30 years or so of getting out of jams by using his head and then being smart enough never to make the same mistake twice.

And, to be brutally honest, fly-fishing is one of those sports that is filled, on a per pound basis, with more possibilities for mistakes than almost any activity I can think of.

My favorite tip is #27, which is to put spare clothing in a plastic bag when going to fish someplace where you can get wet. Anyone who has spent a day, or the second day, of a fishing trip in wet clothes will instantly recognize the wisdom of this (and shudder, I might add, in contemplating just how this tip was discovered). Or #65, in which Mr. Kreh points out that the way to increase the length of a cast is a matter of not putting "one more ounce of effort into the cast with the rod hand, but [to] make your double haul faster." Surely, this tip will lengthen your casts and, in fact, make your time on the stream a lot less tiring.

Fishermen are doing something else out there on the water, and that is admiring just how beautiful a river can be, and so often, when they aren't writing about it, they are taking pictures. Somehow or other we have gotten snobby about coffee table books, but there isn't one of us who will refuse to page through a book with good pictures in it.


"Land of Little Rivers" by Austin McK. Francis (Norton, 280 pages, $80), a story in photos of Catskill fly-fishing, really is a lovely book, filled with excellent photographs, not only of some of the best known waters in the East, but of flies, rods and just about anything else that has to do with fly-fishing. My favorite is one of Jim Deren in his fly shop, which used to be, as I recall, on the third floor or so at Lexington Avenue at about 48th Street in New York City. Clutter doesn't even begin to suggest the intensity of objects here, but the thing about Deren was that he knew where everything was. Midges, say, tied on a 22 hook.

One of the recently published books that combines both the practical and the beautiful aspects of fly-fishing is Wayne Cattnach's "Handcrafting Bamboo Fly Rods" (revised and augmented edition, The Lyons Press, 288 pages, $50). Frankly, if you wanted to build a bamboo fly rod, this is the book to get since it has every conceivable piece of information required to build a good looking and serviceable rod. Clear, to the point and useful.

Now, for the historically minded, I would like to suggest "The Greatest Fishing Stories Ever Told" edited by Lamar Underwood (The Lyons Press, 277 pages, $24.95). This includes the usual collection of Ernest Hemingway, Haig-Brown, Zane Gray, all of which are worth reading in, say, February (at least where I live) but this collection also includes a story that is at once so pleasurable to read and so practically informative as to be worth the jacket price alone.

This is Joe Brooks' "Fishing Streamers and Bucktails for Trout," in which he says such things as, "Streamer fishing calls for rod tip work and line manipulation that will make the fly out there act like a minnow. It should be retrieved in short jerks to make it look like a minnow darting erratically around the pool, or in longer strips to ape the more leisurely swim." Now a lot of people have tried to explain how to retrieve a streamer, but no one has done it better than that.

Obviously, there is a lot to think about when standing around out there in the water, watching the trout rise, or, more to the point, while waiting for them to rise, and it is this that explains the sheer variety of the writing that fishermen (and fisherwomen, too, I might add) produce. At its heart, this production is driven by the same impulse as that behind almost any good writing.

This, of course, is to explain the difference between appearance and reality, and to suggest what it is we can do, either morally or practically, about what this difference might mean. Or, as Gierach says, "I don't know exactly what fly-fishing teaches us, but I think it's something we need to know."


Craig Nova is the author of 10 novels, including "The Good Son," "Tornado Alley" and "The Universal Donor." Lyons recently released his "Brook Trout and the Writing Life." He is at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of "The Good Son."