An avid fisherman, Jackson
shares his unique angle on fishing in this FLY-FISHING 1999 edition of the
BIG SKY JOURNAL.
THE LIT ANGLE
One writer looks back on
a lifetime of fishing and friendships
Fishing is not in
itself a literary pursuit, it just seems that way sometimes. I was introduced to it by a
poet and most of the people I fish with are in the lit game. For instance, the publisher
and editor of this magazine. But how could it be otherwise? Almost everybody I associate
with is at least peripherally in the lit racket. Hell, even when I was a carpenter most of
the guys on the crew had published.
The first time I went fly fishing
was with Jim Harrison, up in Michigan. We were living in a little town near where, I've
been told, the Adams fly was created. Hemingway had presumably plumbed these waters.
Actually, on that occasion I didn't fish, I just went along to bird watch while Jimmy
stroked the still, tea-like waters of the Boardman River, with amazingly delicate lashes.
Not long after, I looked for birds on the Manistee, while Jim and Tom McGuane fished. It
was interesting, but I was wary. There seemed so much to it: all the gear, the arcane
knowledge of bugs and lines, tippets, techniques like "double hauling." I wasn't
sure I wanted to get into it. For one thing, these two guys were so adept; I feared that I
would never become proficient enough to be able to intelligently converse with them, much
less actually be able to fish with them. But once I got going, fishing for some
time all by myself out in Montana, it proved not to be so difficult. Oddly, I
never did actually fish with Jim and Tom. Of course, it could still happen.
Poet Greg Pape and
a nice rainbow
It seems peculiar that the first
fly-fisherman I knew very well should have been Jim, since it was widely held in the
northern Michigan country where he and I grew up that guys like us could never be
genuinely expert fishermen, or hunters. That kind of expertise was reserved for country
folks. We were not country folks, regardless of having been raised in that world, by
virtue of the fact that we had spent significant time in cities, had even gone to college.
We'd forfeited our chance to be authentic woodsmen; we were honorary yokels, at best.
Nonetheless, I consider that Tom McGuane, a man who could never be suspected of being a
hick, may be the best fisherman of the lot -- with the notable exception of David James
Duncan, about whom more later.
Peter Matthiesen, sculptor Jack Zajac,
Jon A. Jackson
(photo by Jeff Wetmore)
I think the defining factor is that country folks -- real
people -- make a point of considering fishing (and hunting) as part of their ordinary
quotidian life, and they frown on the notion of making a sport of it. Not that they don't
enjoy fishing and hunting as much as the next fellow, but it isn't primarily fun.
It's a way to get some fish, to eat; a way to get venison, to eat. Now, no sane person
would go down to the river with a rod and a fly if his/her primary goal was getting
something to eat. You would net those wily trout, dynamite them, "call them up"
on an old crank phone (a favorite bucolic myth); at least use real bait. To employ a #20
tricorythodes is to make light of the very serious business of life.
David James Duncan near his home in Montana
(photo by David Balicki)
Anyway, fly fishing is a literary
activity for me. Nowadays, I fish a lot with the poet Greg Pape; usually a few days a year
with the novelist and naturalist, Peter Matthiessen; frequently with novelist David James
Duncan. I used to go often with Richard Ford, though not lately, but I expect we'll hit
the Missouri again. When I was at the University of Iowa I fished with Ray Carver for bass
and catfish, also with the novelist and screenwriter William Price Fox, Jr. I've fished
with Richard Hugo, J.D. Reed, James Lee Burke and, while I can't recall a specific
occasion (which may be due to external factors, like Jack Daniels) I must have fished with
my old pal Jim Crumley, sometime. A really good guy to fish with is John Holt, the fishing
writer who lives in Livingston, now.
One of my favorite all-time fishing
partners has been an elusive Montana carpenter who goes by the name of Billy Joe
Shaunkwater and is, after all, a secret poet, essayist, and short-story writer (what I'd
call a cellar poet.) Billy Joe is one of those left-handed guns who can make a tight cast
into a tiny pocket from a distance to snap up any canny brown trout who thinks it can
safely ignore the floaters who don't see the holding water in time. It was Billy Joe who
showed me that a sipping trout does not necessarily make a very visible surface
disturbance. He also demonstrated that you can catch trout while falling off the boat in
an impaired condition.