SOMETIME I USED TO FEEL MORE of an inclination toward watching people fish than I did toward fishing. I don’t mean Saturday morning TV-angling where bassboat bubbas lurch and wheeze around their Skeeters in logo-spattered jumpsuits. I mean live people on real water — and preferably women, old women, say, my grandmother. Though she was large and of peasant lineage, she somehow reminded the 5-year-old me of a heron, the way she would sit stock still on the bank of an Oklahoma farm pond for what seemed like an hour, then aim her cane pole, then her whole body at her bobber when it started bobbing, then suddenly spring up like a trap when it went under.
Whatever was at the other end of her line, whether a sunfish or a 5-pound channel cat, would go rocketing over her flowered bonnet and into the tall grass behind her. The whole gesture was totally lacking in self-consciousness. She didn’t care who was watching or what they thought of her methods. If, during an evening card game of pitch, someone were to ask her if she was any good at fishing, she might answer, “I like to fish. If you have more fun fishing than I do, then I guess you’d be better at it.”
Three-and-a-half decades ago, when I taught at a small college in northwestern Louisiana, I liked to watch old black women fish. They reminded me of my grandmother, but they were, well, more colorful. When I commuted from Natchitoches to Shreveport to teach an evening writing class for nurses, I’d occasionally leave home early so I could pull over if I saw a particularly colorful woman catch a particularly exotic critter. Sometimes during the winter rains it was hard to see her, but one woman would always be in the same spot about midway on my commute, perched on a log beside her bayou, wearing a green stocking cap, a purple sweater, a blue dress, black rubber boots and, if it was raining hard, a yellow slicker over it all.
Even when I was driving at around 60 mph, I’d often see her catch something. I might see the flash of a big buffalo carp as she lugged it flopping onto the bank with her cane pole, or I might see her lift a long gleaming stringer of sunfish from the water. Once I pulled over just in time to peer through my furiously flapping windshield wipers and see her drag some huge slippery thing off into the woods. It was probably a giant snapping turtle or a flathead catfish, but I like to think it was some mythic amphibious beast she’d been fishing for all her life. On my next commute, it was cold but the sun was out, so I pulled over to find out what she’d caught, but when I approached her, she just stared straight ahead singing a song that seemed to be in another language, so I returned to my car and left the mystery unsolved.
In the ’70s when I moved to Montana, I was a little let down because I saw few women and no old women on the water. So, at first, I settled for watching old Dutch farmers catch winter whitefish on maggots out of the Madison and Gallatin on strange cane poles with eyes and small primitive reels. They would usually wave at me as they stacked whitefish up like cordwood to brine and smoke so they’d last, obviously having fun sitting on the rocks in their striped overalls and railroader caps, focused and intent on thinning out the thick pods of whitefish hovering in the icy pools before them. Like Grandma, they didn’t seem too interested in impressing me with their angling methods or their bulging gunnysacks.
Over the next decade, I saw fewer and fewer Dutchmen wielding their odd contraptions and more and more fly fishermen — which was fine by me. I could still watch that same focus and intent, that same obliviousness to anything but the fish, regardless of the means employed to catch them, and my presence as an observer still had little to no effect on the fun they were having.
But then in the late ’80s, it all started to change when I was fishing Prince nymphs with a couple of friends near the Norris Bridge on the Madison. One friend, Jim, was casting a few hundred yards ahead, and I was walking a high path with the other to catch up when the friend with me slowed down and said, “Look down there, it’s Jim. Let’s stop and watch him for a while. Man, what a roll cast. Look how well he mends. I wish I could double-haul like that. Look at the size of that one feeding upstream. He’s onto it. Yesss, perfect shot, perfect drift — damn, he missed him!” Hearing damn, Jim became aware of our presence and hunched his shoulders as if he’d been caught in the act of pleasuring himself.
For the rest of the afternoon, we all fished more self-consciously. Thanks to our friend’s commentary, instead of whipping out a loop of line to keep from getting snagged in the willows behind us, we were roll casting, instead of keeping our lines tight so we could feel the bump, we were mending and instead of stripping out loose line and slinging it as far as we could, we were double-hauling.
It was probably just me, but after that, watching anglers wasn’t much fun anymore. Sometimes I’d feel more like I was watching someone golf than fish, where form became at least as important as function, and catching fish came in second to looking good. Finally more women started showing up on the stream, but they were young and a far cry from Grandma and the Bayou Lady. When I’d spot one on the river and stop to watch, I’d feel compelled to conceal myself so she wouldn’t start worrying about her form and maybe have some fun catching a fish, but a male companion would inevitably show up, and she’d start trying to look and cast pretty.
In the early ’90s, A River Runs Through It pretty much shot angler watching all to hell. The whole process risked becoming literary, cinematic and academic. Not only did Norman, his father, and a passing couple sit on the bank and “ooh” and “aah” while they watched Paul shadow cast; Norman had to write about watching it. Then Brad Pitt’s stand-in had to be Paul shadow casting so people all over the world could watch him do it. It wasn’t just in my mind. More and more people started to watch people fish and more and more people started to fish as if people were watching them.
Since then, my impulse has been either to skip the watching, go clattering down the bank toward whomever is carefully double-hauling and mending and, in the spirit of Grandma, yell, “Are we having fun yet?” or, even better, skip the fishing altogether and just watch the fish. If fishing is out of the equation, even writing can’t demystify the watching. As Cormac McCarthy writes at the end of The Road:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.
You could see them standing in the amber current where the
white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. … In the dark
glens where they lived all things were older than man and they
hummed of mystery.