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Fool's Paradise

Gierach, John Author

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If John Gierach is living in a fool's paradise, then it's a paradise that his regular readers will recognize and new fans will delight in discovering. Laced with the inimitable blend of wit and wisdom that have made him fly-fishing's foremost scribe, Fool's Paradise chronicles the fishing life in all its glory (catching your biggest fish ever) and squalor (being stranded in a tent during a soaking rainstorm). In Gierach's world, both experiences are valuable, and both evoke humor and insight.

Fishermen everywhere will understand Gierach's quest to discover and explore new waters (and then not to divulge the best locations to anyone), the unlikely appeal of winter fly-fishing ("the ice fishing shanty served the dual purpose of group therapy and the neighborhood tavern"), how impossible it is to predict the best fishing ("Everything that happens is entirely familiar, but I don't always see it coming"), or even the absurdity of the entire exercise ("day after day, you're casting a fly that doesn't look like anything to fish that aren't hungry and may not even be there"). Braving trips on small prop planes and down "Oh-My-God" roads alike, Gierach and his fishing buddies pursue bull trout in British Columbia, steelhead in the Rocky Mountains, and pike so fierce that a wise fisherman wears Kevlar gloves for the obligatory trophy photo.

But as with any activity that depends on unspoiled wilderness, change is constant. Gierach sees this happening both in the landscape ("You never get to point at a meadow full of browsing mule deer and say, 'You know, all this was once condos.'") and at lodges that now require guests to sign liability waivers ("[I] had a brief vision of herds of lawyers coursing over the tundra in search of litigation"). Just the same, he is always awed by the experience of nature, or as he puts it: "You're on a lovely, remote wilderness river in the Alaskan backcountry. There are people who would make this trip and not even bring a fishing rod."

Musing on the enduring appeal of fishing, Gierach theorizes, "We're so used to the fake and the packaged that encountering something real can amount to a borderline religious experience." Equal parts fishing lore, philosophy, and great fish stories, Fool's Paradise may not be a perfect substitute for actually being out on the water, but it's surely the next best thing.

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About the Author:

John Gierach is the author of several previous books, including At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman, Standing in a River Waving a Stick, and Dances with Trout. His work has appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal, Field & Stream, where he is a contributing writer, and Fly Rod & Reel, where he is a columnist. He also writes columns for the Longmont (CO) Daily Times-Call and the monthly Redstone Review. He lives in Lyons, Colorado.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1. Trips

The truth about fishing trips is that they're often more about where you go and how you get there than about what you catch: not really about the fishing at all, in other words, although without it you wouldn't have gone in the first place. You naturally plan your trip for when you think the fishing will be at its best and try to make the most painless travel arrangements -- aiming at what you hope will be a satisfying narrative arc that begins and ends in your own driveway -- but the earmark of every fishing trip is still uncertainty. If it weren't, why even go?

However you travel, there are questions that go unasked because they're unanswerable but that hover there in the middle distance nonetheless. If you're driving, will your pickup break down? If not, will it make it up the last pitch on that four-wheel-drive road? If you're flying, will your flight leave on time -- or at all? Will your checked gear arrive at the same place you do, and if not, will someone have a spare rod you can borrow?

The airlines say they'll deliver your luggage to you if it comes in late, but they're picturing a hotel near the airport. I still remember my relief when a guy from Air Canada finally delivered my fly rods to me in the lobby of a hotel in Halifax at two in the morning. By the end of the next day I'd have been two more flights and a boat ride away and the drama might have ended differently.

And then there's the fishing itself. Even if it's a familiar fish in a recognizable setting, there are bound to be regional quirks. On the Namekagon River in Wisconsin, the smallmouth bass were exactly where I expected themto be and they'd eat the same commercially tied deer-hair bugs I always try first, but there they were noticeably partial to the yellow-belly version instead of the otherwise identical white-bellied ones I brought from home. Fishing is full of those minute details that actually matter.

If you're after a new species of fish, you're pretty much in the dark and you only have a short time to turn on the light. A lot of being able to catch a particular kind of fish in a particular way boils down to instinct bred of familiarity, but even if you have the instinct, you're still in unfamiliar territory. (That's why it can take a second or even a third trip to really crack a fishery.) You're an adult with your head on straight and you know the drill, but some of this stuff isn't easy and you've seen people emotionally broken by a bad skunk.

And there are bound to be potential hazards that are especially dangerous because they're outside your normal day-to-day experience. They could be as big and obvious as grizzly bears, as small and neatly camouflaged as rattlesnakes, or as obscure as a regional strain of cow parsnip with sap that burns your hands when they get wet.

Or maybe it's bush flying. Small planes are more homey and comfortable than big ones (they're sort of like pickup trucks with wings), but they have worse safety records, and it's not comforting to learn that the majority of all aviation accidents are caused by simply running out of gas. A bush pilot in Alaska once said, "The only time you can have too much fuel on an airplane is when it's on fire."

Some trips are punctuated by little shocks of realization that are profoundly exotic. A friend was once fishing somewhere in Mexico, wading ankle-deep where he was safe from sharks and stingrays, when he saw a track in the mud and asked his guide what it was. The guide said, "Jaguar, señor." Things like that heighten your consciousness to the point that you're more acutely awareof your surroundings than usual. That's why your memories of a fishing trip are invariably more vivid than your memories of the same number of days at work.

Of course most of us are perfectly safe on even the most adventurous fishing trips, and statistically most accidents happen at home or while driving within twenty-five miles of your front door. It's not that your house and neighborhood are so dangerous, but they're so familiar you become complacent to the extent that you won't notice the dog's tennis ball left on the stairs or a new stop sign on the corner. Whatever else happens on a fishing trip, you pay attention.

I prefer driving to flying for reasons that will be obvious if you've been on a commercial airliner in the last few years. (Jim Harrison once said that commercial flying wouldn't be much worse if they towed you behind the plane in a gunnysack full of fish guts.) Driving gives you a feeling of self-reliance and allows time and distance to pass at a more human pace. If you're going a long way, it takes a long time -- as it should -- and you get to see the landscape, vegetation, wildlife and maybe even the climate gradually change. That's a romantic idea and I don't apologize for it, but there's also the practical effect that you're not jet-lagged and time-warped for your first few days of fishing.

Long drives can also make you appreciate the little things. In parts of eastern Wyoming the sight of a single tree can lift your heart, and on a rainy trip it's possible to find the almost infinite settings on your intermittent windshield wipers deeply fascinating. You're probably still on some kind of schedule when you drive, but unlike with an airline, if your partner is an hour late getting started, no one's gonna give your seats away to strangers.

If you have a moderately roomy four-wheel-drive vehicle (I drive a medium-sized, six-cylinder pickup), you can go where you have to and bring what you need -- within reason on both counts. Everyone knows that having four-wheel drive doesn't mean you can't get stuck, it just means you can get stuck in more desperate situations or even wreck your car. Once, on the worst four-wheel-drive road I'll knowingly go on, I found a brand-new Jeep Wagoneer -- complete with a temporary tag in the back window -- abandoned with a broken axle. Years later, just past an especially gnarly spot on that same road, I followed the narrow, greasy trail from a cracked oil pan but never found the vehicle. This old logging track is my absolute benchmark for difficulty. There's a worse one nearby known as Oh-My-God Road, but I've never been on it.

As for cargo room, you can get a lot of stuff in the six-foot bed of a pickup, but remember that you'll have to paw through everything you brought once you get there and that whatever you're looking for will be on the bottom of the pile. Packing lightly is symbolic of paring away the clutter of your life at least for the duration of the trip, if not permanently, and when it's done right, it can make you feel young and nimble. For years after I left home, I didn't (that is couldn't) own more than would fit in whatever vehicle I was driving at the time. That lean core still exists, like a fossil obscured by more recent deposits, but I can only unearth it now when I'm packing for a fishing trip.

For that matter, if there are too many comforts you can't do without, even for a week, maybe you should just stay home, although of course definitions of necessity and luxury are entirely personal. I know people who'd never think of going anywhere without a cell phone, even though they often don't work in the rural West or far North. I don't own one myself, and when someone asks "How can I reach you?" I thoroughly enjoy saying "You can't; I'll be fishing." I'm still waiting for Americans to realize that being in constant communication is not an advantage, but a short leash. Cell phones have changed us from a nation of self-reliant pioneer types into a bunch of men standing alone in supermarkets saying "Okay, I'm in the tampon aisle, but I don't see it."

The new satellite phones are obscenely expensive, but they supposedly work anywhere. That can be handy in a dire emergency, but owning one also means there's now no place left on earth aboveground where you can hide.

I do swallow my pride and fly now and then for the same reason everyone else does: to save time. I'd actually love to drive someplace like the Northwest Territories for big grayling, but I balk at the prospect of weeks on the road for a week of fishing. So I just book a flight. My one rule for trips is: Always try to spend more time fishing than you do traveling. Still, I'm always uncomfortable flying on big airlines out of big-city airports. There are dozens of little tricks that make air travel go more smoothly, but I don't know any of them, so I invariably end up in the longest, slowest line, and when I hear one of those announcements asking you to report suspicious activity, I immediately begin to wonder if I'm acting suspiciously.

On the other hand, I have done enough flying over the years to get my packing down to a science. It's really pretty simple: you bring everything you'll need and nothing you won't need, while at the same time staying under the baggage weight limit. I usually check a single twenty-eight-inch canvas duffle (always with trepidation) and walk on the plane carrying a small backpack and a short rod tube that passes as my "personal item," which is normally defined as a briefcase or laptop. In a pinch, I can get all three pieces down to a total of forty pounds, which is the lowest allowable weight limit I've ever encountered on a float plane.

A friend of mine keeps detailed, permanent lists of what he packs for various kinds of trips, constantly going back to cross out things he brought but didn't use and add items that might have come in handy if he'd had them. Some of these lists have been fine-tuned for decades and, needless to say, the guy is the most efficient traveler I know. I admire that kind of thinking, but apparently I'm incapable of it. Instead, I depend on a series of mental snapshots from previous trips. I don't quite have the knack my friend has, but I do okay.

The only real glitch in my packing program came a few seasons ago when I'd seen so many people breezing through airports with wheeled bags while I lugged mine on a shoulder strap that I finally began to experience duffle envy. So I bought a wheeled duffle: a great big one that would take a three-piece,...

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