American Culture

Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing: an appreciation of John Gierach

…we fall into that class of fishermen who fancy themselves to be poet/philosophers, and from that vantage point we manage to pull off one of the neatest tricks in the sport: the fewer fish we catch the more superior we feel. – John Gierach

Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing by John Gierach (image courtesy Goodreads)

It’s called “the quiet sport” and to those of us who practice it, as I have written about numerous times, perhaps most poetically here, it is part mysticism, part addiction, part that thing which my friends laugh at.  Fly fishing, especially fly fishing for trout, is a complicated, though deceptively simple, activity that involves a good bit of gear, a good bit of luck, a good bit of neurosis. John Gierach’s book of essays, Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing is one of my favorite works on the subject, and, since it’s part of the 2016 reading list, I dove into it immediately after finishing Catherine Heath’s social history of the 70’s and 80’s, Behaving Badly mainly because I am avoiding reading fiction right now as I finish my latest book.

The book is a series of essays that look at those elements of fly fishing that I mentioned above – gear, luck, and neurosis – in about equal parts.

Some of the essays – “Midge Fishing,” “Sticks,” “Autumn” – focus the reader primarily on different aspects of the gear fly fishers use. In the first of these Gierach discusses one of the most arcane of topics, the entomology of insects and the lengths that anglers will go to in trying to create artificial lures that imitate as perfectly as possible in color, shape, and size the insects they see trout feed upon. “Sticks” is about one of those tools fly fishers find essential at times – a stout stick used for hiking and wading. “Autumn,” Gierach’s meditation on the end of a fishing season, spends a good bit of time discussing the changes that anglers must make to their gear as summer becomes autumn and winter begins to creep in.

The “luck” essays – “Expertizing,” “Guiding and Being Guided,” “Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing” – are as much about Gierach deprecating his skills both as writer and angler (he is masterful in both roles) as they are about any luck that he experiences. In the first of these he underplays his widely acknowledged fame both as writer and fly fisher, ascribing his (then) rising reputation as both writer and speaker to luck as much as to talent. “Guiding and Being Guided” allows Gierach to discuss being on both sides of the sometimes thankless job of being a fishing guide. As he explains, success or failure in guiding or being guided depends entirely on the client – good clients (and Gierach assures us he is one), allow the guide to do his job – and, as a result, the client is rewarded with good luck fishing – and the guide with the good luck of a generous tip. Bad clients (and Gierach offers a deightful anecdote about his experience guiding some of the worst one could ever expect, wealthy types with woeful fishing knowledge who expect to catch trophy trout) are likely to have bad luck fishing – and blame the guide. Finally, there’s the title essay. Gierach talks about the ultimate example of luck for the fly angler: being on the stream at exactly the moment a perfect hatch arises armed with the perfect fly. Having that golden moment as a fly fisher causes Gierach to wax philosophical:

I don’t know exactly what fly-fishing teaches us, but I think it’s something we need to know.

The last group, the “neurosis” essays, are among the most amusing and at the same time wistful in the book. Gierach reflects on the need fly anglers feel to get that first trout of the new year in “Neither Snow, Nor Rain, Nor Gloom of Night”:

The thing is, it’s easy to pass on winter fishing. You have to summon a little basic courage to do it. You’ll be cold, and your pack will be heavy from all the survival junk you’d be stupid not to bring along. But you have to do it because not doing it means you’ve gotten tired or lazy or too busy, all of which are bad signs.

But, of course, there is reward. After he catches a trophy trout, Gierach describes elation such as only a hard core fly angler feels:

I would find that my body was as pale and wrinkled as a dead fish. When I sat down on the bank and leaned against a rock, I squished inside the rubber suit. I felt cold. I felt as if I had gone slightly mad. I felt as if I’d just discovered North America and wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.

In “The Chairman’s Bass” Gierach shares a story fom his youth about the desire to catch a trophy bass on private land. When he’s refused permission to fish, he ponders trespassing to gain the prize he covets – but he doesn’t take the risk for a variety of reasons. Years later, after many successful permitted fishing adventures, he realizes that maybe there is something to learning how to ask – and understanding that the answer can sometimes be no:

Part of the implied social contract went like this: if the guy says no, you say ‘thanks, anyway’ and move on. He doesn’t owe you an explanation. It’s his pond and they’re his fish, just like that big, beautiful bass, like it or not, belonged to the chairman.

“Wyoming,” one last example, deals with one of an angler’s most haunting neuroses: loss of a piece of equipment. In Gierach’s case it’s his landing net, lost in a pond in Wyoming:

Losing the net on that trip was appropriate, I guess, because Wyoming fits into my personal mythology as the kind of place that can swallow things up without a trace – single engine airplanes, pickup trucks, people, landing nets, you name it. The very sound of the words ‘lost in Wyoming’ have a doomed ring to them, as if the thing in question wouldn’t be any more irretrievable if it were on the dark side of the moon.

While the fishing trip is otherwise successful, Gierach, like any good fly angler, remembers it most because of a lost landing net.

That’s fly fishing. Gear, luck, neurosis. If you want to understand the sport, read John Gierach. He knows.

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