Any time you enter into a subculture, there will inevitably be some recommended reading involved. Or in some cases, it’s required reading and you need to read an author’s entire collection. When I first came into fly fishing, two authors were repeated over and over again when I inquired my fellow anglers about some good fly fishing reading. Those names were Robert Traver and John Gierach. Now, the Traver collection was easy to burn through. Just a couple of short but delightful books. Gierach has been decidedly more prolific in his writing, authoring 20 solo titles and co-authoring an additional 4 titles with one of his best friends A.K. Best, who is mentioned constantly throughout Gierach’s works.
Unlike most works of popular fiction where an author can create one book that’s stellar and another that’s a dud, Gierach’s books are consistently good to the point where I felt I should take a different approach to reviewing for him. Instead of going book by book, writing a separate review for each one that would essentially sound the same (“I really liked this book because fishing. Blah blah.”), I decided a better approach would be to consider his bibliography as a sort of “This is your life” deal. In this way, I chose 3 titles that both chronologically spanned the life of his work as well as represented unique snapshots of his writing style and tone as it’s matured over his career. I guess I want to review John Gierach’s authorship as opposed to John Gierach’s book. Seatbelts, please. Just the same, I’m going to try to contain my rambling to the following three titles as reference points:
“The yellow belly of a mature brown trout is a shade or two darker than butter melting on a perfectly browned pancake, and he shows it when he takes a nymph and then rolls back the three inches to his original lie. There’s an instant of tightness in the normal dance of a leader in current that indicates a trout has mouthed the fly — however briefly or gently — and you can tell, the way you can tell from the sound whether a guitar string has been struck by a musician or say, bumped by the tail of a passing dog.” – Zen and the Art of Nymph-Fishing, from Trout Bum (1988)
Throughout Mr. Gierach’s work, he mixes a subtle blend of romanticism with a dry and jolting sense of humor. That humor though seems to become more tannic and bolder as time goes on, like listening to John Prine and working your way up to Tom Waits in tone. His quips, like himself, mature over the years to become a little richer, a little more graceful, but truly a little more grumpy. I mean that in the best way possible. Like the way a teenager’s story is infinitely less interesting than an 80 year old woman’s tales of her past. Time has that effect on how we tell our stories.
“They’d moved to the UP when they retired, but their plans for a quiet life of fishing, kayaking, and snowshoeing had been sidetracked by unexpected new careers as unpaid environmental activists. It was a familiar story: a small group of underfunded locals who were long on outrage and short on strategy up against a multinational corporation with the kind of lawyers who, as someone once said, could get a sodomy charge reduced to tailgating. As you might expect, things hadn’t gone well.” – Coasters, from All Fishermen Are Liars (2015)
Balancing the darkening humor, his romanticism grows over time, becoming very poetic in his middle works but then becoming a little more veiled in his later works, however still very much present. It’s hard for me to be objective and read his work as a non-fly fisherman. I have no idea how such a person would view his writing but as for me, a bit of a romantic myself, I cannot help but latch onto his writing style as though he were some kind of comrade in enemy territory. “I totally get that!” I find myself saying repeatedly. There develops a sort of “us” and “them” mentality when you become obsessed with something. You undoubtedly find the majority of your friends and family silently or vocally dubbing you as the crazy guy who can’t stay off the river. Reading Gierach is sort of like unexpectedly bumping into one of your good friends who fly fishes on an out of state river. There’s something strikingly familiar and reassuring to your madness. He is, after all, the true “trout bum.” And more than that, he’s especially adept at translating what it means to be so.
“I don’t travel or fish to “get away” because my life at home isn’t something I need to escape from, but I do find that I think more clearly on a trip. Or maybe “think” isn’t the right word. What sometimes happens is, things I’ve actually given up thinking about just slip into place of their own accord, providing either the answer or, more likely, the realization that an answer is not required.” – Travel, from Another Lousy Day in Paradise (1996)
The above quote represents how he can emote those intangible experiences we often have on the water into a form which we can process outside of the moment. Sure, he will sort of go off onto huge tangents where there are more numbers symbolizing hook sizes and line weights than nouns and verbs. And he’ll lament at length about any fly rod he’s owned that happens to pop into his brain at the time of writing, especially if it’s bamboo. Hey, we all love to talk gear, right? But it’s the small things that I find makes his work most relatable. It’s sort of like the retelling of jokes that finally thud with a “you had to be there.” However, if you were there, or in this case have experienced it in your own life, you find yourself instantly whisked back to that time or place and all of those feelings you had in that moment suddenly have a language attached to them. You felt them in the moment, but those moments can happen so quickly and drift downstream just as fast. Gierach has a knack for slowing it down and putting words to the music.
“In one sense trout are perfectly adapted working parts of a stream, a way of turning water, sunlight, oxygen, and protein into consciousness. They feed on the aquatic insects when those bugs are active, and they all but shut down metabolically when they’re not. They find glitches in the current where, even in the wildest water, they can lounge indefinitely by now and then lazily paddling a pectoral fin. They have the flawless competence that even the lower mammals have lost by getting to be too smart. They operate at the edges of things: fast and slow currents, deep and shallow water, air and stream, light and darkness, and the angler who understands that is well on his way to knowing what he’s doing. In another sense, trout are so incongruously pretty as to seem otherworldly… How can so much color and vibrancy be generated by clear water, gray rocks, and brown bugs? Trout are among those creatures who are one hell of a lot prettier than they need to be.” – Trout, from Trout Bum (1988)
Gierach’s romanticism for the trout itself is omnipresent in all of his works. He has such a deep respect and admiration for them that even the most rugged and stone hearted of us will relate to. We’ve all been in the moment where the picture is taken and back slaps have been received, where we’re kneeling in the water, gently holding a beautiful and timeless animal as it revives and lazily swims off into those unseen places where trout hide. In that moment, we forget our surroundings and our jaws drop as a witness to something primal.
While reading Gierach’s collection, you’ll find yourself becoming familiar with his entire cast of fly junky buddies. Much like Traver, Gierach focuses a lot of his story telling on the comradery associated with fly fishing. Chief among these characters is A.K. Best, a widely known professional fly tier and author of some of the best fly tying books out there. Gierach and Best’s friendship spans his entire collection and their relationship is, well…. relatable. Snarky barbs aside, you get the sense that Gierach appreciates the way that Best tends to level him out.
“When I reeled in what was left of my leader, a good foot of it felt like it had been sandpapered. This was a fish that could have been landed on a #24 hook and 7x if he’d been a little dumber or I’d been a little smarter or the rocks had been a little rounder or whatever, but as it was — in a world where there’s still some natural justice — he was one that deserved to get away. I caught myself laughing out loud about it. A.K. does that a lot, and people have asked me about it. “How come the guy laughs every time he loses a fish?” “I guess he’s having a good time,”I say.” – Little Flies, from Another Lousy Day in Paradise (1996)
There’s something to be said for fishing solo, but fishing with friends is always great. Beyond that, the stories of travelling to and from fishing trips, or tying flies, or just sharing a flask on the river are the kinds of things we remember more often than the fishing itself. Gierach is very skilled at capturing these little nuances of friendship and fishing. He finds, through narration and dialogue, a way to reenact the aspects of our own friendships and their juxtaposition to the waters they frequent.
“”You need a woman who likes to travel and fish herself, but who doesn’t always want to come along,” someone said. “You know, she’s gotta give you some space.” We were lined up around the fire nearly in each other’s laps and all nodded agreement on the need for space in a relationship. Even the youngest of these guys was old enough now to have had these things go south a few times, although why is never clear. The assumption is that these are affairs of the heart and therefore a great and tender mystery, but we’re men, after all; we can work it out logically. When a lull in the conversation came, I felt an urge to say something wise befitting the thirty or forty years I had on some of these guys. But nothing came to mind except a youth filled with older men droning on as if they owned the secrets of the universe, never mind that their own lives were train wrecks. Then the moment passed and the conversation drifted off in the predictable direction of pickups, boats, fly rods, and increasingly long, fire-gazing silences.” – The Mile, from All Fishermen Are Liars (2015)
I’m nowhere near finished with Gierach’s collection, but I’ve read a great deal of it from various periods in his career. You just have to like the guy. After finishing every story, you either want to go fishing or tie flies. It’s like when you used to watch a kung-fu movie as a kid and then immediately reenact it with your siblings. Gierach tells his stories in such a way that you find yourself inspired and daydreaming of the next time you can get your waders wet. You may even find yourself false casting with a pen if nobody is around.