Fly-fishing : metaphor for everything

Books Of Spring

April 04, 1999|By Craig Nova | Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

In the spring-time my fancies do, in fact, turn to love, but of a particular kind. And, like the more carnal variety, this one is enhanced by anticipation. Of course, I am speaking of the anticipation that starts for the fly-fisherman at about the time the first snow falls and gains momentum as the winter months advance, like the growing impatience in the heart of a boulevardier for a conquest that was almost, but not quite his.

This anticipation is hard to please, too, since a fisherman is always waiting for the next season, the next hatch, the next pool, all of it finally combining in the most intense present moment possible: when a trout takes a fly and disappears with it into the darkness of the waters. And if it is true, as a friend once said, that the pleasure of doing something is directly proportional to the time one has had to anticipate it, why then what can better add to the moment when the trout are rising to the fisherman's flies than a good book about the very subject at hand?

For this reason I have been reading a fair number of new books about fly-fishing, and the ones mentioned here are the cream of the lot. I have divided them into two groups: the theoretical or aesthetic, if not spiritual, and the frankly practical.

Bill Barich's "Crazy for Rivers" (Lyons Press, 80 pages, $16.95) is a at once an autobiography and an account of fishing. This book has many charms, but the chief one is the way it handles the passage of time.

Twenty or more years are compressed into the pages here, and while the details of Barich's life are more suggested than spelled out, the wisdom of his years is presented with a delicacy of touch that reminds me of the best casting I have ever seen: to the point, done with a grace that verges on legerdemain, and which left me with the sensation of being in the presence of a master.

Along with the accounts of fishing on various streams, Barish includes memories, too, some of them so sweetly erotic as to imbue his time on the stream with a vitality that is rarely seen in any writing these days. For instance, he recalls the summer he first slept with a woman, whom he brings to his bedroom in his parents' house when they are away, and then he treats her "to an ice-cream pop from a circling Good Humor truck immediately afterward because I had no idea what else to do."

And, of course the book is filled with observations that go off like small bombs as soon as you've read them: "Friends are recognized, not made." The passage of time, the love of the stream, his friendship with a fishing buddy are all conveyed here with great skill, a sense of humility, and with wisdom that lingers for days after one has finished this short but important book.

Margot Page's "Little Rivers" (Lyons and Burford, 131 pages, $16.95) is put together in a similar way, and one of its best qualities is its frankness. It is, in many ways, not so much an account of fishing, although it certainly is that (on some streams I recognize as not being far from my house in Vermont), as it is the story of a romance between Page and the man by whom she is courted and whom she marries, his interest in fishing sequeing, as they say in Hollywood, perfectly into her own interest in catching trout.

Her honesty about how things go wrong for the beginner should be required reading for anyone who is just starting. Wind knots (a knot in the leader from faulty casting), flies lost on the stream, and an occasion on a lake in Montana when she tries to fish from a boat that is both anchored and being propelled by a trolling engine speak not to her failures (since, after all, every beginner has these problems) but to her refreshing frankness.

She seems to say that the most important part of learning to cast flies is the best part of it, too: finding a way to take it easy. This is a lovely book, written by someone who has been able to imbue her pleasures on the stream with the power of the critical events in her life, and while the thrust of it is the universal delight in catching fish, her advice to women who are just beginning to cast flies makes it timely.

Now, a good general book for the beginner is hard to find, particularly if you just go into book store and stand in the fly-fishing section, but you can't go very far wrong with "The Elements of Fly Fishing" edited by f-stop Fitzgerald (Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $40).

This is one of those books in which a number of people contribute a chapter about a particular subject, but the collection here is to the point, clear, and valuable. For instance, I have rarely seen a chapter as concise and as helpful as the one on knots in this collection, just as the piece on casting makes the subject (which has been overly complicated by many writers) seem to be the simple thing it is. This book also includes good information on Destinations and Fishing Schools, and other subjects critical to the beginning and the accomplished fisherman. Four Stars, as they say in the restaurant racket.

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