Excerpted from the introduction
‘Sounds like a fish story,’ my father said, crossing his arms, and squinting down at me from the dock. Just fourteen, I had waited over an hour that morning for my friend Tony before motoring out alone in my little boat, crossing the rough breakwater into the choppy sound, casting a polished Hopkins for cocktail blues – when something else struck. My cheap yellow rod bent double and pulsed wildly as line sang off the spool. Yes, yes, I thanked the heavens, adjusting my drag, and reeling when the fish turned. For fifteen minutes I stayed with its long runs and broad dodges, keeping the line clear of the prop when it got close and shot under the hull. Finally, in the sweating thrill of an instant, my flimsy blue net at the ready, there was a huge swirl and tail splash, then a glowing bronze flank just below the surface. Oh, my God, I said aloud. Striped bass! Stripers were scarce in those days on the north shore of Long Island, caught only by pros with live eels under the moon. But I was into a huge one – maybe thirty, forty pounds, maybe more. I’ll never know. Suddenly it was gone, the snapped line sagging between the guides of my rod. Another boat had pulled close to watch the battle, and the man behind the wheel just shook his head and sped away. The late morning sun suddenly felt hot, a ferry horn groaned in the distance, herring gulls hovered above. I would later learn that Tony’s grandmother had died in the night. She was a great old Italian lady who loved to hear about our adventures. ‘You boys bring home some nice fish, okay?’ she would always tell us. All I’d bring home that day was a story.
But this story and many others – experienced, heard, and read over the years – have taught me that fishing is about more than lifting a dripping trophy for a photo. One comes to know the fish and its world, the best techniques, and the right bait, lure, or fly. One learns to appreciate the beautiful, changing elements of sky, land, and water; the periods of feverish action, talk, and laughter; and the long, quiet hours of hope and contemplation. For millennia people’s lives and cultures have been woven into this ancient art. Whether it’s a Chinese sage angling without a hook to cultivate virtue for himself and the state or a humble Scottish gamekeeper’s daughter setting a record that has stood for almost a century, fishing stories dramatize those things we pursue, hold on to, lose, and let go of in life.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that fishing has generated more great literature and attracted more writers than any other sport, and this collection attempts to pull in some of the best of them. Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Hemingway, and Raymond Carver are literary lions who loved to fish, finding in it some of the happiest and most painful moments imaginable. In Maupassant’ s heartbreaking story ‘Two Friends,’ set during the Franco-Prussian War, two reunited companions in besieged Paris risk their lives crossing enemy lines to enjoy a little angling along the Seine. Raymond Carver’s equally wrenching tale, ‘Nobody Said Anything,’ features an adolescent boy who hopes a fish will carry him past bitter domestic battle lines. Hemingway, who writes famously of fishing in ‘Big Two-Hearted River,’ The Sun Also Rises, and The Old Man and the Sea, here provides a delightful scene from The Garden of Eden where the husband of a young honeymooning couple hooks a large sea bass in the Mediterranean inlet beside their French hotel. ‘Oh what a wonderful fish! Wait for me!’ the wife shouts down from the hotel window. When the man finally lands the bass in front of an admiring crowd and his adoring wife, he fulfills a male fantasy of pˆecher devant une femme
Lest male machismo grow overlarge in these well-seasoned tales, Elizabeth Enright’s ‘A Little Short of the Record’ properly deflates the hubris and dishonesty of an insecure husband and fisherman, exposing the truth about his skillful and resilient wife and her trophy bonefish. Jerome K. Jerome speculates on the tendency of fishermen to exaggerate and even fabricate their catches as comically revealed in the destruction of a mounted trout in a Thames tavern, while Rudyard Kipling tramples his own angling prowess with a hilarious account of fly casting beside a meadow and accidently hooking a seven-hundred-pound cow. Annie Proulx’s gothic tale, ‘The Wer-Trout,’ shows us that wife-abandoned men, alone in upper Maine’s myth-shrouded bogs, swirling with booze and bravado, can even begin to look and behave like fish.
Svend Fleuron, Norman Maclean, and Ueda Akinari imagine piscine lives, giving us a view from the other end of the line. Akinari’s Buddhist classic from eighteenth-century Japan tells us what it’s like for a human to become a fish and get caught, linking mastery in art with the powers and dangers of transformation. Equally fantastic yet emblematic of the fisherman’s conscience and symbolic of our relationship with nature is a caught fish that asks to be released. In ‘The Salmon Spirit,’ a story from the Ulchi people of Siberia, a small spared fish miraculously provides a hungry family with a brimming pot of salmon. As in Grimm’s fairy tales and similar folklore from around the world, kindness and mercy for nature’s creatures is rewarded with plenty, suggesting some early notions of catch-and-release conservation and its dividends.
Although the art of fiction can net the greatest truths, non-fiction narratives of epic battles with big fish make a splash here as well, notably Georgina Ballantine’s testimony of a two-hour struggle with a fresh-run salmon on Scotland’s River Tay, resulting in a British record – sixty-four pounds – that still stands today. Other thrills of the early twentieth century include Charles Holder’s amazing tuna plunge off the California coast, Zane Grey’s enthralling fight with a thousand-pound Tahitian marlin, and F. A. Mitchell Hedges’ Caribbean adventure in which he and his beloved guide battle and shoot a giant stingray off the Jamaican coast.
Emphasizing the more sporting ethics of bullet-free angling are some gentler outdoorsmen, including Roderick Haig-Brown, Nick Lyons, Ted Leeson, and Charles Rangeley-Wilson. A Canadian master of the understated fishing narrative and a keen observer of nature, Haig-Brown sketches a day of high-river salmon fishing shared with a bear. Nick Lyons gives us a quintessential story of a father and son, ‘On the Divide,’ as patience, understanding, personal obsessions, and parenthood are tested by the son’s eleventh-hour brook trout that gets tangled in the anchor line. Ted Leeson takes his obsession alone into the mists of an autumn morning, fly casting for sea-run cutthroat on an Oregon river. ‘To fish well,’ Leeson writes, ‘is to cultivate an arrangement of time and place, of circumstance and perspective,’ a philosophy that flows through many of these stories. Charles Rangeley-Wilson reminds us that these arrangements may cast us back in time and into surprising places as he fulfills a childhood dream by angling for sharks – locally called ‘tope’ – outside his humble seaside hometown on the north coast of England.
Free of the gleaming pretenses of high-end charters, ‘Wash and Tope’ humorously features an unassuming captain steering from his ‘potting-shed cabin’ while four disorganized friends drink tea, get seasick, improvise gear, and hook a few fish.
A day’s fishing with friends or family creates a wave of connections, like those in President Jimmy Carter’s vignette of bluegill fishing with his forgiving father in rural Georgia; Lin Sutherland’s zany road trips with her mother; Marjorie Sandor’s lifelong tangle with fishing, family, and Judaism; and Roland Pertwee’s ‘The River God,’ in which an elderly fisherman met on holiday in Wales inspires a young boy’s enduring awe. And no collection would be complete without an excerpt from Norman Maclean’s classic A River Runs Through It, the story of his beloved brother, Paul, a complicated young man who plays cards, tips whisky, fights, and fly fishes like a wizard with a wand.
Fishing can change, move, and even save people. ‘It is faith, not knowledge, that leads to paradise,’ David James Duncan tells us in ‘First Native,’ recalling the childhood trauma of crucifying a live stonefly for bait, only to experience the life-changing revelation of catching a wild trout: ‘the rainbow, the whole shining body flying up out of the water, filling me for the first time, then again and again, with so much yearning and shock and recognition and joy that I can no longer swear I remained in my body.’ Fishing bestows blessings but requires offerings, whether it’s the cost of bait, fuel, and equipment, or the investment of brainpower, sweat, and the precious gifts of hope and time. This exchange is beautifully realized in ‘The Longest Silence’ by Thomas McGuane, America’s greatest angling essayist. Both funny and very serious, driftingly contemplative and driven like a skiff at full throttle across the Florida keys, McGuane takes us on a fly fishing quest that ends simply in ‘ecstatic resignation to the moment.’
To remember that moment – to cherish something held or lost, as I do my striped bass and the many fish, waters, and people I’ve been touched by over the years – is to carry the spirit of angling close, like a well-worn book in your pocket. I have tried in this book to net the best, but many fine tales were released and many more remain to be caught and enjoyed. Still, it is my hope that this sampling entertains and inspires those who love both fishing and storytelling. In honor of the rich tradition of visual arts devoted to fishing, this collection also showcases wood engravings by my friend and fellow angler, Paul Gentry. Our combined efforts are meant to make Fishing Stories a tribute to the fruitful entwining of art, sport, and imagination, and to the promise of more good angling and more good stories ahead.
Excerpted from Fishing Stories by Edited by Henry Hughes. Copyright © 2013 by Henry Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Everyman's Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.