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At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman

At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman

4.0 4
by John Gierach

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Brilliant, witty, perceptive essays about fly-fishing, the natural world, and life in general by the acknowledged master of fishing writers.

Proving that fishing is not just a part-time pursuit, At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman takes us through a year with America’s favorite fishing scribe, John Gierach, who dedicates himself to his passion


Brilliant, witty, perceptive essays about fly-fishing, the natural world, and life in general by the acknowledged master of fishing writers.

Proving that fishing is not just a part-time pursuit, At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman takes us through a year with America’s favorite fishing scribe, John Gierach, who dedicates himself to his passion despite his belief that “In the long run, fishing usually amounts to a lifetime of pratfalls punctuated by rare moments of perfection.”

Beginning with an early spring expedition to barely thawed Wyoming waters and ending with a New Year’s Eve trip to the Frying Pan River in Colorado, Gierach’s travels find him fishing for trout, carp, and grayling; considering the pros and cons of learning fishing from videos (“video fishing seems a little like movie sex: fun to watch, but a long way from the real thing”); pondering the ethics of sharing secret spots; and debunking the myth of the unflappable outdoorsman (“masters of stillness on the outside, festering s***holes of uncertainty just under the surface”).

With an appreciation of the highs, the lows, and all points between, Gierach writes about the fishing life with wisdom, grace, and the well-timed wisecrack. As he says, “The season never does officially end here, but it ends effectively, which means you can fish if you want to and if you can stand it, but you don’t have to.” As any Gierach fan knows, want to and have to are never very far apart.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Carl Hiaasen The next best thing to fly-fishing is reading John Gierach's essays about it.

Joe Guidry The Tampa Tribune [Gierach's] evocative prose and humorous, often bittersweet insights will appeal even to those who don't know a nymph from an earthworm.

Publishers Weekly
These 20 magazine columns-most from Field & Stream-follow Gierach's year of outings in Northern Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Pennsylvania, and include some of his best strokes of style since Sex, Death and Flyfishing. Each travelogue plucks the required notes of Gierach's angling country song formula: a conversational, self-deprecating voice; good-humored reporting from the Eden streams of the West, appreciation for his local angling fraternity. Fishing-is-the-antidote-to-real-life is the axis of every Gierach collection, and several of these stories are convincing as well as entertaining. The angling reader already understands perfectly well the real reason Gierach is perched on the back of an ATV with a Labrador retriever riding through heavy May mud to reach remote ranchland ponds. As Gierach gets older, his reach into his angling hat is slower but he pulls out better rabbits: "If you wanted a fish that could sip white wine and discuss Italian poetry, you'd look for a trout. If you need a ditch dug, you'd hire a carp." The title reference is to a streamside marker dedicated to a deceased conservationist that Gierach seems to acknowledge is the epitaph for anyone who, like himself, spends his life in the thrall of something as gloriously inconsequential as fly-fishing. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
There has been a sort of dry spell for Gierach fans. Although he has steadily produced new material-an uneven Standing in a River Waving a Stick; an ode to bamboo rods, Fishing Bamboo; and regular columns in Fly Rod & Reel-those efforts have fallen short of the heights of storytelling that he reached with Trout Bum and The View from Rat Lake. His latest marks a return to form, his consistently best storytelling and writing to date. The memorable real-life characters of his previous books return as Gierach fishes with Mike Clark, Ed Engle, and A.K. Best, as well as some new characters, including one known only as "the guy." The narrative takes the reader through the fishing year from early spring to New Year's Eve, and many readers will no doubt immediately return to the beginning for another season. As a bonus, the sketches by Glenn Wolff add whimsically to Gierach's tales. Essential for libraries with flyfishing collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/02.]-Jeff Grossman, Milwaukee Area Technical Coll. Libs., Oak Creek Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Through a fishing year with Gierach (Standing in a River Waving a Stick, 1999, etc.), one of the most--many would say the most--enjoyable outdoorsmen writing today. "Most days I'm a perfectly happy fisherman--it's my mission in life," he writes. But Gierach is also a curmudgeon and an Old Fart, which is akin to Old Soul, though of the deeply irascible sort. ("Disapproval has always been a source of encouragement for me," writes this latter-day Demosthenes in waders.) While there is a goodly amount of grousing in these pages over the general decline in everything from free time ("If you're feeling driven, you have to ask yourself, Who's doing the driving?") to fly shops, Gierach still knows how to take great pleasure in the particulars of his chosen sport: the Green Drake hatches that seem to never end, maps that take you farther away and deeper in, the secret personalities of fishing journals, the specific heft of a cane rod, the quiet joy of working the margins, the unstable edges of the profoundly rural, where "the fishing is good but not too good. This is the kind of spot that slips nicely between the cracks." Gierach proves once again to be attentive to the atmosphere of his surroundings, to the character of different firewoods, to the American plum and the March Brown and the Townshend’s solitaire. And he provides great encouragement to get out and walk the water in all seasons and conditions. The strange and unexpected days astream often yield gems ("a few pale fish in a pale landscape") and sudden insights: "If you don’t give a dog a specific job, he’ll improvise one for himself and it will invariably be fun. There's a lesson there." That’s not the only essential lesson imparted bythese musings, which convey the wisdom of fishermen who "spent so much time neglecting more important things that they eventually redefined importance."

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Simon & Schuster
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5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Five

Have you ever started reminiscing with a friend about a fishing trip and found that you remember things differently? I have. Now and then it's downright puzzling, but usually it just amounts to slightly different versions of the same story, as when one witness says the mugger was five eleven and another says he was six one, but they both pick the same guy out of the lineup. Mike and A.K. have both mentioned things about that last trip to Pennsylvania that I don't remember. That's not to say they didn't happen, just that they didn't register with me, or maybe they happened while I was in the bushes taking a leak. Some of the things I recall have also drawn blank looks from them, although with me being a writer and all, the assumption is that I'm imagining things.

It's a common prejudice and one that's probably not entirely unfounded. After all, someone once defined fiction as just something a writer made up and nonfiction as just something a writer made up using the names of real people. More to the point, novelist John Irving once said that a memoir is, by definition, what the author remembers, not necessarily what happened.

You can go to your fishing journal to prove things like the year, the month, the weather, the hatches, the name of the guide, and maybe the weight of a big fish if someone bothered to bring along a scale. But if you're like me, the things that stick aren't written down. And memory is flawed. Fishermen know that better than anyone, we just don't always know how much.

We do know how it happens, though: You land a nice fat sixteen-inch cutthroat that the guide you're with swears is twenty inches long. You know what he's doing and you know why he's doing it, but unless there's a tape measure handy, you don't know it beyond a shadow of a doubt — and he is a professional, after all — so you say, modestly, honestly, "It ain't over eighteen."

Or let's say you're fishing a mountain creek that's known for small brook trout, but you've hiked way up in there where, you've heard, there are some deep holes and the fish are bigger. They are, and there are lots of them; they're easy to catch, and it's a beautiful, cool, rainy day with the spruce forest so lush and green you feel like you're fishing through an enormous salad. Maybe you see a golden crowned kinglet perched on a twig no more than a foot away, and then later you glance upstream and spot a huge mule deer buck in velvet. You're doing well enough that you quickly lose track of how many fish you catch, and although you admire the biggest, handsomest ones, you don't measure them. The walk out is long but downhill and pretty much effortless.

Back home they say, "How'd you do?" and you say, "Good," which is true enough so far. But then they say, "Yeah, but how many and how big?" You give an accurate estimate, carefully paring away all the beauty and good feeling and getting right down to nothing but bare facts, right?

The same thing can happen when you tell someone about an argument you had last week. There's some emotion loose in the story — a different kind than you get from fishing, but emotion nonetheless — and you've had a while to stew about it. When you quote yourself as saying not so much what you really said, but what you should have said, you may be vaguely aware of it at the time, but the moment it's out of your mouth it becomes the truth. The thing is, fishing stories, war stories, and love stories are all the same: There's more there than just the facts, and when the facts get in the way, they can become expendable.

It works in reverse, too. Most years I fish a lot; maybe not as much as some, but more than most. At the end of a good season I'll have fishing licenses from four or five states and a couple of Canadian provinces, some worn-out fly lines, near-empty fly boxes, a born-again thriftiness, and a good tan. But then on one of those cold, solitary late-November walks, I'll get to thinking about that one beaver pond I never made it to and think, What the hell did I do all year, sit on my ass?

And of course fishermen hear what they want to hear. Maybe you say, "Well, I got a five-pounder, but just the one. Most of them were more like a pound and a half or smaller, but it was real pretty, and there was no one around, and the guide was a real comedian. And that five-pounder was something. Here's a picture of him."

The guy looks at the snapshot and envisions a river crammed with five-pounders — so many you could cross from bank to bank on their backs and not get your feet wet. You can see it in his eyes. If he ends up going there himself, he'll come back and say, "It wasn't as good as you said it was."

I've given this some thought, and I think my standard recollection of fishing is made up of the emotion of the moment, the mood of the day, the scenery, the company, the weather, who I am, who I think I am, who I'd like to be, my own sense of poetry, and a few tattered shreds of what actually happened. As James P. Carse once said, "What we see depends partly on what is there and partly on who is looking."

Maybe I'm the only one who does it that way, but I don't think so.

I once fished with a man on a good local river. We weren't exactly in each other's hip pockets, but we were within sight all afternoon, close enough to shout encouragement or trot over to look at an especially pretty fish. And the trout there really are pretty. They're bright rainbows with wide red stripes and a strain of cutthroat in their lineage that gives them iridescent gill covers and orange slashes on their jaws.

The way I remember it, I caught six or eight trout, the biggest maybe fifteen inches. He got about a dozen and his biggest was an honest seventeen, measured from little finger to little finger on two outstretched palms, which on me is just a hair under eighteen inches. And we did it all on size 18 Blue-winged Olive duns and emergers, which somehow makes it better.

But then at a cafe on the way home, a guy at the next table spotted us for fishermen and asked how we'd done. My partner said he'd caught no less than thirty trout, including several that were at least twenty inches, if not longer. He believed it. He looked at me with big chipmunk cheeks and the most innocent smile I've ever seen and said, "Right?"

I said, "Yeah, right. The guy kicked ass," thinking: Okay, I know he did better than me, but did I underestimate my own performance that much? Not likely. Fishermen don't do that.

I don't think he was knowingly lying, either. We weren't close friends, but he hadn't struck me as one of those chronic bullshitters (he actually seemed a little on the shy side), and he'd have no reason to think I'd back him up in a god-awful lie to a stranger.

Out in the parking lot I waited for him to say, "Man, we really pulled that guy's leg, didn't we?" but he never said it. What he said was, "That was one of the best days of fishing I ever had."

We all think we're good observers, or at least that we can believe our own eyes, but few of us have ever been tested. I had a philosophy professor back in college who staged a great demonstration on the relationship of facts to experience. In the middle of a normal class one day, several people stormed into the room, got into a loud argument with the professor — complete with swearing and shoving — over who was supposed to have the room scheduled for that hour. Then they stormed back out and slammed the door loudly behind them. It had been sudden, surprising, and borderline violent, sort of like catching a big fish.

The professor turned to us and said, "Okay, write down your best account of what just happened."

Naturally, it had all been scripted and rehearsed with some people from the drama department, so he knew every gesture and word. There were twenty of us in class and the elapsed time between the actual events and our retelling of them worked out to a matter of minutes. None of us got it right, and better than half of us got it terribly wrong.

That was the year I finally realized that the nature of knowledge was such that you couldn't know anything for sure, but then if that were true, you also couldn't know for sure that you couldn't know anything. I finished up the semester and got my degree, but my career in philosophy was already over.

So maybe we can't even be sure that what happened five minutes ago is what actually happened, and the more time that passes the more you have to wonder. I think that's just a simple storage problem. People now like to think of their memories as computers with only so many bytes available, so that eventually you have to dump some old files to make room for all the new stuff coming along.

I'm more comfortable picturing my mind as a rolltop desk with only so many drawers and cubbyholes, but the same principle applies. Consciously or not, you hold on to what seems best and treat the rest as junk mail. Eventually a trip where a few big fish were caught becomes a trip where nothing but big fish were caught. And how big were they? Well, the guide said even the little ones were twenty inches.

Of course, all those countless days when no fish were caught begin to dwindle to a single distilled example, so that, if pressed, you'd have to say you do remember getting skunked once, but you can't quite remember where or when. You don't do it on purpose, but eventually your life as you recall it becomes a work of fiction based loosely on actual events.

I've become more aware of all this as I've gotten older and the desk has gotten more cluttered, but I think I knew it in my twenties, too, because when an old fisherman once said to me, "Boy, I've forgotten more about fishing than you'll ever know," I didn't doubt it for a second.

Not long ago A.K. and I were sitting around on a back porch in Alberta, Canada, with some other fishermen telling some well-worn, thirty-year-old stories about our friend Koke Winter. Koke is legendary in some fly-fishing circles. He was A.K.'s mentor years ago back in Michigan, and he was never shy about it, either. Once someone asked Koke if he knew this talented fly tier named A. K. Best. Koke said, "Know him? Hell, I made A. K. Best." When A.K. heard about that later he said, "Yeah, that's about the size of it."

Anyway, these are stories that involve monumental feats of skill and sportsmanship and trout of incredible size. One of those huge trout was mounted and then later scattered all over West Yellowstone, Montana, some years back when the fly shop it was hanging in blew up from a gas leak — making for a poignant end to one of the stories and, incidentally, destroying the evidence.

I've been told that A.K. and I sometimes tell a pretty good story together, playing off each other, swearing to each other's facts, supplying each other's punch lines. Maybe we do, especially after a good, long day of fishing when the one of us who still drinks has had a few stiff ones and the other is enjoying what we used to call a contact high.

We have told these stories dozens of times on dozens of back porches, and we both believe them to be absolutely true. More than that I cannot say.

Copyright © 2003 by John Gierach

Meet the Author

John Gierach is the author of numerous books on fly-fishing. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Fly Rod & Reel, where he is a regular columnist. He also writes a column for the monthly Redstone Review. He lives in Lyons, Colorado. Visit JohnGierachBooks.com.

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At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
DuckmanNM More than 1 year ago
I have read all of John's books. John does not write over anyone's head. His stories are funny, ironic, informative, and close to the heart. When Reading Gierach, I feel like I'm sitting with a circle of friends and swapping tales. Some of them true! I eagerly await his next release!
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