Fly-Fishing for Sharks: An American Journeyby Richard Louv
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For three years, journalist Richard Louv listened to America by going fishing with Americans. Doing what many of us dream of, he traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from trout waters east and west to bass waters north and south. Fly-Fishing for Sharks is the result of his journey, a portrait of America on the water, fishing rod in hand.
To explore the cultures of fishing, Louv joined a bass tournament on Lake Erie and got a casting lesson from fly-fishing legend Joan Wulff He angled with corporate executives in Montana and fly-fished for sharks in California. He spent time with fishing-boat captains in Florida, the regulars who fish New York City's Hudson River, and a river witch in Colorado. He teamed secrets of fishing and living from steelheaders in the Northwest, Bass'n Gals in Texas, and an ice-fisher in the North Woods. Along the way, he heard from one of Hemingway's sons what it was like to fish with Papa and from Robert Kennedy, Jr., how fishing changed his fife.
As he describes the eccentricities, obsessions, and tribulations of dedicated anglers, he also uncovers the values that unite them. He reveals the healing qualities of fishing, how it binds the generations, how the angling business has grown, and how the future of fishing is threatened. But most of all, Fly-Fishing for Sharks is about the unforgettable characters Louv meets on the water and the stories they tell. From them, Louv learns about our changing relationship with nature, about a hidden America -- and about himself.
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Introduction: Shop Talk
One way or another, we're all anglers.
On a Saturday afternoon before lighting out for the territories, I stopped at Stroud Tackle to see my friends Bill and Eileen Stroud and John Bowman. As usual, I needed the atmosphere more than the gear.
My plan for the next couple of years was to take a new look at my country -- through the unique prism of fishing.
Stopping at the tackle store seemed like a good place to start.
Now in its twenty-eighth year, Stroud Tackle is located in a bland stucco building on San Diego's Morena Boulevard. The shop is bracketed by cut-rate furniture outlets, a massage-equipment-and-lotions store, and a building contractor's office. All of this is bathed in freeway noise and jet fumes from nearby Lindbergh Field, and Southern California sun. Walk in from the street, out of that harsh light and sun, let the door swing closed behind you, hear the little bell ring, and you enter another world.
The shop is calming, a refuge from the chaos outside. Flecks of dust glow in thin rays of bright light that splay through the blinds. Your eyes take a moment to adjust. One wall is dedicated to freshwater fish. Across it you see mounted golden trout, rainbow, cutthroats, brown, lake trout, and a replicated 27.4-pound steelhead, sleek and shiny -- the state record steelhead caught on a fly, from the Smith River in Northern California.
Everything's a little dusty, as if the fish have been freeze-dried in the arc of their jump, and then shellacked. Bill and Eileen look a little bit like that, too.
The shop's back wall is given over to saltwater fish: halibut, bat ray, marlin, opah, amberjack, sheephead, yellowfin tuna, dolphin, roosterfish, jack mackerel, white sea bass, wahoo, dorado, yellowtail, bonefish, sharks (bonita, tiger, dusky, blue). Until recently, a baby hammerhead shark sat on the counter on a pedestal, but Eileen took him home. She was afraid someone would steal him.
These days, many fishermen consider it more reasonable and correct to photograph their catch, release it, and send the photo off for replication in three-dimensional plastic and paint. But these fish, sixty of them, once moved through green and blue, through kelp and lily pad, through life.
I look around. The mere stuff of the store is comforting, all this medicating paraphernalia: hand-tied flies (these days, 90 percent of them tied in Sri Lanka or Colombia or Kenya or some other developing country); Orvis, 3-M, Lamson, and Ross single-action, click and pawl and disk drag reels of Orvis; and Sage, Thomas & Thomas, Scott, Loomis rods, all graphite. Bamboo rods are back in vogue, not because they catch more fish, but because of how they make the angler feel. Special. Elite. Part of a tradition. Bill and Eileen do not carry bamboo rods, because, as Eileen explains, "they're so expensive, one thousand to twenty-five hundred dollars, and the last one I had got stolen here, right out of the store."
Such a theft makes no sense. "Think how you'd feel fishing with a stolen bamboo rod. Kind of defeats the purpose." Or, she says, maybe the thief just sold it. "The latest thing is guys come in here with Scotch tape wrapped around their hands, sticky side out. They run their hands through the fly box, and the flies stick to the tape underneath their hand."
"Next time I see that happen," says Bill, peering over his glasses, "I'm going up to that guy, close his fingers into a fist, and shake his hand real hard."
"I tell you," Eileen says, "fishing is changing."
The room, only 850 square feet, is packed like, well, a sardine can. Eileen and Bill, both in their seventies, stand behind the counter. Eileen learned to fly-fish as a child, from her father. She does not talk readily of this, but I hope some day to hear her stories. I do know that she is reputed to be a better angler than Bill, and better still than most of the fishers who come into this shop.
Bill, tall, white-haired, a former big-time New York City insurance salesman, stares at you over his glasses and scowls and you're home free. If he scowls at you, it means he likes you.
"What can I do for you today, Richard?"
For the next hour or so, he'll try to talk you out of buying anything. "Oh, you don't need that," he'll say. And Eileen, who always hovers next to the cash register as if she's protecting it from him, shoots him a withering look. He doesn't wither easily.
Something about visiting the Strouds, and their volunteer salesman and raconteur, John, is deeply calming to me. Familiar.
I remember the stacks of Field & Stream that one old man, Grandpa Barron, who lived next door, would hand me every few months when I was a boy. These magazines were filled with culture and dreams.
Sometimes before dawn, Grandpa Barron and I would walk down the road to the lake, climb in his boat, and glide across the black water. I would watch his hands in the propane lamplight, as they molded the dough bait, and worked the rod and reel with skill. He said little. He did not preach. He did not pry. He was glad to have some company. In silence, we would watch the mist on the water and the widening rings where fish nosed or tailed into the air.
In those years, the act of fishing, the mantra of it, with or without a catch, was a way to keep from drowning, a way to connect to something larger. But, over time, like a lot of people in need of a little renewal, I had drifted away from that sense of connection, had begun to fish more in theory than in reality. Recently, the meaning of fishing, of life, had seemed tenuous. Late at night, as I skimmed across the American veneer, surfed from channel to channel, I found it difficult to think or to feel clearly. As a journalist, too, the latest crisis seemed pretty much like the one before it.
Stroud Tackle brings back that earlier time and offers affirmation.
On this day, I tell the Strouds and John Bowman about my plan, how I'm setting out to explore the cultures of fishing -- the people and ecologies of angling in America. Trout anglers, bass fishers; seekers of steelhead, sturgeon, shark, and carp; fly-fishers, ice fishers, bass tournament pros, charter captains, guides, lodge owners, and poachers alike. North, South, East, and West -- and of course the Great Midwest. To explore how fishing renews us, and how we can renew fishing by rethinking our roles as stewards.
My modus operandi is simple: identify anglers, legendary and average, men and women, in each of the cultures with something to say about the fishing life and life beyond fishing. They will, I hope, be my Sancho Panzas. With lance (a St. Croix graphite composite rod, bought at Stroud Tackle) in hand, I'll travel to the Meccas of fishing -- Orvis, Bass Pro Shop's Outdoor World, bait shops, and coffee shops. I'll investigate the beliefs and industries of each of these cultures: the ethical frameworks, the dialects and the dialectics; the political pools and the perceptual streams.
"So this means you'll have to go fishing," says Bill.
"Now there's an assignment." He smiles slowly.
Eileen arches an eyebrow. "I say save your time and money. Forget the writing. Just go fishing."
Behind a second counter, John Bowman, with neatly trimmed white beard and aviator glasses, holds forth. A retired teacher, he spends part of his spare time at the shop, helping out with the customers. Many have been coming here for years. He thinks of himself as the Strouds' concierge.
The bell rings, the anglers walk in out of the light and finger the merchandise, dream a little, and eventually move to the counter. The anglers who come through the door are young and old, male and female; they're construction workers and doctors, the unemployed and the over-employed. Some are novices; a few are even better anglers than John or Bill or Eileen. Others are fashion fishers looking for the latest vest. They ask John about the best places to fish in the West, the lakes and streams and pools of Montana and Idaho and California's Eastern Sierra, which John has fished since his son Conway, now thirty, was eight years old. They ask: Where should we stay? What flies should we use on the Owens?
He crosses his arms, elbows on the glass, and advises them to go deep in the fall, with flies that impersonate underwater larvae: "Use a nine-foot leader with a 16 nymph, either a gold-ribbed hare's ear or a pheasant-tail nymph. From the curve of the nymph's hook, tie on twelve inches of 5x monofilament tippet, and tie that to another nymph pattern, size 20 or 22."
None of this code makes much sense to the new fly-fisher, but John, forever a teacher, will spend all the time it takes to explain.
Angling is now America's favorite outdoor activity. In 1959, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service surveys begun in that year, roughly 20 million fishing licenses were sold in the U.S.; by 1992 the number had jumped to 31 million. In 1998, 44 million Americans fished, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, far exceeding the number of people who participate in tennis or golf. Among men, fishing is far and away the favorite outdoor recreation. But the ranks of women anglers are growing also. Of outdoor activities, fishing now ranks seventh among women.
"Women anglers are not as fashion-conscious as men," John tells me. "Men tend to be into gadgets, but women are usually more interested in the technicalities of fishing; they're really into it. Men are interested in the size of fish they can get, women are more interested in how to fish." Keep your eye on the women, he advises. "More interesting than the men."
Though in some areas of the country the sales of fishing licenses have fallen slightly in recent years -- giving some fishing manufacturers cause for concern -- angling's commercial power overall is impressive, to say the least.
The American Sportfishing Association reports that 35.3 million anglers spent $38 billion on fishing trips and gear in 1996, up from $24 billion in 1991. Ad agencies now employ fishing images to sell everything from booze to bank accounts. "Once considered a cane pole and worm crowd, anglers are now courted aggressively by everyone from General Mills to General Motors," USA Today reports. Wal-Mart put its name on one national pro tour, Kmart latched on to another. Meanwhile, Pepsi and Coke jockeyed for position, and Fuji Film, Rubbermaid, AC Delco, Wrangler, and Citgo signed on with one pro bass outfit or the other. In 1998, fishing truly reached the commercial big time: General Mills announced that the next sports champion to be honored on the front of the Wheaties box would be a bass fisherman.
Fishing is also getting more organized. The sport has spawned myriad organizations, including TROUT Unlimited, which fights to preserve trout habitat; Bass'n Gal (an organization for women bass fishers), which celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 1996 with nearly thirty-three thousand members, and then closed a year later due to sexism, a story told later in this book; and the 660,000-member Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, which sponsors fishing tournaments, produces a cable television bass fishing show, and publishes Bassmaster, Southern Outdoors, and B.A.S.S. Times -- and plans to open Bass Outdoor America, a $50 million family-oriented theme park in Alabama or Tennessee, complete with a bass boat roller-coaster and a sixty-acre lake with an island the shape of a largemouth bass.
Eileen snorts. "Like to see that."
"Now Eileen, different strokes," says Bill.
Part of the reason for this growth is the movie, A River Runs Through It, released in 1992 and based on the Norman Maclean novella about family and trout-fishing in Montana. Also contributing are big-money bass tournament circuits and advertising. But a deeper current moves below the surface: nature hunger. The baby boom generation may be the last one to share an intimate, familial attachment to the land and water. Today, development erases suburbia's last islands and peninsulas of open land and wild water.
But judgments are often premature and mysteries abound. Fishing, as John Bowman says, "is always about more than fishing." Today's fishing is about the tension between commercialism and romanticism, between the growing popularity of angling and limited waters, between past and future, between innocence and knowledge. The waters we fish, and how we fish, reflect larger political, ethical, even spiritual issues. How shall we reconnect to nature? How should we treat fellow creatures of other species? How do we hold fast to what is old, timeless, and slow? If the cultures of fishing begin to communicate and work together -- something they have not done in the past -- could anglers become the most powerful and effective environmental lobby?
I claim no expertise at angling. But I do hope to learn a thing or two about how to catch a fish. I'll explore the cultures of fishing, see a fair bit of my country, and travel its currents. The way I figure it, if you want to know America, go fishing.
I'm eager to get started, but before I leave the shop, I buy a couple of flies from Eileen -- well, more than a couple. Hard to get out of there without loading up, despite Bill's efforts.
"You can tell a lot about people by fishing with 'em. Places, too," says John. Cheerfully defying California law, he lights up his pipe. "Keep in mind that fishing to some people becomes an obsession because it's what Sam is doing, it's what everybody else is doing. It's like when people began wearing bell-bottom trousers -- they wore them because somebody else had them. Keep your eye on the difference between fashion and fishing."
He points the stem of the pipe at me. "Here's my advice. Get out of the country." I laugh. He explains: "A couple hundred miles south of here is a place that will show you what fishing was like before it got...complicated."
He rummages around behind the counter and finds a pencil and a piece of paper and writes down a name and a Baja California, Mexico, phone number. "I'll tell you one thing I like about fishing is it gets me to places where there aren't many people. It's probably the camaraderie, too. Although I know that's a contradiction. Some people think it's a damned religion." He pauses. "I'll be quite frank: It's almost a religion with me. I do believe in a Supreme Being, but I'd rather go fly-fishing than go to Mass. Hell, if I go out onto a stream and I don't catch any fish, I still feel that way. I see a couple of nice birds or a fish jump or a deer or a moose or whatever the hell, or another fly-fisherman. I love to watch people fish; I love to watch fly-fishermen. Especially my son, he's a hell of a caster."
He scribbles a second phone number and slides the piece of paper across the glass. "You go see Conway. He'll tell you something about fishing."
Eileen wryly interjects, "That Conway, he's been coming in here since he was little. We always took him fishing. He filled up the bay and the lakes with rocks. He was a little brat." She smiles, drops some flies in a little plastic container. "He loved to eat squid. I used to flinch when I watched him eat 'em. He'd eat tentacles, head, eyes, and everything." She shudders.
John laughs, a short bark from the corner of his mouth, as I head out. "See ya," he says, from behind the counter.
The door opens, the bell rings.
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Louv
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author of The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography
The News Hour, PBS
Meet the Author
Richard Louv is an award-winning journalist and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune and the author of five previous books. He lives in San Diego, California.
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