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At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman

Gierach, John

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9781932378726: At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman

In this National Bestseller, John Gierach, America's favorite fishing scribe, takes us through a year of fishing begining with an early spring expedition to barley thawed Wyoming waters and ending with a New Year's Eve trip to the Frying Pan River in Colorado.

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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 a column for the monthly Redstone Review. He lives in Lyons, Colorado.

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

Chapter Five

Have you ever started reminiscing with a friend about a fishing trip and found that you remember things differently? I have. Now and then it's downright puzzling, but usually it just amounts to slightly different versions of the same story, as when one witness says the mugger was five eleven and another says he was six one, but they both pick the same guy out of the lineup. Mike and A.K. have both mentioned things about that last trip to Pennsylvania that I don't remember. That's not to say they didn't happen, just that they didn't register with me, or maybe they happened while I was in the bushes taking a leak. Some of the things I recall have also drawn blank looks from them, although with me being a writer and all, the assumption is that I'm imagining things.

It's a common prejudice and one that's probably not entirely unfounded. After all, someone once defined fiction as just something a writer made up and nonfiction as just something a writer made up using the names of real people. More to the point, novelist John Irving once said that a memoir is, by definition, what the author remembers, not necessarily what happened.

You can go to your fishing journal to prove things like the year, the month, the weather, the hatches, the name of the guide, and maybe the weight of a big fish if someone bothered to bring along a scale. But if you're like me, the things that stick aren't written down. And memory is flawed. Fishermen know that better than anyone, we just don't always know how much.

We do know how it happens, though: You land a nice fat sixteen-inch cutthroat that the guide you're with swears is twenty inches long. You know what he's doing and you know why he's doing it, but unless there's a tape measure handy, you don't know it beyond a shadow of a doubt -- and he is a professional, after all -- so you say, modestly, honestly, "It ain't over eighteen."

Or let's say you're fishing a mountain creek that's known for small brook trout, but you've hiked way up in there where, you've heard, there are some deep holes and the fish are bigger. They are, and there are lots of them; they're easy to catch, and it's a beautiful, cool, rainy day with the spruce forest so lush and green you feel like you're fishing through an enormous salad. Maybe you see a golden crowned kinglet perched on a twig no more than a foot away, and then later you glance upstream and spot a huge mule deer buck in velvet. You're doing well enough that you quickly lose track of how many fish you catch, and although you admire the biggest, handsomest ones, you don't measure them. The walk out is long but downhill and pretty much effortless.

Back home they say, "How'd you do?" and you say, "Good," which is true enough so far. But then they say, "Yeah, but how many and how big?" You give an accurate estimate, carefully paring away all the beauty and good feeling and getting right down to nothing but bare facts, right?

The same thing can happen when you tell someone about an argument you had last week. There's some emotion loose in the story -- a different kind than you get from fishing, but emotion nonetheless -- and you've had a while to stew about it. When you quote yourself as saying not so much what you really said, but what you should have said, you may be vaguely aware of it at the time, but the moment it's out of your mouth it becomes the truth. The thing is, fishing stories, war stories, and love stories are all the same: There's more there than just the facts, and when the facts get in the way, they can become expendable.

It works in reverse, too. Most years I fish a lot; maybe not as much as some, but more than most. At the end of a good season I'll have fishing licenses from four or five states and a couple of Canadian provinces, some worn-out fly lines, near-empty fly boxes, a born-again thriftiness, and a good tan. But then on one of those cold, solitary late-November walks, I'll get to thinking about that one beaver pond I never made it to and think, What the hell did I do all year, sit on my ass?

And of course fishermen hear what they want to hear. Maybe you say, "Well, I got a five-pounder, but just the one. Most of them were more like a pound and a half or smaller, but it was real pretty, and there was no one around, and the guide was a real comedian. And that five-pounder was something. Here's a picture of him."

The guy looks at the snapshot and envisions a river crammed with five-pounders -- so many you could cross from bank to bank on their backs and not get your feet wet. You can see it in his eyes. If he ends up going there himself, he'll come back and say, "It wasn't as good as you said it was."

I've given this some thought, and I think my standard recollection of fishing is made up of the emotion of the moment, the mood of the day, the scenery, the company, the weather, who I am, who I think I am, who I'd like to be, my own sense of poetry, and a few tattered shreds of what actually happened. As James P. Carse once said, "What we see depends partly on what is there and partly on who is looking."

Maybe I'm the only one who does it that way, but I don't think so.

I once fished with a man on a good local river. We weren't exactly in each other's hip pockets, but we were within sight all afternoon, close enough to shout encouragement or trot over to look at an especially pretty fish. And the trout there really are pretty. They're bright rainbows with wide red stripes and a strain of cutthroat in their lineage that gives them iridescent gill covers and orange slashes on their jaws.

The way I remember it, I caught six or eight trout, the biggest maybe fifteen inches. He got about a dozen and his biggest was an honest seventeen, measured from little finger to little finger on two outstretched palms, which on me is just a hair under eighteen inches. And we did it all on size 18 Blue-winged Olive duns and emergers, which somehow makes it better.

But then at a cafe on the way home, a guy at the next table spotted us for fishermen and asked how we'd done. My partner said he'd caught no less than thirty trout, including several that were at least twenty inches, if not longer. He believed it. He looked at me with big chipmunk cheeks and the most innocent smile I've ever seen and said, "Right?"

I said, "Yeah, right. The guy kicked ass," thinking: Okay, I know he did better than me, but did I underestimate my own performance that much? Not likely. Fishermen don't do that.

I don't think he was knowingly lying, either. We weren't close friends, but he hadn't struck me as one of those chronic bullshitters (he actually seemed a little on the shy side), and he'd have no reason to think I'd back him up in a god-awful lie to a stranger.

Out in the parking lot I waited for him to say, "Man, we really pulled that guy's leg, didn't we?" but he never said it. What he said was, "That was one of the best days of fishing I ever had."

We all think we're good observers, or at least that we can believe our own eyes, but few of us have ever been tested. I had a philosophy professor back in college who staged a great demonstration on the relationship of facts to experience. In the middle of a normal class one day, several people stormed into the room, got into a loud argument with the professor -- complete with swearing and shoving -- over who was supposed to have the room scheduled for that hour. Then they stormed back out and slammed the door loudly behind them. It had been sudden, surprising, and borderline violent, sort of like catching a big fish.

The professor turned to us and said, "Okay, write down your best account of what just happened."

Naturally, it had all been scripted and rehearsed with some people from the drama department, so he knew every gesture and word. There were twenty of us in class and the elapsed time between the actual events and our retelling of them worked out to a matter of minutes. None of us got it right, and better than half of us got it terribly wrong.

That was the year I finally realized that the nature of knowledge was such that you couldn't know anything for sure, but then if that were true, you also couldn't know for sure that you couldn't know anything. I finished up the semester and got my degree, but my career in philosophy was already over.

So maybe we can't even be sure that what happened five minutes ago is what actually happened, and the more time that passes the more you have to wonder. I think that's just a simple storage problem. People now like to think of their memories as computers with only so many bytes available, so that eventually you have to dump some old files to make room for all the new stuff coming along.

I'm more comfortable picturing my mind as a rolltop desk with only so many drawers and cubbyholes, but the same principle applies. Consciously or not, you hold on to what seems best and treat the rest as junk mail. Eventually a trip where a few big fish were caught becomes a trip where nothing but big fish were caught. And how big were they? Well, the guide said even the little ones were twenty inches.

Of course, all those countless days when no fish were caught begin to dwindle to a single distilled example, so that, if pressed, you'd have to say you do remember getting skunked once, but you can't quite remember where or when. You don't do it on purpose, but eventually your life as you recall it becomes a work of fiction based loosely on actual events.

I've become more aware of all this as I've gotten older and the desk has gotten more cluttered, but I think I knew it in my twenties, too, because when an old fisherman once said to me, "Boy, I've forgotten more about fishing than you'll ever know," I didn't doubt it for a second.

Not long ago A.K. and I were sitting around on a back porch in Alberta, Canada, with some other fishermen telling some well-worn, thirty-year-old stories about our friend Koke Winter. Koke is legendary in some fly-fishing circles. He was A.K.'s mentor years ago back in Michigan, and he was never shy about it, either. Once someone asked Koke if he knew...

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