To Fish, Perchance to Dream

Fly Fishing for Sharks: An Angler’s Journey Across  America
Richard Louv

The parking lots where fishermen congregate always contain at least a few vehicles declaring the same wisdom on their bumper: A bad day fishing beats a good day in the office. Since one way humans learn is by extrapolating ideas beyond their origins you’ll understand how I at least entertained the notion that a variation held true for a book about fishing. Would that it were so.

Maybe we should start with fishing itself. While the animal rights crowd would have us believe that fishing and hunting are blood sports, I reject that as a canard. To believe that a human is somehow advantaged over the piscine creature in its natural environment is to declare–in big bold letters– I’VE NEVER FISHED. I’m open to the idea that a purse seiner guided by aircraft has an unfair advantage. A human and some tackle, with or without a boat? That’s a fair fight.

I think Louv would agree with that. And to be fair, since that’s the Christmas season mode I’m in today, I think there’s a lot he and I could agree on. In an electronics-dominated era, where folks seem more and more intent on separating themselves from nature, fishing reconnects us to the real world.

Mr. Louv is a San Diego-based columnist who writes on outdoor and family subjects. That might lead one to presume that this American journey is a romance. In a way it is although I see it more as a picaresque.  For those who don’t remember English comp, a picaresque is a story of searching for an ideal in which the protagonist fails to resolve their predicament and winds up looking foolish. Think Don Quixote.  Or, in this case, think a man and a fishing pole.

Okay, okay, foolish is a strong word. Yet Louv clearly went in search of something and didn’t come up with anything stronger than fishermen can help the environment. It’s not clear to me that the people he meets while jetting about can all agree to that.

Now about all that jetting and trekking. This is one of those tales with an environmental soul and a petroleum-addicted author. He’s flying cross-country. He’s 4-wheeling through Baja. He’s off-shore in a center-console; zipping across the flats in Florida; and careening through Lake Erie in a bass boat. I know that we Americans love our gasoline but do we always have to end up contradicting ourselves by espousing environmentalism? If making the environment better is really a goal how about laying off the gas for a bit?

Two smaller things also rankle. One is that in letting his subjects speak for themselves he renders long transcripts. It feels like cheating although I appreciated hearing Patrick Hemingway’s full speech on why catch and release is torture so eat what you catch. The second is his inability to hear regional speech patterns. Just one example: he describes the speech of an Ozarks-born fisherman as being drenched in idiom, “spar for sparrow; nar for narrow…” Okay, deep breath, say each out loud. Clearly the second syllable is being swallowed. That’s not idiomatic English, it’s hill talk, no different in its way than an unctuous English butler saying “ears” when replying in the affirmative.

Louv does do a good job of working in family angles–his own and others. If nostalgia for fishing with your dad or granddad was a goal he succeeded. And despite the title he got to the bass fishermen and the steelheaders and even some ocean types . Most have risen through some faux hierarchy to the enlightened state of fishing with barbless hooks. Still, to treat the fly-chuckers and lunker-hunters equally is an achievement that should not go unnoticed.

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