It’s just a fortnight or so past the Feast of St. Stephen, with sub-zero wind chills and the remnants of a snowstorm lying about less than deep and crisp and even. So, what better time to turn one’s thoughts to fishing?
Allow me to cut to the chase. The present volume offers yet one more example of why books about fishing are like paintings about cooking; the subject matter is familiar but the point of the exercise eludes me.
And yet I keep reading books about fishing. Maybe that’s what’s meant by the triumph of hope over experience.
Roy Rowan, who died in 2016, was a type familiar to anyone possessing even a glancing familiarity with post-war American publishing. An Ivy Leaguer (Dartmouth ’41) from the time when that spoke as much about your class and ethnic heritage as your ability, he served during the war and afterward went to work for Time-Life, then probably the most powerful magazine publisher of the day.
His career began with a stint as a foreign correspondent and eventually took him to senior editorial positions. Along the way, he acquired a group of close writer friends who readers know as byline and masthead figures, but who Rowan knows as Bob and Frank and Dick.
In no way is this an unusual story. Rowan, who lived to be 96, reached the point where he got to write books on subjects he cared about. That, too, is typical. Some, like Stanley Karnow, pen memoirs of their first lengthy assignments overseas. Others, like Robert Hughes, write about their long-held passions. Rowan fell in the Hughes camp, although Rowan was a surfcaster and not a trout fisherman, as Hughes was
The appearance of trout offers a nice opportunity to stake out territorial boundaries.
The first of these, being somewhat indistinct, might best be termed the brackish bound. Where you fish is largely a matter of geography. Live on the coast, and chances are you’ll find yourself fishing in saltwater. I grew up on an island full of freshwater ponds and at least a couple of kettle lakes. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone there who’d tossed a line in a pond despite the local fishing magazine devoting space to what was biting in them.
The second distinction is one of practice. It’s most simply stated in question form: do you use bait? In many ways this is the more important difference, arguably masking class differences behind flies, plugs and poppers. Rowan is a charter member of the artificial lure club. As if to call attention to his membership status he repeatedly employs a wonderfully dismissive term: meat fishermen.
On behalf of fishermen who use bait and then eat their catch–the latter being an activity that even Rowan admits to doing–let me just call bullfeathers. Lest you think I speak not of what I know, allow me to establish some bona fides.
I’ve stalked tarpon in the backcountry of the Florida Keys. I’ve fished the spring striper run using nothing but Lunker City’s Fin-S Fish on 8-pound test. I’ve hauled in choppers–the stupidest fish in the sea when they get in a feeding frenzy–using an unbaited diamond jig in a healthy chum slick. I’ve even been known to add a bucktail to a fluke rig baited with spearing and squid or a piece of pork rind to a spoon.
I don’t just fish. I’m also the cook here at the Stone Cottage, a position that allows me to remind everyone food doesn’t just appear in the supermarket. I fish not because it’s a sport–blood or otherwise–but because I enjoy eating and cooking seafood and because I think it’s important to remain connected to the food chain.
So, I’m more than a bit offended by a self-anointed caste of sportsmen bound by and promulgating rules about what’s a fair fight and proper technique, let alone catch-and-release. I submit it’s far more ethical to honestly catch your meal, dress it and eat it than to torture an animal for fun and then release it to heal and perhaps repeat the same process. Given that stance, I find complaints that bait fishing is inherently revolting and a throwback to the dawn of fishing mere gossamer inventions.
Maybe such rich man’s silliness goes all the way back to Izaak Walton. I’ve never read The Compleat Angler, but I’m betting there are lures and flies in it. Or maybe it’s a form of conspicuous consumption. Or maybe it’s just tunnel-vision, the ability to focus so narrowly that you enter Bass Pro Shops and only see the fly rods and not the case full of baitcasting reels. (Emphasis added.) Rowan is better than many others, though at times he still sounds as though he represents some more enlightened approach to the piscatorial arts.
Yet I’m not overly sorry I dallied with this fishing memoir. Rowan’s fishing ground is Block Island, a mysterious lump I’ve seen from seemingly every angle without ever visiting. His love of place is evident even if he can’t quite find the poetic language another writer might. In all honesty, John Hersey captured place and purpose best in his fishing book, Blues, set a little further east on the waters around Martha’s Vineyard.
Rowan also conveys his own sense of the connection between man and nature which I found quite believable. I grew up a 20-minute ride from the Atlantic Ocean. No one needs to sell me on the benefits of a sparsely populated beach in the off-season or outside of peak tanning hours.
The only thing better would be having a fishing rod at your side.