In our era, few people have written as brilliantly about the art and sport of fishing as Thomas McGuane. Whether in generation-defining fiction such as The Sporting Club (1968) and Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), or in non-fiction essays, including Live Water (1996), his Forewords to Nick Lyons’ Full Creel (2000), Mike Lawson’s Spring Creeks (2003), and Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots (2012), and especially in 1999’s The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing (released in an expanded paperback edition in 2019 with seven previously uncollected chapters), McGuane excels and dazzles. His life-long writing and sporting crony, the late Jim Harrison, claimed “… no one writes better about fishing than Tom McGuane.” I’m not one to disagree.
None of McGuane’s writing, as far as I can tell, is in the how-to mode, so you can read his work end to end and not necessarily increase your store of technical angling ability. But if you believe in honoring certain existential pieties, reading him will make you a better angler because with eyes open and mind receptive, you will absorb much of value–– though often intangible–– about our sport’s most enigmatic and enduring properties: “Angling,” McGuane says in his Foreword to Blood Knots, “is a training in mystery.”
And yet even those who know McGuane’s extensive body of fishing prose might be surprised to realize that one work of his continues to fly under the radar. In 2000, in tandem with photographer Charles Lindsay, he brought out Upstream: Fly Fishing in the American West (New York: Aperture). It is a ninety-six-page, large format, quarto-plus (10×8) sized book featuring fifty-six of Lindsay’s startling black-and-white photographs and thirty-one pages of lyrical angling prose by McGuane. It gets my vote as the least-known text in his sporting canon and one that I think deserves wider attention.
Upstream: Fly Fishing in the American West is one of the handful of angling books I carry with me on my annual Montana fishing trip each summer. I learn something from it every time I pick it up. It is a book that invites being mused over, ruminated about, delved into, even talked back to. To my mind, it accomplishes that rarest of ends: it teaches a posture, an attitude, a way of being different from what many of us normally encounter in angling books.
If fly fishing literature is rich in anything, it is rich in tradition. That ubiquitous and undefinable quality is both its strength and its weakness. Screw with tradition, propriety, or form, the critical master tale goes, and you risk apostasy. And yet not to put too academic a point on this matter, the ironic fact remains that, aside from everything else regarding content we can say about them, all fly fishing texts––particularly centering on the classic act of angling for trout in streams––seek to redefine the tradition. Whatever else they imagine themselves doing, each new work that comes down the river refines the possibilities of the genre, negotiates its own place in the historical line of descent. What is Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It (1976) or David James Duncan’s The River Why (1983) but intertextual riffs on Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653)? Or think of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1976), or John Lurie’s hilarious film series, Fishing with John (1991). They signified moments when the door swung open, however narrowly, toward a less traditional, less overly-determined form of fly fishing representation that entertained marginal views and odd angles, and quirky and unexpected piscatorial visions.
Upstream is in that revisionist style. Despite its size and heft, it is not standard coffee table fare. Certainly it is in the tradition of literate, specialized niche photo/text books, such as Larry Madison’s and Nick Lyons’ Trout River (1988), Charles H. Traub’s An Angler’s Album: Fishing in Photography and Literature (1990), and Grant McClintock’s Fly Water: Fly Fishing Rivers of the West (2010), to name three exemplary works in the genre. But in the unprepossessing simplicity and starkness of its visual images and in the more or less under-stated elliptical style of its prose, the Lindsay/McGuane volume departs radically from that class of color photo books which presents perfectly framed and gloriously lighted scenes of huge, mind-blowing trout caught (and presumably released) in exotic far-flung landscape and privileged destinations. For better or for worse, and with notable exceptions, many of those desire-inducing, hyper-glossy books don’t simply enshrine beauty but fetishize it as a material fantasy and a longed-for commodity. What I worry about in this streamlined, polished-chrome ‘anglingscape,’ is that the contextual surround of angling, the daily layered presences that make up so much of fishing’s undramatic weight and heft, its quotidian, ho-hum, day-to-day ordinariness, that marks the bulk of our fishing lives, will be neglected or relegated to antiquated baggage in favor of the sexier, primal, go-for-broke hook-up moment alone.
Upstream assuages my fear. It reverses the normalizing trend. I don’t mean that it revels in deliberate ugliness––far from it––but it does have a kind of nervy, street-wise attitude and stripped-down point of view, a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t arc of attention. “I’ve reduced my camera equipment to a Rolleiflex with a fixed normal lens, the simplicity of which parallels the fly rod itself,” Lindsay claims in an “Afterword.” McGuane adds, “In defense of my going afield rod in hand and especially with reference to those pointed questions as to why I don’t simply absorb and enjoy those wonders of nature and especially riparian nature about which I am ceaselessly nattering, I have sometimes quoted Antoine de St. Exupery: ‘A spectacle has no meaning except it be seen through the glass of a culture, a civilization, a craft’” (55).
McGuane’s prose accompanies Lindsay’s photographs, but is independent of them and can stand alone as an entity in its own right. (His contribution would make a fine, stand-alone short book by itself or the beginning of a yet-to-be expanded future narrative.) Written text and visual images are not directly or intentionally matched to each other—McGuane told me recently that he wasn’t sure there was any connection whatsoever between Lindsay’s photos and his prose––so it is left in each reader’s lap to navigate the borders between them. Some words and images resonate with each other, some don’t. They do not depend on each other for clarity, context, or explanation; rather they mutually enrich each other.
McGuane’s prose commentary has its own stop-and-start trajectory; Lindsay’s moody, jangly photos have their own random gravity. Words and images sometimes seem at odds with each other, and yet at the edge between them there is a relational dance, a dialogue about what is of value in the process of looking and being attentive, the impact of which is to defamiliarize fly fishing rituals and scenes, strip them of their cant and commodity, make them fresh again in so far as that is possible. Photographer and novelist want us to forget everything we know about stock-in-trade representation––majestic panoramic views of landscape, pastoral images of riverine geography, or sensational accounts of catching trophy fish that inhabit such sexy, wet dream-inducing places. In fact, even though all of the photos were taken in the North American West, they so purposely eschew geographical spectacle that they could have been shot anywhere. Search as hard as you can, you won’t discover a single image of that commercial stock-in-trade “Big Sky” Montana.
The locale of McGuane’s prose, too, travels all over the place. With few exceptions he rarely mentions a geographical place or the name of a river he’s fishing. He’s not interested in travelogue. He offers instead a set of loosely linked meditations on angling in situ rather than a time-bound narrative with a definable chronology and recurring symbolism. McGuane wants us to put aside rote, culturally inflected notions of “beauty” and “professionalization of sport” (24) in favor of a view of angling as a form of “play” that involves neither mastery nor conquest, but rather, as he proposes “… an unaccidental journey toward a direct involvement with nature” (24). Angling, he continues, “ends with natural history.”
For McGuane, insofar as that involvement is possible, it is best achieved through treating fly fishing as context, an awareness of the totality of its environment: “I was too cognizant of my surroundings to fish seriously,” he confesses at one point in his otherwise fishing-obsessed life (30). And in a later anecdote, he writes of spending a day in Paris “ferreting out a tiny fly-tier’s atelier in some godforsaken corner of the Right Bank. Looking at the seemingly haphazard but intuitive flies that wouldn’t sell for a nickel in North America but were used to supply restaurants from hard-fished public water, I knew there was much more to learn, even if this wasn’t the Louvre” (68).
Of Lindsay’s fifty-six photographs, only a handful actually have fish in them, and only one of those, titled “Salmon,” shows a fish being held by a human (84). Lindsay is more apt to be synecdochical and to provide an oblique or partial view-––a fin, back, mouth, or tail–rather then, say, an entire brown or rainbow trout. The effect of this calculated erasure is both unnerving and memorable. There isn’t anything else quite like it in angling’s photographic record as far as I can tell. Lindsay’s photos achieve their startling power by focusing on small, unexpected, and seemingly inconsequential or often unphotogenic objects–submerged boulders, a fallen log, an artificial fly––a Muddler Minnow––under water, a section of tangled fly line, or ubiquitous, mesmerizing river hydraulics, all darkly lit and often framed against ominous backgrounds.
McGuane’s métier is the anecdote, the small suggestive episode, the cool reflection, the restrained emotion. “Under a ledge, a big trout fed, sending ripples of such substance out from his lair they took my attention away from the several nice fish that worked in approachable parts of the stream. I tried to skip my fly up under the ledge to the hidden beast and of course it didn’t work. I put the normal feeders down for good. Finis” (41). And sometimes there is a world of portent just beyond his field of vision that doesn’t necessarily bode cheery but cannot be neglected either. “Snags, hooking bush or branches, are parts of angling and fly-casting and are more than mere annoyances,” McGuane states. “Finally, a snag is the suspicion that, while you have been casting, the old trees behind you have been creeping forward and that the general animation of nature is even more persistent than you had suspected” (41). Such moments are the undramatic building blocks of angling experience, the seemingly inconsequential moments when a “leisurely riparian saunter accompanied by the ceremonial movements of fly and line suddenly coalesces in trance” (13).
These are routine elements many blithe fly fishers ignore or take for granted, though doing so, both artists suggest, is to reduce attentiveness, to limit exposure to a side of life “not previously experienced” (81). One Lindsay photo, called “Molt,” taken in Montana in 1997, shows the empty nymphal cases of half a dozen large salmon flies still clinging to a bare willow branch long after, it is supposed, the nymphs metamorphosed into winged adults and flew away (83). The salmon fly shucks are the only objects in focus––the tree branches are slightly blurred, the river beneath them is a rush of pale grey. The effect is other-worldly, eerie, and bespeaks an unseen and unacknowledged rawness, even violence, in nature as well as unparalleled bounty. Peering at just-seined nymphs, McGuane writes that each “transforming nymph––and there were some pupating ephemerella duns with still-collapsed wings emerging from their thoracic cases––with its ancient genetic code, its sidereal photo-programming, its infinite engineering of body parts, in its complexity and completeness made Finnegan’s Wake seem like a comic book”(48).
As with many hybrid tandem texts, meaning lies as much in the unseen and unsaid as in the obvious and apparent. That is one definition of mystery. We must imagine that a world of activity goes on in the liminal spaces. “When I’m casting on this perfect water,” McGuane says of a small spring creek, “the sudden appearance of my line on the surface, the only straight line in view, is too emphatic. The water is so silky, the small boils of subsidiary springs and other small hydrological mysteries so unknowable, that drag materializes along the line imperceptibly; just when things seem perfect, the fly skids on its hackles making a faint V and I am no longer actually fishing” (66). River as text, text as river: “reading the water,” which is the fly fisherman’s modus operandi, has particular relevance in this book and carries beyond the stream. “Dawn and dusk, crepuscular light, is an open book and fish are emboldened by their own shadowlessness. The angler becomes still, watchful. Something is about to happen” (12).
And though I wish it were otherwise, as unique and genre-bending as it is, Upstream is not for everyone. I get that. It will have its detractors, its nay-sayers, its disbelievers, even its pooh-pooers, who, desirous of a more traditional and conservative view of fly fishing, will “go from room to room, drawing the blinds until the whole house is dark” (15). But they will be the poorer for that, perhaps even “impoverished” (24), and in their distrust of mystery will leave the fishing and the reading to the rest of us happy anglers waiting with McGuane for the next riverine thing that most assuredly is about to happen, even though we cannot yet guess what it will be.