There’s just something about wading into a cold stream with a fly rod. After many years away, I’d almost forgotten the feeling. Last spring, however, I started reading Vermont River by W. D. Wetherell. It’s a memoir about fly-fishing, a kind of love story about a year in the life of a devout fishermen. It was just the sort of book to rekindle my pursuit of trout waters. And about this time last year, I bought myself a new pair of waders.
Maybe I should mention that the only reason I picked up this book—actually, it was loaned to me—is because my friend and co-teacher suggested the title. He’s an avid fisherman, gardener, and general lover of nature. And sometimes we teach a story called “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” by the same author. It’s a great story about love and fishing, Wetherell weaving the two topics together, creating an internal conflict within the protagonist about his passion and priorities at a critical moment in his life. So badly, I want to say more about the story. It’s one of my favorites, but I don’t want to spoil any pleasure of reading this story for the first time.
As I said then, inspired by Wetherell’s writing, I made a few trips to Snake Creek, along Route 29 in Susquehanna County, searching for some holes that still might have some trout. It was long after opening day, but I held out hope that I might catch something, but nothing ever materialized. I was happy, however, just to be out in the water again. And through the summer, I continued reading the sequels to Wetherell’s Vermont River called Upland River and One River More. I highly recommend them. If I wasn’t catching trout, at least I could read about it, from a writer I’ve really grown to admire.
In the fall, I picked up a book called Blues by John Hersey. He’s famous for having written Hiroshima, the famous anti-nuclear tome that I often assign to my students for summer reading. To say that Blues has a totally different feel from Hiroshima is a massive understatement. It’s about fishing for bluefish off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, and besides including fish recipes and poetry, too, the structure takes the form of a dialogue between a seasoned fishermen and a land-lubbing novice. Another good read, although I enjoyed the books about trout more, probably because of my familiarity with the fish.
At this point, I figured why not tackle a book I always wanted to read: Cod by Mark Kurlansky. I found a copy at the used bookstore down the street from my house, and at half price, I couldn’t resist and began my journey into the history of cod fishing. I wasn’t disappointed by this story that chronicles the rise and fall of the cod fishing industry. Far and away, this book had me hooked with its mix of fine-storytelling and history. It’s chapter after chapter of research into cod fishing, and I found myself enthralled with the details of a fish that used to be so plentiful, such a staple, that no one thought overfishing to be a danger to their very existence, and which as it turned out, destroyed the stock and industry. To be sure, it’s a cautionary tale.
That’s where all this fishy reading took me, by the end, I guess. Sustainability. In my opinion, that’s the issue underlying all these stories about fishing. Do we plunder nature or preserve her bounty? How do we manage the resource? Whether you’re out fishing in a trawler for a living or stepping into a stream with a fly-rod, it’s always about catching the next fish, the main two enemies seem to be destruction of habitat and overfishing, and better technology, according to Mark Kurlansky, has actually hastened these two problems. But that’s the lesson of all these books, it seems to me. Fishing is about sustainability, and making sure that we don’t destroy the object of our pleasure. Indeed, our oceans and streams don’t support fish the way they used to so many years ago.
When I first fished Snake Creek over fifteen years ago, I often found trout late in the season, and on one particular day, I caught a beautiful brown trout in a deep hole along the stream. So many years later, I wish I had a picture of that fish, but it was before the proliferation of cell phones with cameras. I did find that hole again last summer, this time with my thirteen-year-old son, but we didn’t catch a thing. It seemed empty of life, although it’s more comforting, perhaps, to think that they simply weren’t on the bite.
I did read one more book after getting through Cod. Another teacher at school, who’s also an avid fisherman, heard me talking about my recent reading list, and gave me a book called Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish by G. Bruce Knecht. The book focuses on the Patagonian toothfish, also known more familiarly as Chilean bass, and the heart of the book is about a long chase of a pirate fish boat poaching in Australian waters. Like Cod, it’s also about overfishing a species until there’s almost nothing left in the ocean, which makes the illegal poaching by this pirate ship so much more significant. Ultimately, they catch the pirate ship, put them on trial, but in the end, it doesn’t turn out. The pirates spend some time on the hook, but eventually thrown back to the sea. And that’s where my reading about fishing came to a halt.
This spring, though, I plan to fish some more, get out a little sooner on those trout waters. Maybe go back to some of those places I used to fish so long ago, and I’m hoping to do a little better. That’s the other thing about these stories, too, the irresistible pull of fishing. I just hope there continues to be something to catch, something to sustain in the growing threat to our natural resources.