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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.
Death, Taxes, and Leaky Waders collects forty of John Gierach’s finest essays on fishing from six of his books. Like all his writing, these essays are seasoned by a keen sense of observation and a deep knowledge and love of fishing lore, leavened by a wonderfully wry sense of humor. Gierach often begins with an observation that soon leads to something below the surface, which he finds and successfully lands. As Gierach says, writing is a lot like fishing.
This is the first anthology of John Gierach’s work, a collection that is sure to delight both die-hard fans and new readers alike. To enter Gierach’s world is to experience the daily wonder, challenge, and occasional absurdity of the fishing life—from such rituals as the preparation of camp coffee (for best results, serve in a tin cup) to the random, revelatory surprises, such as the flashing beauty of a grayling leaping out of the water. Whether he’s catching fish or musing on the ones that got away, Gierach is always entertaining and enlightening, writing with his own inimitable blend of grace and style, passion and wit.
About the Author
John Gierach is the author of numerous books on fly-fishing, including A Fly Rod of Your Own. 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.
Read an Excerpt
I use a common American brand of coffee that you can get in big, three-pound cans. It can be found on the shelves of stores, large and small, throughout the West. On road trips I carry a pound of it. In my backpack I carry some in a four-ounce tin that once contained tea grown in India and packaged in England. It's enough for several days out and the tin fits neatly inside the coffeepot. The pot, in turn, goes in a heavy plastic bag to keep carbon smudges off my clothes and other gear. Tidy, efficient.
A few years ago I experimented with some exotic and expensive kinds of coffee for fish-camping but found them unacceptable for a number of reasons. For one thing, the cost was prohibitive. Not long ago I spent three-hundred dollars on a fly rod, but an extra seventy-five cents for a pound of coffee still rubs me the wrong way. Once established, priorities must be maintained.
There was also the extra care and attention that brewing up a pot of some strange blend required in the field. The coffeepot is the hook from which a good, comfortable, homey camp hangs, but it should be as thoughtless as a rusty nail, not a big production.
And then there were the aesthetics of the situation. My gear, with some notable exceptions at both ends of the scale, is largely of moderate quality serviceable, but not extravagant and my camps are cozy, but far from posh. Espresso seemed out of place.
For me, coffee has always had at least a hint of the woods and rivers about it because I started drinking the stuff on fishing trips at what many would consider a too-tender age. I had my first cup in the kitchen of my Aunt Dora and Uncle Leonard's farmhouse before dawn on the morning of a bass fishing trip or maybe it was a pheasant hunt. That's not the part I remember so well. What I recall is the oilcloth on the table, the straightbacked wooden chairs, Agnes the pet raccoon scratching at the back door, the whole no-nonsense atmosphere of the familiar, working Midwestern farm kitchen, the darkness outside the windows, and the morning chill. The cold is what makes me think it might have been pheasant season.
Bass or pheasants, it doesn't matter. I remember the coffee, in a chipped, heavy, well-used cup, as one of the early rites of manhood. There were others that have not served me as well.
That first cup (and many thereafter) was brewed by Aunt Dora. Though I paid no attention to the brand or the method used, I've judged all coffee since then by that standard, in the same way I've judged my own conduct in the field, and that of others, by the relaxed, competent, unhurried, droll example set by Uncle Leonard.
I especially remember the teen-age years when things like girls and fast cars were more on my mind than shotguns and fishing rods, but when fishing and hunting became what they remain for me today a way out of, a way back from, a world that's faster, more complicated, and more ruthless than it needs to be there was always a pot of coffee simmering in the coals of the campfire or nuzzling around in the mysterious depths of a thermos bottle.
Between then and now I've consumed many more cups of coffee in civilized settings than out in the woods, but the aroma of the stuff is so inexorably tied to flushing birds, rising trout, giggling loons, drifting woodsmoke, and so on that they cannot be separated, even when the cup is made of styrofoam.
There was a time when I carried instant coffee in the field for the sake of speed and convenience. It worked for a while. In those days I was somewhat younger and more eager for the kill. Drives, hikes, camps they were nothing but means to an end. I was very businesslike and something of a guerrilla. Now that I think about it, I was also wet, cold, hungry, and/or lost more often than I am now and not as successful. I was in the process of proving something then that has now, apparently, been proven and forgotten. Going through a stage, they call it.
I think I started brewing real coffee in camp about the same time I began releasing all but a brace of trout because they're best fresh and because two is enough. "Enough" is a useful concept for the sportsman, especially the young one. I used the small aluminum percolator that saw me through college, when my main goals in life were to mess up my brains, get girls, and overthrow the government, not necessarily in that order. It did an adequate job.
It took A.K. to teach me how to make real camp coffee: bring one pot of lake or river water to a rolling boil, add two palmfuls of generic coffee, and remove the pot to the edge of the coals. If it's the breakfast pot, throw in the eggshells. When it's done (five to ten minutes), add a splash of cold water to settle the grounds.
Like whiskey, it should be drunk from a tin cup.
A.K.'s coffeepot goes back a long way. It sat on the banks of trout streams in Michigan for many years before it came to the Rocky Mountains and is now in its third stage of its evolution as a camp utensil. First it was clean and enameled in some color that is now lost to memory. Then it got all black and stayed that way for a long time. Now the accumulated black gunk is flaking off, exposing the battleship gray of the bare metal. Someday the bottom will drop out and an era will have ended.
A.K. and I have drunk from this pot around countless fires across several western states, but it has now become almost synonymous with winter trout fishing in Cheesman Canyon. That's a stretch of the South Platte River, one of those tailwaters that stays open and more or less fishable throughout the year. It's famous water and almost too crowded to fish in the summer, but still nice and lonely on most days between Christmas and, say, the end of March.
We've built coffee fires in several spots, but there's one place that has seen the majority of them. It's where trout are often rising to sparse midge hatches slow, hard, technical fishing. Sometimes we'll take turns on a pod of risers, one guy tending the fire, sipping coffee, the other casting and slowly freezing in the cold water. It was there that I hooked and landed my one-and-only good-sized trout on a #28 fly and 8x tippet.
We use dead, dry willow twigs, and it recently occurred to me that the few of us who build fires there have been inadvertently pruning the little bankside brush patch, keeping it healthy enough to provide the modest amounts of firewood we need a delicate and accidental balance.
A few years ago I made a comment in a magazine article about A.K.'s bankside boiled coffee, something to the effect that it was okay when you were cold and wet but that if you got a cup of it in a cafe too strong, with pine needles and nymph shucks floating in it you'd refuse to pay.
It wasn't more than a few weeks after the article appeared that we ended up in the Canyon again. It was February, cold, blustery, bitter, with drifts of snow right down to the water. Sensitive to the early signs of hypothermia, I had left the river when I began to shiver a little and headed upstream towards the slightly bluish curl of smoke that told me A.K. had the coffee on. I rummaged through my pack for my tin coffee cup, finding that, amazingly, I'd left it at home. A.K. was delighted, saying it didn't matter anyway, since the coffee was no good. There was a lot of good-natured hell to pay before I could get my hands on his cup, all of which I deserved. Best damned cup of coffee I ever had, strong and black.
I can drink good coffee black, but I prefer it with cream. In a full camp I use real milk, but when working from a pack I vacillate between evaporated milk and that powdered, "non-dairy creamer." The powdered stuff is the most efficient, but I remain suspicious of it.
Coffee is okay on warm mornings when the wool shirt is shed while the bacon sizzles, but it's best on cold, winter trout streams, or during claustrophobic storms when the almost painful sting of its heat telegraphed through the thin walls of a tin cup seems like the center of the universe, a very real element of basic survival.
My first wife used a sterile-looking glass pot more of a carafe, actually and the coffee dripped with agonizing slowness through paper filters. It was always cold before it was ready to drink. My second wife used a tall, elegant electric percolator with a spout as long and graceful as the neck of a Canada goose. The noise it made while working was vaguely industrial. Once she gave up coffee entirely in the belief that it wasn't healthy. Of course it's not healthy; what is anymore? As Aunt Dora used to say, "Everything I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening."
The coffeepot I've carried and camped with for more seasons than I've kept track of is of the old style: sturdy, heavy, enameled in the classic midnight blue under specks of white that are now fire-singed to a mellow brown around the slowly growing black patch under the spout midway through evolutionary stage two. I bought it for pocket change at a yard sale and discarded the guts as soon as I got it home. It has been rinsed thousands of times but has never really been "washed."
Once I drop-kicked it twenty yards across a mountain meadow in Colorado (for reasons I won't go into here). When I retrieved it, the mineral deposits that had built up inside it rattled out like flakes of shale. The small dent it bears from that incident still shames me sometimes. Uncle Leonard would never have kicked the coffeepot.
For years that pot reposed with the rest of my camping gear and was brought out, along with sleeping bags, waders, fly rods, shotguns, etc., for what amounted to special occasions. Now it sits proudly on the stove in the kitchen as a symbol of freedom and simplicity. Why would anyone need more than one coffeepot?
At home I use tap water, but otherwise the coffee is made the same way as in the field. The glass knob in the lid of the pot disappeared long ago (in that meadow, maybe?), and just glancing into the kitchen I can tell the coffee is ready by the curl of steam coming from the hole it left.
Copyright © 2000 by John Gierach
Table of Contents
Kazan River Grayling
The Adams Hatch
On the Road
The View from Rat Lake
The Big Empty River
The Fishing Car
The Music of the Spheres
Sex, Death, and Fly-fishing
Sex, Death, and Fly-fishing
I'd Fish Anyone's St. Vrain
Neither Snow, nor Rain, nor Gloom of Night...
Guiding and Being Guided
The Chairman's Bass
Even Brook Trout Get the Blues
The Family Pool
A Year in the Life
Even Brook Trout Get the Blues
The New Pond
Dances with Trout
A Few Days Before Christmas
Another Lousy Day in Paradise
The Kindness of Strangers
I think writing is a lot like fishing, especially when it's about fishing, as most of mine is. Both take curiosity, patience, persistence, lots of time, some skill, a willingness to put things together in odd ways, an appreciation of the process itself (regardless of how it turns out), and faith that it's all somehow worthwhile. What sane person would spend a whole day writing a paragraph that reads like it was dashed off in thirty seconds? The same kind who'd fish for one big trout all morning just so he can look at it and release it.
I like to think I was born to be a fisherman. There's a family story that I caught my first bluegill at age five and wanted to have it mounted. I don't remember that, but it sounds about right. By the time I was a teenager I fit the standard profile of a lifelong angler: I was lazy, shiftless, unambitious, and willing to work hard only at things that were widely considered useless. My folks thought I'd grow out of it.
As for writing, I don't remember why I first thought I'd like it, but I have to suspect it's because writers weren't very well thought of and because they didn't seem to work. At a certain age, playing hard, not really working, and living up to a bad reputation seemed like the way to go.
My first revelation was that writing did involve some work. Lots of it, actually. Some people have a warped view of writers in general, and outdoor writers in particular. Now and then someone will say to me, "Boy, what a life you have. All you do is fish." Usually I nod and smile because that's what I used to think myself and because it's not entirely wrong, but there's a mood I sometimes get into that makes me ask, "Who the hell do you think writes the stories?"
Then there are those who'll tell you you're blessed with talent, which is another way of saying you don't work. If you explain that whatever talent you may have now is the result of decades of toil, they'll say that kind of patience is a gift. There's no talking to some people. If they want you to be blessed, then you're blessed, god damn it! Don't argue.
Then again, one of my more levelheaded friends once said, "Look, if someone thinks you don't work, maybe it means your writing seems effortless, so you should take it as a compliment." I wouldn't mind having more levelheaded friends, but when eventually almost everyone you know is a fly fisher, guide, writer, editor, or publisher, you take what you can get.
I didn't start out to be a fishing writer; I started out to be a "serious" writer, back when I was much younger and still liked the sanctimonious sound of that. I wrote my first stories for outdoor magazines out of curiosity; to see if maybe that wouldn't be a better way for a struggling writer to support himself than driving a garbage truck not that driving a garbage truck was all that bad.
That didn't work out the way I had it pictured because writing for a living turned out to be a full-time job that left less time and energy for art than real work had. On the other hand, I found that writing was writing and that any subject with the possible exception of golf could open up on grand themes if that's what you wanted it to do.
I remember two milestones now: the first story I sold, and the first story I sold that seemed to be about grayling fishing in Canada but that was really about death. At the time I thought I'd fooled the editor who bought it, but years later I ended up fishing for salmon in Scotland with him and he said, "Remember that story you did once about death and grayling? I liked that one."
Some of these stories began in the "Outside" column I've been writing for the Longmont Daily Times-Call newspaper for the last seventeen years and also the one I did for the New York Times for a short period in the early '90s. Being a weekly columnist is grueling, but it's a good job for a writer. If nothing else, it's steady work, and it also keeps you in shape, like hiking two or three miles a day unless there's a good reason not to, which I also do. You know that whatever else happens in a week's time, you'll write one reasonably coherent, 800-word story, and in most cases you'll go fishing at least one extra time so you'll have something to write about.
It really is grueling at times the writing, not the fishing but by now I'm so used to it I'd probably miss it. I didn't even realize how long I'd been doing it until a few years ago, when, during my rare appearances in the newsroom, some of the younger people there started calling me "sir" and a man in his thirties told me he'd grown up reading my column.
Anyway, some of those short columns hinted at something more, so they went on to become magazine stories, and then finally book chapters, usually getting longer and more genuine in the process. A book is the only place where I don't run into constraints on length, language, or content, and in a few cases book chapters have served as revenge against editors who located the heart and soul of a story and removed it before it appeared in the magazine or who just chopped it for length and accidentally hit a vital spot.
I hadn't read most of these essays since they were published, because by the time a book comes out I'm done with it. For one thing, I've moved on to other fishing trips and other stories. And I've already read the thing dozens of times, carefully, critically, changing this and that, then maybe changing it back to the way it was to begin with. Then I read the copyedited manuscript. Then I proofed the galleys. When the actual book arrives in the mail, I'm happy to see it even get a little glow of satisfaction but I don't feel like reading it again.
Then I have to pick a nice short chapter to read aloud on the brief publicity tour my publisher now sends me on when I have a new book. (I read the same one over and over so I come to know it by heart and don't stammer too much.) I'm fairly new to book tours and I guess they're not my favorite part of being a writer. There's something in my Midwestern Protestant upbringing that makes me shy about being the center of attention, and of course book tours are almost always scheduled when the fish are biting back home.
Still, I've come to terms. It's fun traveling on an expense account even if you don't have much time to abuse it and some neat things usually happen. I get to see some of the great independent bookstores Tattered Cover, Elliott Bay, Powell's, Boulder Bookstore meet guides, fishermen, book people, and other writers; sometimes get an invitation to come back later and go fishing; or maybe even accidentally say something that could be construed as brilliant. And once I ran into an old girlfriend who somehow hadn't aged a day in more than twenty years. She asked if I remembered her. How could I forget?
A few pieces of advice about book tours from more experienced writers helped a lot. Specifically: "Don't start believing your own dust jacket copy" and "Don't let the bastards put you in a necktie."
I enjoyed reading these stories again because I'd all but forgotten about some of them. Sure, a few I remembered nearly word for word and a few more started to come back after I read the first paragraph, but some of the oldest ones were almost new; by now, no more than vaguely familiar. Not surprising, I guess. I figure that since I finished Trout Bum in 1985 I've written over eight hundred newspaper columns, somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred magazine stories and nine books.
I'm almost sorry now that I stopped to figure that out (and also surprised I kept such good records), because adding up numbers is no better a way to look at a life spent writing than one spent fishing. The fact is, I either don't work as hard as it seems, or I do, but I enjoy it so much it doesn't really qualify as work. Years ago Charlie Waterman admitted that writing about fishing can be more fun than actually fishing. Up until then I thought that was my little secret.
I think I'm a better writer now than I once was, but I can't put my finger on anything I do differently. I've always tried to figure out what a story is actually about usually it's something other than the fishing, but that wouldn't have come up without the fishing and I've tried for the sound of real, spoken language.
I think a good fishing story is like any good story: It either gets at something that wasn't immediately apparent or it gets at something obvious in a way you never thought of before. Beyond that it's honest, plainspoken, and avoids being a billboard for the author's ego. Of course that last one is the trickiest, because your own motives are always the hardest to see and because without a pretty healthy ego you wouldn't be writing in the first place.
Still, you come to understand that if you compose something that you think really shows off your skill as a writer, you should get rid of it because it's self-indulgent and, worse yet, it won't fool anyone. At its worst, this can become what Garrison Keillor recently called "stuff in which there's nobody home," and Jim Harrison could have been talking about fishing stories instead of poetry when he said that most of it was "elaborate harness that never smelled a real horse."
There have been times when I dashed off columns on a portable typewriter set up on a picnic table or tailgate and filed them with datelines like "Last Chance, Idaho," but I do most of my writing at my desk at home. It's best for me to take a good, long time to write a story, and also to let a trip sink in for a while and then see which parts of it float to the top by themselves.
I do keep a fishing journal that I sometimes refer back to usually to find something like the correct spelling of "Agulukpak River" but besides making short daily entries in that, I really try not to write on the road. (If I did I'd have graduated to a lap-top by now, and although I think typewriters are charming, computers annoy me.) Whatever contraption they're written on, the stories are almost always cleaner and more honest if I don't try to orchestrate them as they're happening, but just go fishing to see what happens and then think about it later. If a trip somehow doesn't produce a story, that just means I have to go fishing again right away. It's my job.
Jim Harrison (obviously one of my favorite writers) recently described the process of editing a collection of his own work as "brain peeling," but for me rereading the six books I've drawn on in this volume was fun, like going back through old photos even though a few were the inevitable snapshots of people who are now dead but back then were holding big trout and grinning. Since no one told me to choose the best stories based on some objective standard let alone what that standard might be I just picked the ones I liked the most, for reasons of my own.
Writers are compulsive tinkerers, and I did feel the urge to edit here and there or maybe revise in light of what I've learned since, but I resisted. If there's ever a time when a story is irretrievably finished, it's when it appears between the covers of a book. And anyway, I like them all the way they are, especially the parts that let you fill in things like the actual size of a fish for yourself, thereby almost surely making it bigger than it really was. A man I've fished with for years was once asked if all my stories were true. He said, "You bet they are in a way."
I also noticed that I kept drifting back to old familiar fishing spots in one way or another: the St. Vrain, Platte, and Frying Pan Rivers, some local bass and bluegill ponds and pocket water streams. Fishing writers dote on their home waters and compare everything else to them. (What's the Moraine River in Alaska like? It's like the North Platte in Wyoming except with tundra instead of prairie and brown bears instead of cows.) The home water is where we do our casual, day-to-day fishing, where our friends are most likely to say the offhandedly profound things we end up making our own, and where we sooner or later take on the coloration of our environment.
But there are plenty of new places, too, because writers and fishermen are restless, always sniffing out something unfamiliar to compare with what we think we already know. I remember some of those new places clearly, even if I only fished them once years ago and never quite got around to going back, but some others have pretty much faded. That is, I can picture them well enough, but I don't recall their names and I don't think I could find them again without help. I'm not sure how I feel about that. A little wistful, maybe, but also happy I've done so much fishing that I've managed to lose track of entire rivers.
Naturally, some of the old familiar places I wrote about fifteen and twenty years ago are even more familiar now, but then some waters you could once get on because no one much cared are now fenced and posted, and there have been changes in regulations, overcrowding, floods, fish kills, natural cycles, new fish stocked in some places, an end to stocking in others, and lately whirling disease. Proposed dam projects were defeated on two of my favorite streams, but the rivers seem more fragile now. There are days when I stop casting and think, This could have been under fifty feet of water and it might be yet if we're not careful.
But then some places are still the same as when I first saw them, either because they're that resilient or they've somehow been overlooked. A few even seem better than they were, with more and bigger fish, but that's probably just because I'm a better fisherman now. And of course they're as beautiful as ever, like the ageless former girlfriend in Portland. Or was it Eugene?
Copyright © 2000 by John Gierach
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Easy to read, especially if you don't want to read the entire book in one sitting. As it is the author's short stories, it is nice to read a story (when you need a fly-fishing fix) read something else and then come back to this book. Very enjoyable.
If you haven't read any of John's books, you are in for a real treat. If you love fly fishing, you will love these books. They are easy, comfortable, yet thought provoking reads that will also make you laugh out loud. This is a compilation of some of John's best stories...some are even better the second time. I can't wait for his next book!
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R u there? At the hot tub?
Went over to the white kit and sniffed her then started to lick her wound trying to clean it out.