When it comes to fishing stories, my tastes are omnivorous, like those of a largemouth bass. Bait your pen with fact or fiction, a tone light or serious, a tale of bullhead, snook or marlin, and I will willingly bite. This is not to say that, like the foolish brook trout, I'm unselective and easily landed. Latin entomological descriptions spook me to the nearest brush pile faster than you can say callibaetis, and any metaphor that juxtaposes a trout and a ballerina is my cue to swim around a stump and break off.
Good fishing stories are unpretentious and clearly focused, and these two criteria are met in Seasons of the Angler (Fireside, $12.95), an anthology that has recently been released in paperback. Edited by David Seybold, Seasons of the Angler is a collection of 25 stories and essays and five poems. The subjects are richly varied, from trolling for horn pout in New Hampshire, to fly casting for tarpon in Costa Rica, to the life and times of an inflatable rubber raft. Most of the selections are humorous or explore broad human themes, such as the father who cannot communicate with his son, the friends who grow apart, the children who grow up.
Some of the authors you will recognize. Richard Ford's terrific story "Children" is about two Montana teenagers who are forced to take a young runaway girl fishing for an afternoon. "Children" is not so much a tale of coming-of-age as it is one about longing not to grow up. Thomas McGuane contributes a good-humored essay that leads the reader, cast by cast, through the exploration of "A New River." McGuane is on familiar turf when he writes about fly-fishing, although he is obviously no fan of casting for sea-run fish: "The biggest things a steelheader or Atlantic salmon fisherman can have—not counting waders and a stipend—are a big arm and a room temperature IQ."
If I can hazard a generalization about angling prose—and there are exceptions even in this anthology—it is this: the more humble the fish, the better the writing. Ted Williams (the outdoors writer, not the baseball player) writes a wonderful tribute to "Jiggermen," a unique breed of Yankee who fishes for lowly yellow perch by jiggering through the ice with a hook and a red bead. "Food is apt to fly from our forks, so twitchy are our wrists by mid-December," writes Williams. Unfortunately, his two children do not share this passion: "Long ago I told them that I would take them jiggering only if they asked politely. But they never ask, so I have to force them to come, and always they require constant herding and fetching."
P.J. O'Rourke's "A Fly-Fishing Primer" is a hilarious account of a novice who attempts to learn the art of fly-fishing ("...a sport invented by insects with fly fishermen as bait") through the magic of videotape: "But my version of a nail knot...was the size of a hamster and resembled one of the Wooly Bugger flies I'd bought, except it was in the size you use for killer whales."
Later, he tries to cast on an actual river: "I looked like I was conducting 'Flight of the Bumblebee' in fast forward. I was driving tent pegs with my rod tip. My slack casts wrapped around my thighs. My straight-line casts went straight into the back of my neck.... I had wind knots in everything, including my Red Ball suspenders."
Of the 25 prose works (I did not rate the poems), I found 19 to my liking and threw back five—a ratio of keepers that compares favorably with almost any anthology. My favorite was a story by Gene Hill called "As Was the Father, So Is the Child," a short, powerful memoir of a man looking back 60 years to his boyhood, when he spent time bass fishing with his leathery, taciturn father. It's a story about hurt, but it is written without bitterness, and in it Hill captures whatever aspect of fishing it is that draws fathers and sons to the water together and produces some of our finest fishing literature.
"It took years for me to understand the complications of a man afraid of love—either giving or receiving it," writes Hall. "And it took years for me to realize that among the things I was taught was the same fear—the idea that affection was weak and to be guarded against, and that demonstrating love was fickle and like wishing for something instead of working for it. My father had found a way to love without showing it or perhaps even admitting it to himself. His way was through our fishing together."
Seasons of the Angler is a fine batch of fish stories.