Starting Over

Everett Collection / Alamy

Story first appeared in the February 2000 issue of Men’s Journal.

On the surface fishing is a primitive activity. I mean in the anthropological sense that fishing is included in the hunting and gathering activities of our remote ancestors. It is all about filling the tummy.

In a decidedly comic sense it is hard to stay on the surface. Especially in the past two decades, a legion of men (and some women) have been writing about fishing. It’s as if since fish spend their entire lives underwater we try to join them by going even deeper. Except in the rarest cases (for instance, Thomas McGuane’s The Longest Silence) we utterly fail, because it’s as hard to write well about fishing as it is about anything else. Shocking as it might seem, we know even less about fish than we do about women. We even talk about the Zen of fishing with a captious banality. As a 25-year student of Zen I must tell you that fishing is fishing and Zen is Zen. The confusion here is that any activity that requires skill and during which we also manage to keep our mouths shut seems to acquire a touch of the sacred.

Some of us feel particularly good about essentially Pleistocene activities. If I walk a full hour through the woods to a beaver pond and catch a two-pound brook trout on a No. 16 yellow-bellied female Adams I feel very good. The important thing isn’t the technique or the equipment but the totality of the experience, of which they are a very small part. There are the hundred varieties of trees and shrubs you pass through, the dozen different wildflowers, the glacial moraines, the stratocumulus clouds, the four warblers and the brown thrasher, the heron you flushed, the loon near the lake where you parked the car, the Virginia rail you mistook for a cattail, the thumping of your heart when you hook a fish, the very cold beer when you return to the car just before dark, even the onion in the baked-bean sandwich you packed along. But above all it is the mystery of the water itself, in the consciousness, not in the skill or the expensive equipment.

Nothing is quite so inexplicably dreary as watching a relatively rich guy who has spent a lot of money on a trip to the Florida Keys or to a big western river like the Yellowstone and can’t make the throw. You wonder why he bothered or if he assumed his enthusiasm would somehow allow him to overcome the 20-knot wind, the moving skiff or McKenzie driftboat. Fly-casting is most often a sport without second chances, and, like wing shooting, it requires the study of prescribed motion and the spirit of repetition. And if you can’t afford a guide or, better yet, don’t want one, your ultimate chore is understanding habitat. Both fish and birds hang out in their restaurants, but there are no signs out front.

So over a period of 15 years you spent near a month a year on the flats of the Florida Keys fishing for permit and tarpon; your brain relentlessly mapping and remapping the area topographically to figure out where the fish will be, given specific conditions of date, weather, tide, water temperature. Even then you don’t have it figured. Why is a school of 200 tarpon coming in Hawk Channel under the absolutely wrong conditions?

And then one day you don’t want to go fishing. You want to go to an art museum or a bookstore. How many times have you gotten up at 6 a.m. to meet the right tide after only getting to bed at 3 a.m. and not necessarily alone? There’s nothing like a windless 92-degree day on the flats to tell you exactly how you behaved the night before. The sweat dripping into your eyes and down your nose smells like whiskey and other not necessarily commendable substances.

And, of course, you forgot that you were simply fishing, and that when you had taken it to a magnum level it was still just fishing, despite the fact that you were fly-casting to a 150-pound tarpon, which you can’t really extrapolate by trying to imagine a 150-pound rainbow or steelhead. And this is not including stray shots at Pacific sails, striped marlin, and blue and black marlin off Ecuador and Costa Rica, where you had the suspicion that your body parts might detach. You had become not all that different from the humorless and somewhat doltish moguls who Leared into Key West for a few days of flats headhunting, as if their real quarry were just another form of arbitrage.

So you burned out, and the burnout on magnum fishing also slipped the soul out of the day-to-day fishing in the Upper Peninsula that was a pleasant balm when you weren’t running your dogs to get ready for bird season. Burnout is endemic to our culture, whether in a job or in sport. I think it’s actually traceable to brain physiology, if I understand Gerald Edelman’s “neural Darwinism” properly, which I probably don’t. Your responses become etiolated, atrophied, plain frazzled, and in this case you have quite simply fried your fishing neurons, except for the two weeks a year on the Yellowstone River near Livingston, Montana, floating in a McKenzie boat, which was more a retreat from your work life than anything else, and trotting with tadpoles in Kashmir would probably also do the same thing, except your grandsons were in Livingston.

In July I launch my new Poke Boat, a splendid and slender craft that weighs about 30 pounds and is perfectly suited to hauling into remote, uninhabited lakes in the U.P. You can paddle it like a kayak or install a rowing contraption, which I did — or, rather, a friend did for me, as turning doorknobs stresses the limits of my mechanical abilities. I weigh either 130 or 230. I’m forgetful these days, but it’s probably the latter, which makes getting in and out of the boat a trifle awkward. A beastly process in fact.

But it’s a crisp virgin boat, and I feel younger than springtime as I fairly slice across a river estuary leading to Lake Superior, the body of water that not incidentally sank the 700-foot freighter Edmund Fitzgerald about 70 miles from here.

The first wave wrenches my bow sideways. The second, third, and fourth waves fill my virgin boat to the gunwales. How can this be? I’m nearly tits high in water and why -didn’t I leave my wallet in the car like I intended? Luckily my next stop, the Dunes Saloon, will accept wet money.

There’s inflatable flotation in the bow and stern of the Poke Boat, so I manage to crawl it to a sandbar. At least I drown a swarm of noxious black flies that were biting my legs. I wish mightily an old couple weren’t watching me from shore. As a lifelong leftist I have always considered dignity to be faux-Republican indifference, but then everyone wants to look nifty. With a violent surge of energy and upper-body strength, I turn myself turtle on the sandbar, doubtless looking like a giant beetle from shore.

At the Dunes Saloon an especially intelligent Finn says, “You’re wet,” followed by a French-Canadian drunk who says the same thing. What’s extraordinary about the experience is that I do the same thing the next day.

The only excuse, unacceptable anywhere in the world, is that I was working on a novella about a closed head injury and was living in a parallel universe where one doesn’t learn from experience.

Luckily I moved inland in the following weeks and had a marvelous time drifting among herons and loons and one lake with at least 77,000 white waterlilies. It was August and the fishing was poor, though one day on my first cast with a streamer I caught a pike the size of a Havana corona, a truly beautiful little fish that nearly covered the length of my hand. Her (it had to be female) sharp, prickly teeth gave my finger a bite when I was about to slip her back in the water. With the gout of blood emerging from my finger, there was a momentary and primitive urge to squeeze her guts out, but then I am a sportsman. If the pike had been a male, I might have done so.

During all my benighted years as a dry-fly purist I occasionally did some slumming, partly because I was in my thirties and the molecular movement of hormones made any stupid thing possible. If you trek far out on the ice and spend an entire day in a fish shanty with a friend staring down through a large hole in hopes of spearing a pike, you are demonstrating that it’s hard to find amusement in the Great North in January. You forgot the sandwiches but you and the friend remembered two bottles of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine and two bottles of Ripple made from indeterminable fruit, plus a half-dozen joints of Colombian buds. Due to this not-very-exotic mixture the day is still memorable.

When a pike finally made a pass on our dangling sucker decoy, I think we said in unison “Wow, a pike” and forgot to hurl the spear. We wobbled toward the shore in a blinding snowstorm, our compass the church bells in our small village.

Of course drugs and fishing don’t mix. It’s fun to mouth truisms that have become inanities. The tendency of boomers to tell older folks to “stay active,” as Melvin Maddocks points out, infers the opposite, “stay inactive.” It was certainly difficult to concentrate or cast well on LSD, but it made the rattling of gill plates on a jumping tarpon a fascinating sound indeed. And, once, in an altered state Jimmy Buffett revved his engine to the max when it was tilted up. I sat there in a questionable daze as the propeller fired out toward the Gulf Stream, glimmering in the blue distance. Mostly on acid you couldn’t fish well because you became obsessive about the improbable profusion of life at the bottom of the shallow flats. A passing crustacean became as monstrous as it is to lesser creatures, which might have included yourself.

Recently, a few days before heading to Montana for my annual fishing vacation, I decided to go north pretending I was an enervated businessman who had been strained through a corporate sheet and was desperate for a day of fishing. Parenthetically, I was only halfway to my cabin before I realized that except for my journal and poetry, I had never written for free, and a dense Martian might actually think I was a businessman. Many writers are as hopelessly venal as day traders. This is all the more reason to go fishing, which is a singular way to “get out of your mind” to where you might very well belong.

A friend of mine in the U.P., Mike Ballard, had consented to act as a guide. We’ve been fishing together for 20 years and often have assumed different names to dispel the ironies involved in adults at sport. Mike is a consummate woodsman and occasionally refers to himself as “Uncas,” the James Fenimore Cooper hero. In recognition of my own true character I am just plain Brown Dog. This is all plaintively idiotic but to have fun the inner and the outer child must become the same, which is harder than it sounds. For extended periods of my life I have condemned fishing to death by playing the mature adult, an illusion most of us live and die with.

It was one of those pratfall days. We boated five miles up the estuarine arm of a large lake, the fishing so slow we went ashore and walked a high ridge, which was delightfully wild. The sour note was that from the ridge we could see a huge, black rolling squall line approaching from the west, and by the time we made it back to the boat Uncas said, “Even our balls are wet.” So were the sandwiches (capicola, provolone, mortadella), but the two bottles of Côtes du Rhône were secure. We stood under a tree and drank them both, making our way to the landing in a stiff wind and temperatures that had dropped from 70 degrees down to 40.

It’s dreary to keep hearing that it doesn’t matter if you’re catching anything, it’s the experience that counts. Well, of course the experience counts and we spiritually thrive in this intimate contact with Earth, but it’s a whole lot better to catch fish than not to catch fish. You can’t fry a reverie, and I like to fry fish in a cabin in the same manner as my grandfathers, my father, and my uncles did before me. I have supposed that at times you penetrate a set of feelings known intimately to your even more remote ancestors.

Probably 99 percent of the fish I’ve caught in my adult life were released. I don’t say “released unharmed,” as a creature’s struggle for life is indubitably harmful to it. We should avoid a mandarin feeling of virtue over this matter. It’s a simple case that a variety of torture is better than murder for the survival of the species. The old wisdom is that the predator husbands its prey. “Catch and release” is sensible, which shouldn’t be confused with virtuous. “I beat the shit out of you but I didn’t kill you” is not clearly understood by the fish. This is a blood sport, and if you want a politically correct afterglow you should return to golf. Eating some wild trout now and then will serve to remind you that they are not toys put in the river for the exercise of your expensive equipment.

When you try to start over, you are forced to remember that enthusiasms that have become obsessions burn out rather easily. You think of the talented adolescent tennis and baseball players who withdraw when pushed too hard by neurotic parents. I was pushing myself in my twenties when I, as a dry-fly neurotic on a Guggenheim grant, fished 90 days in a row. Such obsessive-compulsive behavior is supposedly a mental defect, but then I also wrote the title novella of my collection Legends of the Fall in nine days, which I view as worth the madness. It can be caused by backpressure in the sense that I had been teaching for two years on Long Island and was longing for my beloved northern-Michigan trout streams, thus the 90-day binge. In the case of “Legends,” I had brooded about the story for too long and had to write quickly or lose it.

Of course, certain fishing behavior is indefensibly stupid. Years of fishing permit and tarpon for 30 days back to back out of Key West naturally sours one, especially when augmented by bad behavior. You need only to check into a hotel when a convention is in progress. Having had my cabin in the U.P. for 20 years, I’ve been able to study hundreds of groups of men who have come north to hunt and fish. I’ve had the additional advantage of spending time studying anthropology. There is whooping, shouting, jumping, slugging, and countless manly trips to the toilet to relieve the mighty freight of beer. One could imagine Jane Goodall off in the corner making her primate notes.

This is all an extension of the mythologies of outdoor sport that begin in childhood, when the little brain fairly yelps “Twelve-point buck! Ten-foot wingspan! Ten-pound brown!” Woods and water might very well be infested with “lunkers” of every variety. Within this spirit of conquest and food gathering I have watched a fishing friend dance with a 350-pound woman so tall he barely nibbled at her chin while trying to kiss her. Early man and later man had become one under the feral pressure of a hunting and fishing trip.

As a language buff I’ve been curious how quickly speech can delaminate in the face of excitement. Years back, well off the northern coast of Costa Rica with my friend Guy de la Valdéne and the renowned artist and fishing fop Russell Chatham, we managed one afternoon, using a rubber squid and a casting rod, to tease up a black marlin of about 600 pounds and a blue marlin that certainly approached 1,000. First of all, it is alarming to look closely into a blue marlin’s softball-sized eye maybe 20 or so feet away, and when Guy flopped out the fly, the fish sipped it into the corner of its mouth. The ratio would be similar to a very large man eating a very small brisling sardine.

Once hooked (it must have felt like a pinprick), the immense fish did the beginning of a barrel roll, its entire length emerging as it pitched backward away from the boat. And to me the audio was as memorable as the visual; bleak screams, cries, yelps, keening, with each sound swallowed soon after it began.

An hour or so later we nearly had a repeat with the black marlin, but I was doing the teasing and lost the rubber squid to the fish before I managed to get him into casting range for Russell. It took a lot of yelling for me to console myself, but then finally I accepted the fact that we were fishing for the reasonably sized striped marlin, and the encounter with the two monsters, though lunar, was a doomed effort, a case of outdoor hubris similar to trying to take a Cape buffalo with a BB gun.

I have long since admitted that my vaunted maturity is in actuality the aging process. More than a decade ago, in a state of financial panic (50 years old and no savings whatsoever), I began to work way too hard to allow for spending a lot of time at a sane activity like fishing. Saving money is even less fun
than watching corn grow. My sporting life was reduced to a scant month, with two weeks of Montana fishing and a couple weeks of Michigan grouse- and woodcock-hunting. I don’t count my afternoon quail-hunting near our winter “casita” in Arizona, which mostly consisted of walking the dog. If your hunting is spliced between a double work shift you’re never quite “there” in the field.

Sad to say this thoroughly nasty bourgeois work ethic, taken to my usual manic lengths, quite literally burned down the house of my fishing life. Years passed, and I began to envision my epitaph as “He got his work done,” something that fatuous. I think it was the novelist Tom Robbins who said that he doubted that success was an adequate response to life. Saving money, though pragmatically laudable, gets you in the garden-variety trap of trying to figure how much is enough. A straight answer is unavailable during a period in history when greed is not only defensible but generally considered a virtue. When overcome by greed, the fisherman tends to limit himself to headhunting, a kind of showy trophy search on the far corners of the earth. When living correctly and relatively free from greed, I did not differentiate between my humble beaver-pond brook-trout fishing and the stalking of large tarpon.

On one of my Poke Boat voyages I paddled into a 10-acre mat of white waterlilies to protect my ass from gathering waves. As a lifelong claustrophobe, to me an uninhabited lake is the ultimate relief from this phobia that cannot clearly be understood. I have, however, considered the idea that I might be somewhat less evolved than others are. After a severe childhood injury I quite literally ran to the woods, which has proved to be my only viable solution. When in Paris or New York, the Seine, the Hudson, and the East River present me with immediate relief from my phobia, as do the Bois de Boulogne, the Luxembourg gardens, and Central Park. Even as a wacky young beatnik in New York City in the late ‘50s I’d have to head up to the Botanical Garden in the Bronx.

Nearly all fishing takes place in a habitat that is likely to make you unable to think of anything but the sport at hand. In late August at my cabin I was brooding about my recent financial collapse and drove out to the gorge of a nearby river, basically a sand-choked mediocre river but nonetheless prepossessing. I sat down on a very high bank with a miniature fly rod and glassed a stretch with my monocular (the only real advantages to being blind in one eye are that I was 4F during Vietnam and I don’t have to carry cumbersome binoculars). Under the shade of an overhanging cedar tree was a succession of decent brook-trout rises. I reflected on the gasping it would take to get out of the gorge, also the number of small grasshoppers in the area, which must be what the trout were feeding on. I had only a small packet of flies with me and a single, small Joe’s Hopper from Montana. I made the long slide down the sandy bank on my butt, regathered myself, and took my first throw, only to hook a root halfway up the bank on my first backcast. I didn’t yell “Gadzooks!” I climbed up to the root by pulling myself hand over hand on other roots. I detached the fly and managed to catch the smallest of the rising trout, scaring the others away. Now soaked with sweat, I took off my clothes and wallowed in an eddy. I paddled over an exchange, a blurred glance with several trout that seemed curious rather than frightened. Even the predictably gasping trip back up the bank was pleasurable indeed compared to important meetings in offices high above cities that I have experienced. As Thoreau said, “While I sit here listening to the waves which ripple and break on this shore, I am absolved from all obligation to the past.”

Every few years I’ve taken to the idea of worms or minnows as bait or plugs for casting for pike and bass. The mood usually doesn’t last and probably emerges from my modest egalitarianism, also an occasional sense of repulsion from being in the company of fresh- or saltwater fly fishermen when they are especially full of themselves, all fey and flouncing and arcane, somewhat like country clubbers peering with distaste over the fence at the ghetto bait types in the distance. However, I have sense enough to blush at my occasional proletarian masquerades at my income level. I still can’t bear to “dress up” like the fishermen I see who, with an addition of one more gadget, appear likely to either drown or sink through the earth’s crust from the weight of their equipment, or better yet, the outfits — the costumes, as it were — designed for a terrestrial moonwalk or perhaps ridding an airliner of Ebola virus.

Of course, this is probably only an extension of my own childhood lust for first-rate equipment after I had judged those 50-cent, 15-foot-long cane poles inappropriate to my future as a great angler. For a number of years, all of my earnings from hoeing and picking potato bugs went to rods, reels, plugs, and flies.

I suspect that I’m a fly fisherman for aesthetic reasons, adding the somewhat suspicious quotient of degree of difficulty. My father fished for trout using only a fly rod, whether with streamers or bait, and so I suppose it was all inevitable. He was a well-read agriculturist and fished incessantly, taking me along on every occasion after I was blinded in one eye at 7. We were rather poor, but he was giving me the woods and the water to console me after a bad deal. Right after World War II, he and my battle-weary (South Pacific) uncles built a cabin on a lake where we lived in the summer, with several trout streams in easy reach. I imagine millions of men are still fishing because they did so as children and it is unthinkable not to continue. And it is still a consolation in a not-quite-comprehensible world.

This quality of intensity in one’s personal history can be unbearably poignant. After my father died in an accident along with my sister, I gave his fishing equipment — including a large, immaculately arranged tackle box — to a Mexican migrant kid named Roberto who lived with his family on the farm we rented. Roberto was about 12 and fished a lot in Texas when he wasn’t working. There were at least 100 plugs, antiques now, but I’m sure they were put to good use.

In George Anderson’s fly shop in Livingston, you never hear fish referred to as “old fangface” or “waterwolves,” euphemisms for northern pike up in Michigan. This shop is as discreet as Armani’s in New York. When I annually pick up my license, I ask an old acquaintance named Brant how the fishing has been, and he usually says “So-so,” having doubtless answered the question 100,000 times. He can’t really say “As good as your capabilities,” which would be accurate.

A few years ago the Yellowstone River suffered serious flooding, but it has begun to recover. I simply love to float it in a McKenzie boat and have booked an expert guide, Dan Lahren, for the past decade. In that I have fished there nearly every year since 1968, I scarcely need a guide, but then it’s a great deal more comfortable than stumbling over slippery rocks, and since I’m committed to the fee, I fish six hours every day. Ultimately the cost is nominal compared to evening meals in New York and Paris, where there’s little fishing, though striped bass have been reappearing around New York and I’ve long promised myself the absolute inanity of fly-casting the Seine right in the middle of Paris, particularly the stretch near the Musée d’Orsay. Lest you question my sanity, I should add that I don’t value sanity very highly. Besides, we all know that every creature is confronted moment by moment by the question of what to do next, and casting a woolly worm out into the turgid waters of the Seine seems a splendid option.

I fish a total of about 70 miles of the Yellowstone, selecting a piece each day, keeping in mind the specific pleasures of scenery, habitat, the hydrologic shape of the water, the memories each stretch evokes. Tom McGuane moved to the area in 1968, and his friends followed, including Russell Chatham and Richard Brautigan, and in recent years I’ve fished a number of times with Peter Matthiessen. This year the fishing was mediocre, though I was distinctly more conscious, mostly because I’ve pulled back from the screenwriting business but partly because I fished a lot in the summer in my attempt to jump-start an old obsession. I had no 40-fish days, as I’ve had in the past, and no fish over 3 pounds, but each day was an unremitting delight. During slow periods I’m always re-minded of McGuane’s essay, the title work in The Longest Silence, on how angling is often filled with a pleasant torpor interrupted by truly wild excitement. My friend and guide Lahren likes to remind me of the time I pulled a dry fly away from a giant brown trout, thinking for truly inscrutable reasons that it was an otter trying to steal my fly. Its dense, massive arc seemed too large for a trout. This fall the most noteworthy day brought a squall that turned the river into a long tidal riptide, and when we left the river even the irrigation ditches had whitecaps.

It’s now October 22, and there’s a gale on Lake Superior, with the marine forecast predicting waves from 18 to 24 feet. Perhaps I should get my beloved Poke Boat out of the shed, but first I’ll knock off 50 pounds for ease of maneuvering. As a backup, a friend is building me a classic Chesapeake skiff. Also, I’m planning to go to Mexico to catch a roosterfish on a fly, a rare lacuna in my experience.

I won’t say I’ve reached the location of that improbably banal word “closure.” You don’t start fishing a lot in the same place you left for the same reason you can’t restart or renew a marriage back to a state of innocent, blissful passion. It’s quite a different person baiting the hook or, better yet, tying on the fly. It is, however, fine indeed to know that if you’ve lost something very good in your life it’s still possible to go looking for it.

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