fishing stories

Reviewed by Cory Willard

2 october 2013       archive

Fishing Stories is a collection of short stories edited by Henry Hughes and published in 2013 by Everyman's Pocket Classics. The collection is arranged chronologically and includes 29 stories spanning 250 years of fly fishing literature. A wide breadth of moods and themes are explored, from humour in Rudyard Kipling's "On Dry-Cow Fishing as a Fine Art," to the importance of human relationships in Guy de Maupassant's Franco-Prussian War tale "Two Friends," to many ruminations of fishing as sublime, competitive, frustrating, spiritual, escapism, or a necessity for making sense of life's troubles. The chronological arrangement of the collection highlights how what is taken from fishing for these authors is often what is most needed at the time.

The name "Fishing Stories" is an interesting one because it forces the collection to grapple with the idea of "fish stories" or, as they are often called, lies. In "Fishy" (1889), Jerome K. Jerome opens with the line that "Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing" (75). This is an ongoing theme and conflict that many of the stories in the collection grapple with; however, as Henry Hughes notes in his introduction to the collection, "fishing is about more than lifting a dripping trophy for a photo. One comes to know the fish and its world, the best techniques, and the right bait, lure, or fly […] for millennia people's lives and cultures have been woven into this ancient art" (12).

The earliest (dated) story in the collection is "The Dream Carp" by Ueda Akinari dated at 1769. The story follows an artist and Buddhist monk who feels envious of the freedom and grace of a fish in water and has his wish to become a carp granted by the Lake God. His wish to experience fish life is granted because he has always released fish and shown them the proper respect and reverence. Interestingly, the spiritual aspects of fishing and a reliance on the natural environment shown in many of the very old initial tales in the collection; like "The Salmon Spirit" by Nadyezhda Duvan, showcase how "kindness and mercy for nature's creatures is rewarded with plenty, suggesting some early notions of catch-and-release conservation" (13-14); are deemphasized throughout the greater part of the collection's middle material and only revisited in great regularity once the stories hit the middle of the 20th century.

For instance, the bulk of the first half of Fishing Stories is almost entirely made up of tales of fishermen and women using bait and going to battle with their quarry, rising to the occasion and conquering the challenge of nature as in F.A. Mitchell Hedges "Battle With A Giant Ray" (1924) that culminates in the narrator shooting the ray in the head six times in order to get some pictures with it. Whereas the second half—much like the initial few stories—leans more towards fly fishing, catch-and-release, and meditations on spiritual and therapeutic elements of the sport, mirroring the development of the angler in Nick Lyons's "On the Divide" (1974) where he suggests that in finding the healing aspect of fishing "You progressed from worms to lures to flies, and then flies made all the difference" (219). As one moves through the collection's timeline, it is interesting to see how views on nature and human relationships with the natural world are reflected throughout the stories, culminating near the end of the collection in the 1990s which in many respects was the height of environmental advocacy, ecocritical scholarship, and bioregional theory and practice.

Depending on what the reader is expecting to get out of the collection, the extensive diversity that is the central feature of this particular book is either its greatest strength or its greatest weakness. For anyone looking to get a feeling for the breadth of fishing literature or some of the general trends that have changed and evolved throughout this long literary tradition, this collection is a great place to start. There are a few stories included from many different literary areas and focusing on many different aspects of angling; however, despite some Russian and Asian entries the collection is mainly focussed on a Western literary tradition. Unfortunately, for the reader who is already well acquainted with fishing literature and may have developed certain specific tastes, this collection may not offer more than a few stories that connect with their brand of fishing literature. For example, those who might be more familiar with spiritual and meditative fishing literature like David James Duncan's entry "First Native" (1994), which concludes with the religious exaltation felt when the narrator hooks his first large native trout, the value of much of the collection might not be immediately apparent.

The collection includes entries from literary heavyweights like Anton Chekhov's "Albion's Daughter" (1883), an excerpt from Ernest Hemingway's "The Garden of Eden" (1946-61), and Raymond Carver's "Nobody Said Anything" (1973). The collection also includes entries from authors who are mostly known to readers already familiar with fishing, or naturalism in general, like Roderick Haig-Brown, Nick Lyons, Ted Leeson, and Thomas McGuane. Furthermore, the collection does an excellent job of including some of the most famous pieces of fishing literature, from Washington Irving's "The Angler" (1820) to an excerpt from the most successful fly fishing novel of all time, Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It (1976).

Additionally, in a male dominated genre like fishing literature, it is more than welcome to see some very interesting stories by female authors included. Fishing Stories contains a handful of stories by female authors, such as Georgina Ballantine's "Landing of the Record Tay Salmon" (1922), Elizabeth Enright's "A Little Short of the Record" (1951), and Marjorie Sandor's incredibly interesting exploration of the narrator's concern that as a fly fisher she may be struggling against some sort of Jewish ancestral handicap in "Waiting for a Miracle: A Jew Goes Fishing" (1999). She states, "Ask anybody: we've been stuck indoors for centuries, huddled over closely printed texts, difficult theorems, and violins, developing myopia, not to mention serious allergies to grass and trees" (304). In spite of the narrator's understanding of an apparent Jewish tendency to shun the outdoors and rough pursuits, through research and a personal desire she discovers that there are older and beautiful traditions that connect the Jewish faith to both fish and to water. Stylistically, one of the most interesting stories in the whole collection is Annie Proulx's "The Wer-Trout" (1982). The story stands out with its almost stream of consciousness style and image filled prose as well as by achieving a sort of New England gothic sensibility whereby a man turns into a "wer-trout," or trout/man hybrid, on a fishing trip into a network of New England bogs, calling to mind the frights and ghost stories of so many wilderness activities.

Ultimately, as with many collections, the value of Fishing Stories is dependent on what the reader is hoping to get out of it. The collection is not a study on a specific theme, aspect, or even a type of fishing, but a broad sampling of a vast and varied literary tradition. It is certainly a good starting point for anyone interested in fishing literature, but it also contains some lesser known pieces that are worth reading for even the more experienced fan of the genre. Fishing Stories is an enjoyable collection meant to simply celebrate the literary tradition laid by the pursuit of sport fishing and that is something it certainly succeeds at.

Hughes, Henry, ed. Fishing Stories. New York: Everyman's Pocket Classics, 2013.

Copyright © 2013 by Cory Willard

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