Monday, April 26, 2010

Hemingway on Fishing

I spied this at a bookstore and perused it once or twice before finally purchasing it as a paperback immediately before I moved here. Some of the selected excerpts I was able to read and enjoy, taking away a few memorable quotes or phrases that throw some light onto the more unknowable or mysterious parts of fly fishing, illustrating feelings that we've all felt in a more eloquent way than I would be able to convey them to anyone else. I read one selection at a time and spent more time between some than others, for I was reliving the scenes described as if I was there.

Hemingway was huge on fishing the gulf stream for seriously big game. In a piece entitled "The Great Blue River," Hemingway describes the allure of fishing down deep in the gulf stream, where unknown monsters lurk, and you never know what has taken your line until, hours into the fight, a fish exceeding quadruple digits erupts from the deep blue with impossible grace.

He had a few choice words for bonefisherman, as well. "Bonefish angler, on your way! You never saw a bonefish in mile-deep water, nor up against the tackle striped marlin have to face sometimes. Nor did you know how your bonefish would act after he had jumped forty-three times clean out of the water. Your bonefish is a smart fish, very conservative, very strong too. Too smart by far to jump, even if he could... Also, bonefish angler, your fish might be as fat and as short of wind as some of the overstuffed Nova Scotia tuna are. But do not shoot, bonefish angler. At four-hundred pounds, your fish might be the strongest thing in the sea, the strongest fish that ever lived; so strong that no one would ever want to hook into one. But tell me confidently, would he jump? Thank you very much, I thought not."

He hits it all, from trout fishing small streams, to hiking into the backcountry and harvesting a few brookies for your shore lunch, to leaping rainbow trout and marlin. In a few of the selected texts, sentences detonated in my brain, a smile spread across my face, and I had to pause for a moment to let the words sink in. There are more than a few sections where you know exactly what he is talking about. Although he took fish, lots of fish, lots of big fish, and you can argue with his conservation ethics and whether or not you enjoy his writing style, you will probably enjoy reading about the experiences he describes. Memorably, one short exchange between a few characters in "Islands in the Stream" kept me up at night.

The excerpt describes a boat of seasoned gulf stream fishermen who take two of their young sons, brothers, along for the trip. The older boy, Davy, about 12, grabs the first singing rod and reel of the day, and so begins an epic battle.

Hours in, he is exhausted, the fish is still unseen, and his younger brother is seriously worried about his older brother's well-being. As I read this, my heart began to beat faster as I felt like I was on the boat, willing the boy to hold on a bit longer, shaking my head in disbelief as he summoned some untapped inner reserve of fortitude and began to pump and reel, pump and reel, gaining inch after precious inch of line, only to watch the line peel off of the reel as if what was attached to the end was merely toying with the hearts and minds of those on the vessel above, as if this retaking of hard-won line with such ease would be enough to cause the alien force pulling on it from above to realize their efforts were futile, that severing the line would be the better option.

Each uttered word of caution or instruction is delivered with perfect awareness of the fact that saying the wrong thing could jinx the future. As Davy gains on the tiring fish, the leader eventually appears, and with it, the men on the boat glimpse the fish for the first time. The fish is described and I could not help but feel the same sense of awe for the fish that I was imagining as the people on the boat did for the fish they have been privileged enough to observe. The mate on the boat sees the leader and says "It's been cutting, it's just holding by nothing," causing the tension in the story to reach an unbearable level as it draws toward it's inevitable conclusion.

The boy's quivering muscles, the straps of the rod harness cutting into his back, the bloody pads of his feet, the incredible fish on the end of his line causing all of this pain and suffering are all described eloquently.

I will not ruin the ending, I will not give away if the fish is eventually boated or not. You can find that out on your own, please do.

After the drama on deck ends, the exhausted boy is carried below decks by his father and laid on a bed to recover. His younger brother asks him what it was like, fighting a fish like that for as long as he did.

"Well," David said with his eyes tight shut. "In the worst parts, when I was the tiredest I couldn't tell which was him and which was me."

I can't and probably never will be able to experience that feeling, but I really wish I could. Because isn't that the moment, just after the big hookjaw rises to your dry and takes a sip, just after you see that lumbering carp inhale your damselfly, or just after the tarpon engulfs your fly and turns away in a blinding slash of quicksilver and you set and strike and feel the pulse of life throbbing of survival and a million years of evolution beat up your line and through the flimsy rod in your hand and meet with your own reverberating in the opposite direction and everything around you goes away and your not cold or sunburned anymore and the line singing off of your reel is the sweetest sound you've ever heard and the fish you're connected to is the most beautiful thing that you've ever seen... Isn't that the best part of all of this, anyway?

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