Stone. Water. Insect. Fish. Sunlight.

Stone. Water. Insect. Fish. Sunlight.
A cast of one trolls the Pit River in Northern California. (R. Valentine Atkinson)
Big Two-Hearted River: Part I

Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.

— Ernest Hemingway     

Some Questions and Answers About Natural History

Question: What color are fish?

Answer: No one has ever seen fish.

Fish secrete highly reflective compounds

that act as a skin of mirror.

It is thought that fishes' sides

are painted in landscapes,


— Annie Dillard     

My Story as Told by Water

My favorite writer of obese novels, Heimito von Doderer, may have stated the fly-fishing unstatable when he said, "All joy is idiot joy." I step into the Bitterroot alone, winter still filling its waters, still aching my bones. But once the idiot joy of sunlight on river becomes the idiot joy of stream-born insects becomes the idiot joy of foraging fish becomes the idiot joy of the water-parsing fisher — once a trout's prana, fear, and willpower comes crashing up the line into my hands — where has my aloneness gone? Fly fishing as we nonhunting nongathering catch-and-release nerds practice it isn't even fishing, really. It links us not to the Food Chain but to the Idiot Joy Chain, which differs from a Food Chain in that it has no top or bottom. Rod in hand on the Idiot Joy Chain, I find myself no more worthy or wise or deserving or in touch with IQ points than the stone-, water-, insect-, fish-, and sunlight-links of the same Chain. And that's exactly what I love about it! I don't fish in order to sit atop some predatory or evolutionary hierarchy. I fish to hook into an entirety. I fish to trade self-consciousness for creek-consciousness and self-awareness for rise-awareness. I fish to don dumb-looking but functional waterproof togs and even dumber-looking but functional facial expressions….

— David James Duncan     

The Ghost of Richard Brautigan on Trail Creek

Trail Creek where?

And what was he using?

Flies tied from spun diamond?

Did he know the algebra

of the stones?

Was his hair its

usual silly gold?

Did he fall and fill

his purple polka-dot

waders? Did his words

hover over pools

like clouds of midges?


Then there's still hope.

— Greg Keeler     

My First-Time Flyfishing Disaster

… Flyfishing did have its attractions. I love to waste time and money. I had ways to do this most of the year — hunting, skiing, renting summer houses in To-Hell-and-Gone Harbor for a Lebanon hostage's ransom. But, come spring, I was limited to cleaning up the yard. Even with a new Toro every two years and a lot of naps by the compost heap, it's hard to waste much time and money doing this. And then there's the gear needed for flyfishing. I'm a sucker for anything that requires more equipment than I have sense. My workshop is furnished with the full panoply of power tools, all bought for the building of one closet shelf in 1979.

When I began to think about flyfishing, I realized I'd never be content again until my den was cluttered with computerized robot flytying vises, space-age Teflon and ceramic knotless tapered leaders, sterling-silver English fish scissors and 35 volumes on the home life of the midge. And there was one other thing. I'm a normal male who takes an occasional nip; therefore, I love to put funny things on my head. Sometimes it's the nut dish, sometimes the spaghetti colander, but the hats I'd seen flyfishermen wear were funnier than either, and I had to have one.

— P.J. O'Rourke     

A River Runs Through It

One great thing about fly fishing is that after a while nothing exists of the world but thoughts about fly fishing. It is also interesting that thoughts about fishing are often carried on in dialogue form where Hope and Fear — or, many times, two Fears — try to outweigh each other.

One fear looked down the shoreline and said to me (a third person distinct from the two fears), "There is nothing but rocks for thirty yards, but don't get scared and try to land him before you get all the way down to the first sandbar."

The Second Fear said, "It's forty, not thirty, yards to the first sandbar and the weather has been warm and the fish's mouth will be soft and he will work off the hook if you try to fight him forty yards downriver. It's not good but it will be best to try to land him on a rock that is closer."

The First Fear said, "There is a big rock in the river that you will have to take past him before you land him, but, if you hold the line tight enough on him to keep him this side of the rock, you will probably lose him."

The Second Fear said, "But if you let him get on the far side of the rock, the line will get caught under it, and you will be sure to lose him."

That's how you know when you have thought too much — when you become a dialogue between You'll probably lose and You're sure to lose.

— Norman Maclean     

Early American Trout Fishing

Of course, we have no idea who first went out and caught a trout for fun, but it's clear that many people were doing so by the early 1700s…. What evidence we have indicates, not surprisingly, that trout fishing was practiced most often (at least as sport) near the settlements, out on the edges where the fishing was still good. By 1800 trout fishing was well established in the Boston-Cape Cod area, on Manhattan … and Long Island, in southeastern Pennsylvania … and presumably near other developed areas with trout.

— Paul Schullery     

Somewhere with Sven

Years ago, when both Sven and I were getting serious about fly fishing, we met a fellow who tied uncommon flies. We ordered handfuls. Mine went astray in the mail, but Sven got his fifty assorted. He laid them out on a black cloth and gloated over them. The season opened, and Sven tossed his drugstore fly rod into his car, put the folded cloth on the seat beside him and headed for a river. Out on the interstate he suddenly had to take another look at the flies, pulled into a rest area, got out and spread the black cloth on the hood. Beautiful. He was tempted to lick one.

— E. Annie Proulx     

Synecdoche and the Trout

I don't guide anymore. I haven't renewed my license in a handful of years. My early and ingenuous ideas about the role of a fishing guide turned out to be totally wrong: I had imagined it as a life rich with independence, and with a rustic sort of dignity, wherein a fellow would stand closer to these particular animals he admired inordinately. I hadn't foreseen that it would demand the humility of a chauffeur and the complaisance of a pimp.

And I don't seem to fish nearly as much as I used to. I have a dilemma these days: I dislike killing trout but I believe that, in order to fish responsibly, to fish conscionably, the fisherman should at least occasionally kill. Otherwise he can too easily delude himself that fly fishing is merely a game, a dance of love, played in mutual volition and mutual empathy by the fisherman and the trout.

— David Quammen     

Scrambled Eggs Super!

I went for the kind that were mellow and sweet

And the world's sweetest eggs are the eggs

of the Kweet

Which is due to those very sweet trout which

they eat

And those trout … well they're sweet cause

they only eat Wogs

And Wogs, after all, are the world's

sweetest frogs

— Dr. Seuss     

Love the Man, Love the Fly Rod

I reel in the fish gently. John laughs as I coax it, saying, "Come here, sweet, sweet." I wet my hand and pick up the fish, its sunset orange spots glinting in the bright sun. Water purls around me as I bend down to tug the barbless hook from his pink mouth and hold him facing upstream to force oxygen back into his system. Then I set him free, releasing this wonderful, wild creature as old as the Ice Age, back into the cycle of nature.

I look back at my Big Sweetie, who is grinning in a way I had never seen before. "I really love you," he says quietly.

— Allison Moir     

You Stand There Fishing

When the sun decides to comment

on the day, you are the first thing

it points to.

You are the one fact the waters refuse

to deny, and so they swerve around you

willingly, clasping your thighs.

In fact, this entire implacable river

flinging itself from side to side

takes the very tongue of your flashing whip

down to the bottom of its own desire.

Only the bees

gorging themselves in the clover

seem oblivious, and even they occasionally lift

their dripping chins and manage

a few dizzy hosannas.

I am already waist deep when you call my name — halfway out to your swirling array

of lines and hooks, and as I float

toward you, lids gliding down over my eyes,

even the trout loosen their gazes

and rise.

— Angie Estes     


In the night I dreamed of trout-fishing; and, when at length I awoke, it seemed a fable that this painted fish swam there so near my couch, and rose to our hooks the last evening, and I doubted if I had not dreamed it all. So I arose before dawn to test its truth, while my companions were still sleeping. There stood Ktaadn with distinct and cloudless outline in the moonlight; and the rippling of the rapids was the only sound to break the stillness. Standing on the shore, I once more cast my line into the stream, and I found the dream to be real and the fable true.

— Henry David Thoreau     

Where I Want to Be

Wading is a vital part of my enjoyment. The flow of the current, forcing a response from leg and body muscles, reminds me that I'm alive and well.

— Joan Salvato Wulff     

Roughing It [on Lake Tahoe]

So singularly clear was the water that when it was only twenty or thirty feet deep the bottom was so perfectly distinct that the boat seemed floating in the air! Yes, where it was even eighty feet deep. Every little pebble was distinct, every speckled trout, every hand's-breadth of sand…. So empty and airy did all spaces seem below us, and so strong was the sense of floating high aloft in mind-nothingness, that we called these boat excursions "balloon voyages."

We fished a great deal, but we did not average one fish a week. We could see trout by the thousand winging about in the emptiness under us, or sleeping in shoals on the bottom, but they would not bite — they could see the line too plainly, perhaps. We frequently selected the trout we wanted, and rested the bait patiently and persistently on the end of his nose at a depth of eighty feet, but he would only shake it off with an annoyed manner, and shift his position.

— Mark Twain     

Walk on Water for Me

It was then I saw the naked man in the raft drifting past, fly rod poised in mid-air. Ordinarily, naked would have been enough, but as I watched more closely I noticed he was throwing his rod tip up to twelve o'clock and then waiting for a beat before following through with a forward cast. During that beat the line straightened out behind him, unfurling slowly from the arc it made as he brought the rod forward. Again he cast, my own personal naked instructor, oblivious to me on the bank, and again with the same hesitation. Some technique, I thought, peering in Jeff's direction to see if he'd noticed the man. Nah. Naked women could have been skydiving into a bull's eye on his head and he'd have kept on casting.

— Lorian Hemingway     


There is another picture of me fly fishing. I am older still. Maybe thirty. I stand in a wide, curving stream with my fly rod, casting out into the silver water with dark trees rising behind me and gray-blue mountains beyond that. The picture looks romantic and perfect: girl and stream. Mountains. Fish. But I remember this time. I remember my heavy pack, the black flies biting at my neck, my Royal Humpy caught on the rocks and willows behind me. I remember not catching fish and wondering again why I was out there in the stream up to my thighs in water.

I remember, too, that there was then, and has been every time I have gone fishing with my father, a laughing in the water and the pleasant crunch of gravel under my boots and relief offered by the cool wafts of watery air that came up from the stream.

— Gretchen Legler     

Confessions of an Eco-Redneck

Each cast I made, inept or elegant, resulted in a hookup…. Though no innocent, I was in such a state of giddy hysteria I soon forgot to pay much attention to my back cast.

I heard a scream. I turned around. I had hooked my 4-year-old son in the cheek. That is, the hook had entered his mouth and got stuck on the inside. He was a brave little boy. He didn't cry, probably from the shock of it. There was a trickle of blood. His mother dropped her fly rod and rushed over.

We drove quickly to the emergency room. The irony of a father hooking his son during the Mother's Day caddis hatch was not lost on me (or on my wife). The Park Street Clinic in Livingston [Montana] is located on the river, beside the 9th Street Bridge. Thousands of caddis flies batted against the windows as we waited. The doctor introduced himself. He popped open my son Jack's cheek with a gloved finger, gingerly.

"Number 14 Parachute Adams," the doctor pronounced. "Am I right?"

We had come to the right place. With a hank of what looked like dental floss, the doctor lassoed the Parachute Adams, a caddis imitation, and extracted its pinched barb without a whimper from Jack, though his mother was about ready to faint. For my part, I was relieved. There was still a good hour of fishing time before sunset.

— Steve Chapple     

Sources, in order of appearance:

Ernest Hemingway: From "Hemingway on Fishing" (Simon & Schuster) Dillard: "Tickets for a Prayer Wheel" (Wesleyan University Press) Duncan: "My Story as Told by Water" (Sierra Club Books) Keeler: "Waltzing With the Captain: Remembering Richard Brautigan" (Limberlost Press) O'Rourke: From "The Best of Sports Afield" (Atlantic Monthly Press) Maclean: From "The Norton Book of Nature Writing" (W.W. Norton) Schullery: From "The Gift of Trout" (Lyons & Burford) Proulx: From "A Different Angle: Fly Fishing Stories by Women" (Seal Press) Quammen: From "The Gift of the Trout" (Lyons & Burford) Seuss: From "Scrambled Eggs Super!" (Random House) Moir: From "A Different Angle: Fly Fishing Stories by Women" (Seal Press) Estes: From "The Geography of Home: California's Poetry of Place" (Heyday Books) Thoreau: From "The Wilderness Reader" (Mentor) Wulff: From "Uncommon Waters: Women Write About Fishing" (Seal Press) Twain: From "Natural State" (University of California Press)

Lorian Hemingway
: From "A Different Angle: Fly Fishing Stories by Women" (Seal Press) Legler: From "A Different Angle: Fly Fishing Stories by Women" (Seal Press) Chapple: From "Confessions of an Eco-Redneck" (Perseus)