Truth, Justice, and the Angling Way
Many writers fish, and many fisherfolk write.
A case of writer’s block on the Yellowstone, long ago…
It’s not really surprising since the two activitives are so similar.
Both for example, involve hour upon hour of standing, alone, in mid-stream (metaphorically or otherwise), with no idea of how to proceed. Both require endless speculation in choosing the right hook or bait with which to attract (and fool) their quarry. Both practitioners seek an angle, or hook—angle, after all, was the ancient word for fish-hook—that will net the desired result.
Both are notable for their tendency to go on, and on, and on, despite the absence of any hint of success.
It’s a terrible cliché that we anglers—and writers—are liars. There may, just possibly (wink wink), be some truth to it, but it’s not the whole truth. When either of us tell a story, listeners should constantly remind themselves that what they’re hearing is just a story. Facts, truth, veracity, honesty, and accuracy are all well and good—but long experience has taught us that they make lousy bait.
The following leviathan was dragged from the depths of Prophet Amidst Losses.
The Nymph’s Reply
The Schoharie is high, but not discolored. It’s still early in the season, and there’s nothing hatching yet.
Victor looks on while Jonathan Freeman ties a long-shanked number eight stonefly nymph onto a 2X tippet. He watches his old fishing companion carefully twist the leader six times before finishing the improved clinch knot. If there are any trout worthy of his carefully-tied nymph, he wants to be sure they won’t break off in the heavy current.
Without looking up from his place on the stream bank, he asks, “When you were in school, you must taken have some English Lit courses, right?” Puzzled by the seeming out-of-the-blue question, Victor half answers, “Ummmm… I suppose so… why do you ask?”
“Do you remember reading a Marlowe poem that begins ‘Come live with me and be my love…’?”
“‘…and we will all the pleasures prove, that Valleys, groves, hills, and fields, woods, or steepy mountain yields….’ Again, why do you ask?”
“I’m impressed! Who knew you were paying attention in class, back then?”
“I thought it might come in handy—when trying to impress the ladies.”
Laughing, Jonathan tries to stand up in his heavy waders. “That makes perfect sense.”
Victor continued, “I also remember, I’m sorry to say, Raleigh’s responding poem, ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,’ in which she shoots him down: ‘but could youth last and love still breed, had joys no date nor age no need, then these delights my mind might move to live with thee and be thy love.’ Let us hope that your stonefly nymph is more productive than Raleigh’s bait was.”
“You and me, both! So… your class seems to have covered the familiar Jacobethan territory. Did your professor ever mention that John Donne also wrote a response to Marlowe’s poem?”
“Your professor probably wasn’t a fisherman.”
Jonathan looked up, as if reading from the clouds.
“Come live with me, and be my love, and we will some new pleasures prove of golden sands, and crystal brooks, with silken lines, and silver hooks. There will the river whispering run warmed by thy eyes, more than the sun; and there the enamoured fish will stay, begging themselves they may betray. When thou wilt swim in that live bath, each fish, which every channel hath, will amorously to thee swim, gladder to catch thee, than thou him. If thou, to be so seen, beist loth, by sun or moon, thou dark’nest both, and if myself have leave to see, I need not their light having thee. Let others freeze with angling reeds, and cut their legs with shells and weeds, or treacherously poor fish beset, with strangling snare, or windowy net. Let coarse bold hands from slimy nest the bedded fish in banks out-wrest; or curious traitors, sleeve-silk flies, bewitch poor fishes’ wandering eyes. For thee, thou needst no such deceit, for thou thyself art thine own bait: That fish, that is not catched thereby, alas, is wiser far than I.”
“Donne wrote that? It’s a helluva lot more fun than all his dismal bell tolling business!”
“Indeed it is.”
“That ‘sleeve-silk flies’ bit is especially good. It sounds like he knew what he was talking about.”
“He certainly did. Did you know that he was good friends with Izaak Walton, and that they frequently fished together?”
“None whatsoever. They were part of a group of fishermen—all friends of Charles Cotton, Senior, along with Henry Wotton.”
“Wotton’s name sounds familiar, but I don’t know why.”
“You’ve probably seen his quote, ‘An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ It appears in the news, every once in a while. But Wotton was really tight with Walton. In fact, when Wotton was provost at Eton, he and Walton used to fish the Thames together. You know that famous quote about the playing fields of Eton, right? There’s a pool at a bend in the river—at that very spot—called ‘Black Potts,’ where they often fished.”
“How come you know all this shit about seventeenth-century England, anyway?”
Ignoring the question, Jonathan rambles on. “I’m sure you’ve read The Compleat Angler, right?”
“Sure. Did you notice anything odd about it? Maybe you didn’t. It depends on which edition you’ve read.”
“What do you mean?”
“We, and most of the people we know, are fly fishermen. And yet we all read Walton at some point in our lives.”
“Walton was a bait fisherman, all his life.”
“No. That can’t be right. I’m sure there was stuff in there about fly fishing.”
“Then you must have read the fifth edition, or one of the ones that came after that. Charles Cotton Junior wrote that part.”
“Junior? He was the son of the guy who was friends with Walton, Wotton, and Donne? Sounds like a law firm!”
“Yes. And Izaak treated Charles Junior like an adopted son. So, even if the old master didn’t use flies, himself, he knew others did. So he asked junior to add that section to the fifth edition.”
“Fascinating,” Victor said, rolling his eyes, “but you never answered my question. Why are you so interested in all this ancient history?”
“Charles Cotton, junior, is my eighth great grandfather.”
“You’re shittin’ me! How come your name isn’t Cotton?”
“Cotton was a poet. He had just enough money to be considered a country squire, but he wasn’t especially wealthy. Even in England’s golden age of literature, most poets didn’t make much money from writing. The only wealthy writers either inherited money or were otherwise employed. Anyway, he never had any sons—legitimate sons—so there was no one left to carry on the family name or inherit his property. Which is too bad, since he had a lovely stone fishing house on the River Dove. I could have inherited it.”
“But you said he was your grandfather.”
“Eighth great grandfather. He did have a son, born out of wedlock.”
“I come from a long line of bastards.”
Victor had been drinking from a thermos, and about a cupful of whiskey-spiked coffee shoots out of his nose. “That explains a lot!”
“Like many of those who were not first-born, legitimate, sons, my seventh great grandfather could expect to inherit nothing when his father died. He joined thousands of similar men, in The Great Migration, to find his fortune in the vast area then called Virginia. He paid his passage by becoming an indentured servant, in what is now Delaware, and after a decade or so of planting tobacco, he became a free man.”
“What was his name, since it wasn’t Cotton? Did he take his mother’s name?”
“We have no idea what her name was, but he assumed the name Freeman, after completing his years of servitude.”
“Do you know anything about the woman who gave birth to your ancestor?”
“Only indirectly. Cotton wrote an epitaph for a woman he called MH, who, I suspect, might have been my eighth great grandmother.”
“You’ve seen it?”
“I have.” Jonathan looked down at the nymph dangling from his line and began to recite.
“In this cold Monument lies one, that I know who has lain upon, the happier he: her sight would charm, and touch have kept King David warm. Lovely, as is the dawning east, was this marble’s frozen guest; as soft, and snowy, as that down adorns the blow-balls frizzled crown; as straight and slender as the crest, or antler, of the one-beamed beast; pleasant as the odorous Month of May: as glorious, and as light as day. Whom I admired, as soon as knew, and now her memory pursue with such a superstitious lust, that I could fumble with her dust. She all perfections had, and more, tempting, as if designed a whore, for so she was; and since there are such, I could wish them all as fair. Pretty she was, and young, and wise, and in her calling so precise, that industry had made her prove the sucking school-mistress of love: and Death, ambitious to become her pupil, left his ghastly home, and, seeing how we used her here, the raw-boned rascal ravished her. Who, pretty soul, resigned her breath, to seek new letchery in death.”
“Wow. You’re descended from the bastard son of a poet and a hooker. It does, indeed, explain a lot about you.”
“Yeah, I suppose, but that poet was a damned good fisherman, and she a pretty fine prostitute, if you don’t mind.”
“You tell a strange and, I must say, long-winded tale, my friend. Where does this come from, and what made you even bring up Marlowe’s poem in the first place?”
“Well may you ask, Piscator. This nymph, which has not yet been cast before the trout that I know is lying in wait for it, is tied from a pattern Charles Junior described in Walton’s masterpiece. He wrote, ‘The stone-fly, in April: the body is made of black wool; made yellow under the wings and under the tail, and so made with wings of the drake.’ I have used it, every spring since first encountering it in print, and long before I even knew of my connection to its author.”
Jonathan turned to face the stream and cast a loop of loose line upstream on the current, letting the dark fly sink before drifting, drag-free, through the riffles and into the deep pool downstream.