Now downriver from the Kalkaska Trout Festival, where there were few to no fish to be found, I think it’s time to find keepers in a read instead.
A recent casting call brought out two winners, including David Coggins’ “The Optimist,” where upbringing and geography illustrate the many ways fishing can turn into metaphor.
Subtitled “A Case for the Fly Fishing Life”, Coggins reminds us of how “life interferes with the best fishing intentions”, which is certainly true if not quirky. However, such interference can also mean surprise adventure.
From his upbringing in Wisconsin on bass, to his first attempts at trout hunting on the rivers of Montana, to Patagonia, England, and more, Coggins shares his adventures and lessons about places and in sometimes elegiac prose, as when he recalls his Midwestern neighbors Dave and Carter, early mentors who “could have been described as difficult men, and probably were”, but treated Coggins kindly, teaching him both patience and practice.
Other times, like when recounting a first experience with a western guide, Coggins gets funny, like when he reminds us, “Most embarrassing stories start with, ‘I never do that kind of thing…’ just before explaining how he broke a precious fly rod when he also broke the first rule of rods: “Never lay a fly rod flat on the ground – always support it.”
Wherever Coggins goes, “The Optimist” reminds anglers that there are many, albeit simple, reasons to hunt fish.
Another recent keeper is “Fishing the Wild Waters” by Coast Guard veteran Conor Sullivan, who is also well traveled in geography and fish species.
Sullivan begins with a cautionary tale of solo fishing. In “New England: Hallowed Waters”, he recounts the purchase of his first boat, “an older but reliable 1988 Invader” which lacked “appeal” but was nonetheless his “ticket to get offshore to the tuna fishing areas”.
What the boat couldn’t do, however, was overcome a rookie mistake of assuming that a large enough tuna would easily come to the boat. After four hours of the fight, Sullivan was “feeling the effects of exhaustion and probably the first signs of dehydration.” It only got worse, as he ended up boarding the beast, but as he tried to bleed it with a serrated knife, the fish swung its massive tail. “My hand was almost ripped in two,” he explains, the blade slicing to the bone with Sullivan “alone, fifteen miles from shore.”
Mistakes lead to lessons, however, and Sullivan uses his tuna lesson to hunt salmon and halibut in Alaska, marlin in Hawaii, and many other species wherever his duties direct him. His prose is more relatable than ruminating, but his stories still convince readers of the virtues to devote time to the passions.
“Fishing the Wild Waters” and “The Optimist” are both filled with adventures around the world, and both ring true for readers who share the same passions. Like all of these stories, however, those who know, know, and those who don’t probably won’t find reason to explore.
Maybe that’s why a friend recently said that he won’t write about fishing anymore, because everything has already been done. And maybe it is true that there is nothing new to say when it comes to angling, but for those who fish and who think about fishing when they are not on the water, the fishing books are always a welcome alternative upstream.