Literature: Holy Roll Casting

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1994

Literature: Holy Roll Casting

Hooking spirituality in trouting's deep, deep pools
By Donovan Webster

Bait fishermen approach water with a simple thought: "Bite, you rascals." With fly fishermen it's more like "Ommmm." We refer to man's--well, fly-fishing man's--increasing tendency to extract to little too much meaning from the act of wading a river while waggling a $600 pole. Indeed, for today's sons of Izaak Walton and Norman Maclean, trout water isn't just cold, wet, and fishy, but resonant, infinite, even divine. Herewith, some recent confessionals.

Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, by Howell Raines (William Morrow and Company). A newspaperman schooled in lustily yanking crappie from hot southern waters arrives in Washington, D.C., where he becomes the powerful bureau satrap for the New York Times. Job pressures, aging, and the collapse of his marriage contribute to a midforties riffle of despair that he tries to slosh through on Virginia's Rapidan River. There he asks, "Is fishing about faith or fear, death or salvation?"

Grumpy About: Reagan-era Republicans, Brit trouters

Loathing-of-Other-Fishermen Index (1-10): 4. Gentler than most, because he's rooted in "the Redneck Way of Fishing."

Densest Theo-Philosophical Thicket: "For just a bit, the circle of water, sky, and light in which I found myself seemed to have slipped the bonds of sidereal time, and this fish, my fly, and I converge according to the elongated beats of dreamtime."

Keeper Insight: The midlife crisis is prelude to a larger problem: death. "Hear me, my brothers.... There lies before you a severe journey--a soul-rending passage that will either heal you or wreck you.... The black dog is on your trail."

The Habit of Rivers, by Ted Leeson (Lyons & Burford). East Coast-based English professor moves to Oregon for baptismal outings in the Deschutes River, where he ponders the divinity of fly-tying: "You sit down, deity of the vise, and from bags of feather and fur, people the world of your fly boxes with creations made in your own image."

Grumpy About: Auto mechanics, river rafters

Loathing-of-Other-Fishermen Index: 8. Derides sonar-employing anglers who "fish for LCD blips instead of salmon."

Densest Theo-Philosophical Thicket: "Sometimes the brain has a mind of its own, and the paradox inhering in the landscape is as well a free-floating thing that imbues our experience of the place."

Keeper Insight: Fishing represents "a submerged conviction in the national consciousness ...that some new and improved brand of self can be reinvented in the fresher air of uncorrupted places."

What the River Knows, by Wayne Fields (Fireside Books). Another English professor, who fixates on death (his dog's, his cat's, his own) while fishing a Michigan creek. "To sit by a river" he writes, paraphrasing Walton, "is to enjoy the fittest place for contemplation even as one awaits a struggle with whatever monster might reside in those depths."

Grumpy About: Yuppies

Loathing-of-Other-Fishermen Index:9. Mocks trophy fishermen who frequent taxidermists, "asking for some tarted-up replica to hang, perhaps with a barometer in its belly."

Densest Theo-Philosophical Thicket: "Somehow my lines are holding...but I do not know to what I am fast."

Keeper Insight: Fishing's beauty is its frequent lack of action. "About midnight came the discomforting thought that I am writing about nothing happening.... What is the longed-for thing? Would I dare name it even if I knew?"

Upland Stream, by W. D. Wetherell (Little, Brown and Company). A novelist who converts a year's worth of outings on New Hampshire's logging-threatened Copper Run into a lunker-size metaphor: "There is an abstract Copper Run faced with dangers that less mortal. I refer to the relentless, vicious attack on...the very notion--the very humane notion--of Beauty itself."

Grumpy About: Citizens of Indianapolis, Indiana--symbols of TV-watching morons everywhere

Loathing-of-Other-Fishermen Index: 7. Says bass-busters could redeem themselves by following trouters' lead and adequately poeticizing their craft.

Densest Theo-Philosophical Thicket: "We fish for our childhoods."

Keeper Insight: "The four-count rhythm of fly-casting" lends itself to Thoreauvian mental chanting: "I...really... HOPE...that man calls a truce with nature, starts the long patient healing and rejoining the lack of which dooms us all...not in an allegory, but in a new realistic symbiosis. I...really ...HOPE."

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