I am haunted by waters.
With those words Norman MacLean ended one of the best American prose works of the 20th century, A River Runs Through It.
There’s a connection between fly-fishing and writing – compact, pristine writing, short stories and novellas and briskly paced essays — that only those who have tried to do both can understand. Maybe it’s the similarities between the four-beat rhythm of fly-fishing and the tom-tom pace of a short story. Maybe it’s the poetry of the places where lean, strong fish rise to a Quill Gordon. Whatever causes people to be haunted by fast water and tightly written stories, here’s how to connect the two.
Big Blackfoot River, Montana: Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. — From A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean.
Though he spent much of his working life teaching at the University of Chicago, Maclean’s heart was in the West, and particularly in this stretch of broad water with its shaded pools and gravely riffles west of Missoula. The Big Blackfoot may be the quintessential western trout stream, providing so much water and so many possibilities it can be daunting for anyone used to small water and easy choices. Best access to the Big Blackfoot comes through the Blackfoot River Recreation Corridor. However, with water this big and the knowledge that fishing trips like these don’t come along every day, a guiding service like Blackfoot River Outfitters is highly recommended. Put yourself in the hands of a local and get ready for some of the greatest fly-fishing of your life.
Two-Hearted River, Michigan: Nick took the line in his left hand and pulled the trout, thumping tiredly against the current, to the surface. His back was mottled the clear, water-over-gravel color, his side flashing in the sun. The rod under his right arm, Nick stooped, dipping his right hand into the current. He held the trout, never still, with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the barb from his mouth, then dropped him back into the stream. – From “Big Two-Hearted River,” by Ernest Hemingway.
The stories featuring Hemingway’s young outdoorsman, Nick Adams, have become justifiably famous; the river he fished, not so much. It’s location: The Two-Hearted River drops out of Lake Superior in a particularly desolate portion of the eastern Upper Peninsula that still bears the scars of a devastating 2012 fire. The Two-Hearted parallels the lake and cuts through the Newberry State Forest for 10 miles before trailing off into the wilds of the central U.P. There are still trout in the river; if you want to go after them, your choices are few: stay at the recently rebuilt Rainbow Lodge or camp at the Two-Hearted River Campground. The campground is rustic, so bring your own water – and an SUV, if you’ve got one. And if you choose to sleep in a canvas tent and drape cheesecloth across the opening the way Nick Adams did, the mosquitoes and black flies will complement you on your fidelity to the literature.
Beaverkill River, New York: The third time I flipped the fly onto the dark, rushing water I saw something swirl violently in the current, making a wave almost a foot high, and at the same instant there came a yank on the line that nearly tore the rod from my hand, and no doubt would have if the leader hadn’t popped like a rotten thread. – From”The Hooker Hooked,” by Ed Zern.
In his own way Ed Zern was every bit the equal of Hemingway and MacLean; Zern just happened to write in a couple of genres, advertising and outdoors, that aren’t exactly the stomping grounds of Pulitzer Prize winners. He wrote columns for Field & Stream and Sports Illustrated, wrote funny ads for Nash automobiles and drew the funny drawings that accompanied them. The streams he wrote about most often were the streams closest to New York, most famously the Beaverkill. Located in the Catskills about 100 miles north of downtown Manhattan, the Beaverkill offers reasonable access for the casual fisherman plus the reasonable creature comforts (and occasional kitsch) of the Catskills. The place to go is the famous Junction Pool, where the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc join. The river is almost Montana-sized at this point, with enough themes and variations to challenge any dry-fly angler. Just be advised that this stretch of the Beaverkill is 100 percent catch-and-release – but with eastern trout the real joy is in the catch, anyway.
Kickapoo River, Wisconsin: The Au Sable was beyond the Nash’s cruising range last fishing season, but the Kickapoo was handy, and Zern would have approved. The river is southwestern Wisconsin’s best trout stream, with ample opportunity to pull off, wet a line and try to woo the many small-but-entertaining brown and brook trout in the eddies under the bridges. From “The Sportsman’s Life In A Bathtub Nash,” by Kit Kiefer.
Fly-fishing is one of those things, like playing the pedal-steel guitar and hockey, which I totally love but absolutely stink at. So naturally my first New York Times story involved a fishing trip, but with a twist: I had to track down the world’s No. 1 collector of Nash automobiles and take one of his early-‘50s “Bathtub” Nashes on an overnight trip to a nearby trout stream, which happened to be the Kickapoo. For eastern and western anglers the Kickapoo comes as a bit of a shock – not for the water, which is familiarly quick and shiny, but for mellow Midwestern meadows on either bank. A cornfield is usually over the next hill – and in the Kickapoo country there’s no shortage of hills. For a completely pleasant day of fishing, go to Soldiers Grove, stroll through the relocated downtown (the result of a particularly vicious Kickapoo overflow) and then park your car at Beauford T. Anderson Park. Unpack your kit, check the hatch, match your flies, tie on your leader, and cast, remembering that casting is an art performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.
When you do, you’ll be connected to the great fly-fishermen and writers of a great American past, and that is always a good and true thing.