Don't Fish While I'm Talking

The ATLANTIC’S editor says that he indulges here in even less than the accepted minimum of exaggeration.

Trout fishing does not come easily to an Eastern city boy, even a smallcity boy. By the time I was six, barely old enough to snap off the fly on every other cast, the bulldozers and civil engineers were tearing up, and forever ruining, the one good trout stream within thirty miles of my home in upstate New York. Twenty-five years passed before I was to find the luxury of time, the circumstance of geography, and the loan of a rod, line, and wet black gnat #12 that enabled me to hook my first trout.

The creature was a Brown of no more than eight inches, so unfortunate as to be hooked in spite of all that I was doing. A paltry specimen perhaps. But at that age my threshold was so low and my system so unresistant (remember: within the comparable span of years wherein Alexander had achieved his greatness and died, I had caught my first trout) that I succumbed immediately to that fever of excess that seems to afflict late-in-the-game discoverers, as in the case of Henry VIII when he discovered divorce, or Casey Stengel when he discovered words.

By then I was a not very provident big-city dweller, and I found myself limited to one or two trouting expeditions a year, usually of no more than three days each on the Esopus and its tributaries in the Catskills. With so little real fishing to enjoy, the natural way to prolong the savor, to re-enjoy it, was to talk about it. For this kind of angling there is open season. It is a myth that fishermen like to drink for the drink itself. They frequent bars in order to find other nonfishing fishermen and engage in talk-fishing, or fish-talking.

I have performed some of my wisest, most delicate angling in saloons, and have been privileged to hear-see feats of fishing that would have caused Izaak Walton, were he present, to abandon the sport in despair and take up spelling (as well he could have). On a late and mellow January afternoon, for example, I watched with fascination as one of the more eloquent brethren, an oldfashioned silk-line and true-gut fellow from the Battenkill in Vermont, played a three-pound Brownie for fifteen breathtaking minutes with a three-ounce Orvis rod and twopound test leader. The monster rose to a #10 ginger quill about fifteen feet from the bar, where the fast water swirls past the pay telephone.

It leaped a good two feet into the air (you could see-hear the splash as far away as the checkroom), balanced for a gorgeous instant on its tail, and then raced seven tables downstream before the startled angler could disentangle from the bar rail and get both rubber boots firmly planted on the rocky bottom. Half a dozen drinkers and a scattering of early diners looked on in silence until the Irish bartender, an accomplished talk-poacher from the Connemara country, could stand it no longer and burst into supplication:

“Keep the p’int up. The p’int! The p’int!” The angler shot him an uncomprehending glance. “The p’int of the rod, you walleyed ass,” cried Pat.

Too late. The big Brown had finned upstream, not far from the angler and close by table two, where with quick circles it entwined the line around the nylons of a charming blond, who was supping on linguini with white clam sauce. One last flick of its spine and the trout was off the hook, the rod forlornly loose in the fisherman’s hand.

“I’m glad it got away,” said the blond.

She returned to her linguini and the drinkers to their glasses, in quiet homage to another one that got away. Pat mopped watery rings from the mahogany. “It’s poor luck you had indeed,” he said. “Now, did I iver tell you about the big trout that Meehawl Sullivan caught in the postman’s hat?”

In such fashion, if nostalgia is strong and tolerance high, can a trout fisherman fill the long, fancyweaving gaps that stretch between seasons and between each season’s real fishing expeditions. Bar-room fish-talking, or talk-fishing (there is a dispute among devotees as to the proper verb, and Fowler’s English Usage offers no arbitration), is rewarding not only for the pleasure it gives. While of questionable help to the human liver, it beats fly-tying both for human companionship and for its considerably lesser strain on the eyesight and the posture.

So if Pat here will kindly serve us another round, I’ll tell you about the time . . .