Gone fishing

“I fish because I love to; because I love the environment where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly… my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion; because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed or impressed with power, but respond only to quietude and humility and endless patience; because I suspect that men are going along this way for the last time, and I for one don’t want to waste the trip… because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness; because bourbon out of an old tin cup always tastes better out there; because maybe one day I will catch a mermaid; and finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant – and not nearly so much fun.”

-from “Testament of a Fisherman” in Trout Magic, by Robert Traver

Because it had become necessary to dissolve, at least for a short while, the bands that bind me to the topic of climate change…

And because I hold these truths to be self-evident, that global warming can really get you down, and that pacing oneself is essential in any long-distance endeavor …

… this Independence Day weekend I decided to declare independence from anything having to do with climate. Instead of trolling the web sites I frequent daily, scouring the headlines of the newspaper, writing about the impacts of climate change on the heartland and on my own heart, or needling my legislators, I instead chose to pursue life, liberty and happiness – by going fishing.

Allow me to share with you what I caught on one of my favorite streams, Jerusalem Creek. I do not guard this particular stream jealously. In fact, I want you to go there, too, often. Please trample its banks, wade its waters, ply its holes with your best tackle and techniques. Invite your friends, be they fly or bait fishermen. Skill and reverence are not required, but slobs will not, in all probability, enjoy a sojourn there.

Photo by Hattie Chamberlin

You will not find Jerusalem Creek on any map. Deep and cool, Jerusalem Creek flows not between grassy or rocky banks but between the covers of a book. Ted Leeson is its author. Ostensibly about fishing the spring creeks of Wisconsin’s driftless area, Jerusalem Creek overflows with profound insights about fishing and life.

I first fished Jerusalem Creek (subtitle: Journeys into Driftless Country) several months ago, when my Uncle Chuck sent it to me. Until very recently Uncle Chuck lived alongside one of the best trout rivers in the country, Montana’s Gallatin. Unlike its sister, the Yellowstone, the Gallatin has not yet been desecrated by burst oil pipelines. My uncle bought the book used from a shop in Bozeman, according to the sales receipt I found tucked into the dust jacket, but marks in the back of the book reveal that it once resided in the Little Egg Harbor Branch of the Ocean County Library in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey (you’ll never get such rich provenance from an electronic book). Its pages must not have seen the light of a Garden State day very often, which is probably why the library discarded it. I try to avoid stereotypes – I’m sure New Jersey has many charms – but I can’t imagine there are more than a handful of New Jersey readers, or even fisher folk, who give two shakes about our Midwestern streams. Surf casting and deep-sea fishing are what it’s about out there. Nothing wrong with that; after all, the fathers of Nick Adams and Santiago are one man.

Jerusalem Creek remains very much in circulation. You can’t hold a good book – or river – back. At least not for long.

A large percentage of the books in my personal library have come from Uncle Chuck, shipped parcel post in brown cardboard boxes. My uncle is a fisherman at heart as well as in practice. Although we have spent very little of our lives together – we fished in each other’s company only once that I remember, on the Au Train River when I was a small boy – my uncle and I share a deep affinity and have kept up a lively correspondence for most of my adult life. Much of that correspondence centers on reading and fishing, and the pleasures derived from both activities.

Uncle Chuck is also, like his brother – my father – a former Marine and veteran of the war in Vietnam. He was trained as a radio operator, and like many of his fellow Marines he went to Vietnam thinking that he was helping the South Vietnamese win their independence from the communists in the north. He narrowly survived the siege of Khe Sanh in the early part of 1968, but not before seeing many of his fellow Marines die gruesome and painful deaths. Today, rivers and books give my uncle some solace and respite from the memories that still torment him. It seems somehow fitting that I should share Jerusalem Creek – my favorite of all the books he’s sent me over the years – with you today.

Every book I’ve ever received from Uncle Chuck has been a gift. This time, however, my uncle was charging me. I could keep the book, he wrote, so long as I promised to give him my opinion of it. I hope he will count this appreciation of Jerusalem Creek as payment in full.

To dangle a bunch of “keepers” from Jerusalem Creek in front of your face may seem a little like those movie trailers that include all the good scenes, and I realize that I risk your wondering why you should bother to read the book at all. But as with truly great films, the whole of Jerusalem Creek is much richer than anything you might pull out of it, however profound those things might be. Think of what I’m doing as a kind of catch-and-release fishing. Besides, there are many more keepers in Jerusalem Creek.

What’s more, as Leeson observes, we never really fish the same stream twice, because the shape of it continues to change as long as the water flows, and each time the place makes us different, if not necessarily better, fishermen.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

But I guarantee that if you fish this creek – fishing being so much more than the act of catching fish in the same way that living is so much more than respiration, consumption and excretion – you will be changed, and very much for the better.

I have read more books and stories by fishing writers than I’ve fished bodies of water, but through the words of these writers I’ve come to know many rivers, streams and lakes better than some of the fishermen (and women) who have sunk actual tackle in them.

And damn good writers they were and are: Robert Traver, Norman Maclean, Tom McGuane, David James Duncan, and Ernest Hemmingway just to name a few. Each is associated with and celebrated most in the states in which they cut their teeth as fisherman, if not as writers, and where the streams of their youth flow. Because I spent innumerable childhood summer days exploring and fishing the mostly unspoiled waters of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Chief Justice of this supreme court of writers for me will always be Robert Traver, who really was a Michigan Supreme Court justice, and who, in my opinion at least, inherited rod & gavel, if not pen, from Hemmingway. McGuane still presides over Montana, and Duncan, though he now lives in Montana, will forever be associated with his native Oregon. If you haven’t yet read his River Teeth, tarry not.

Leeson now resides, teaches – and presumably, fishes – in and around Corvallis, Oregon, but after reading Jerusalem Creek, I can think of no native who better deserves the title of Wisconsin’s best fishing writer. I intend no disrespect to Wisconsin’s other fine writer-anglers with this declaration.

But it’s life, not fishing, that I have learned most about from these men. Even before Izaak Walton’s The Compeat Angler was published in 1653, the best fishing books have tended to be about far more than fishing. Fishing, literature and philosophy have been strung together since biblical times. Consider Jonah, or the ultimate fisher of men Himself. Does fishing produce good writers and philosophers? Or good people? Could the converse be true? I am far from the first to ponder these questions, and I will be far from the last. Which brings up an interesting fact: etymologically, “ponder” is closely related to the words “pond” and “pound.” To think deeply or reflect on something is to weigh it in our minds. “Essay” comes from the “assay” of metallurgy and pharmacology, a derivation of the Old French assai, to weigh and test.

It is equally fascinating to me that all the writers I’ve just mentioned are masters of fiction as well as non-fiction. And fiction, it has been said, is the body of writing most reflective of truth. Duncan’s The Brothers K, in which almost no fishing happens, is among my top 5 favorite books. Traver is best known for his Anatomy of a Murder, which Otto Preminger turned into a pretty good movie of the same name, but I much prefer Traver’s Laughing Whitefish, another courtroom drama – and love story – set on the shores of Lake Superior and based on an actual court case.

But let me return to Jerusalem Creek and a few of the beauties I caught there. Unlike the speckled gems one might be fortunate enough and skilled enough to catch in Black Earth Creek, the Blue River or Snowden Branch, these creatures will never die. Their eyes will never cloud, their scales will always shimmer, and their flesh will always pulse with energy. What’s more, you don’t need skill or luck to catch them, only the ability to read and a library card.

From the chapter 2, titled “Driftless”:

“The world leaves footprints deep enough in places to impress their shapes on the soul. It is no accident that we name the contours of our experience in the language of the land – we reach peaks and wage uphill fights; there are watershed events and rocky roads; we find fertile ground or make serendipitous discoveries. For there is surely a topography to inner life as there is to what lies outside… Certain places and people and times abide, the resistant outcrops of a life that are weathered into relief by a slow erosion of the delible and impermanent, laying bare the stratigraphies of a private landscape, graphed in layers of causes and consequences, bringing old stories to the light of day. They are formed to shapes of what we remember by longing, love, grief, regret, joy, and self-reproach that run like rivers and carve furrows in the heart. What remains is enduring but not immutable, for even recollection itself has a kind of friction that smoothes whatever it touches, like the image of an old coin rubbed soft by constant handling. Every memory is also a forgetting, and every name an elegy.”

From Chapter 3, “Meandering”:

“Meandering is the shape of youth with time on its hands, when the years are still a given, life’s automatic entitlement, and the hours not yet a currency to be saved and invested and spent in the calculus of cost/benefit, with an eye toward economy and value. Later, when life gains velocity and assumes a more predictable trajectory, meandering grows more difficult. While a few still manage it, most of us are driven to simulate it in peculiar oxymoronic behaviors – planning for unplanned time, forcing ourselves to relax, running to stand still. But in those years before the present becomes enslaved to some ever receding future, one is blissfully unshackled from the value of things – of a dollar or a day – and things are free to acquire their own value. All time is now, and a day merely the meandering arc of moments laid end on end. Sometimes, youth does indeed seem wasted on the young. Then again, it’s all they really have.”

And this:

“The dead ends and disappointments were numerous but short-lived, always eclipsed by anticipation of the next place, for if you choose to wander about, scouting anything, you might as well do it with high expectations; to meander without hope is a pitiable spectacle and a fool’s errand.”

From Chapter 4, “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”:

“All important things in life possess the capacity to humble you, and there is little wonder that the spring creek fisherman quickly learns to address the water from his knees.”

Or:

“It is a curious form of human perversity that, often enough, the studied precautions we take serve only to lead us to do the thing we fear most, in a way that desperate efforts to keep a lover can become the very jealousy that drives her off.”

From Chapter 6, “Brothers in Arms”:

“What might be called ‘heightened states,’ whether induced by the marvel of modern pharmaceuticals or a jolt of religion or a trout stream, are far less likely to change people into something else than to amplify what is already there. The sentimental drunk, in my experience, is still sentimental when he’s sober, and I’ve never seen a fistful of Valium, a dose of the spirit, or a pool full of rising trout transform an asshole into Mother Teresa. Such things bring out the person you are, and we choose our fishing partners to make the revelation as agreeable as possible.”

So much of the watery wisdom of Jerusalem Creek speaks to writing as well as it speaks to fishing, as with this excerpt from the afterword, titled “A Workable Deception”:

“In the end it is all about stories. A trout fly is only a story we invent, a tale spun on a hook shank from the imperfect materials at hand, ordered according to our best guess, an explanation of what we think we understand about a world. Casting it on the water, we tell our story to the trout and look for signs. Sometimes it convinces, sometimes it does not. But either way, we invent another story, this time to tell ourselves, about why things should have happened the way that they did. And when our stories fail, as all eventually do, we sift our failures for clues and give them names and out of the names make up a new story, hoping to converge on some truth of the matter even as we know that is impossible, and settling as we must for the best of all possible lies.”

I invite you to drop your own line into Jerusalem Creek. After you do, drop me a line and share what you caught.

Happy Independence Day, Uncle Chuck. Thanks for all the books and rivers and wisdom. Semper Fi.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin