“Plus ca change, plus c’est même chose.” Like most trout fishermen my age, normal procedure is to find a place to get into some river and wade, an approach that confers a granular view of all on offer—details of bottom, hydrology, insect life, and general atmosphere. On balance, there are better ways to catch fish; here in the West, floating in a driftboat is probably the most effective, and easily free-bases ten to twenty miles of river in a day. Now that millennials are making a bit of dough, I often see them go past when they are not running over me. Things are happening fast for them, and their exuberance flows over. The one in the bow shouts “Shit!” and the one in the stern shouts “Fuck!” Between the sports, the guide on the oars does his best to make sense of this, decoding the river as it comes toward them with an eye to make the most of the opportunities—corners, slicks, glides, tailouts, undercut banks, and troughs. I have no problem picturing trout in these locales but it seems they are flashing past me in a manner disadvantageous to my talents.
photo by HANSI JOHNSON
I make one of these trips each year, and over time I have learned that I am not good at this type of angling. The problem for me first of all is that it is going too fast—as it can be even for the millennials when cascading opportunity causes failures and missed chances. My second inadequacy is that this kind of fishing, during its slow spells, bores me, and so when something important happens, I’m not ready. When staring into the middle-distance wondering “Will this day never end?” the guide or your companion cries, “strike” making you feel like—no matter what else is going on in your life—a loser. Earlier in the day, anticipating lunch may have produced a similar collapse, certifying an indelible picture of your age and incompetence, but especially your age, which has brought you to this pass.
Long ago, famed Floridian conservationist Nat Reed said to me in his usual declamatory style, “No wading staff before your first heart attack.” I haven’t had a heart attack, but I do have a wading staff. I used it for a long time fishing for steelhead, especially early in the season when I wasn’t used to the heavy water. I have since graduated to using it for the rocky freestone rivers near my home. Actually, I use one in easy-wading spring creeks too, since I slid down the bank of one of them and fractured my leg. It is crutch-like. The remaining question is when will I use something like a wading staff in my own home?
Bamboo-rod czar Glenn Brackett brought Doug Merrick, who built rods for generations at Winston, to my house one day to fish. Doug was really old and impaired at that point, hardly able to get around, but we found a pool with a secure gravel bottom and I remember watching his still-elegant casting stroke and the look of serenity. Without the ability to take another step, he seemed a long way from the days when he and his fellow POW’s were placed atop German trains to ward off Allied bombing. He seemed deeply contented to be reunited, to experience something emblematic of the stream of his life.
When jazz guitarist Django Reinhart felt abandoned by luck, he gathered his fishing tackle and was renewed by the site of the river. One day, on the banks of the Seine, he had a heart attack. It had been difficult to find a doctor and when one finally arrived, Django uttered his last words: “You’ve come now, have you?” He died with his wit intact; maybe it was the fishing.
I grew up fishing the rivers of northern Michigan: the Pere Marquette, the Pine, the Boardman, the Black, the Pigeon—rivers I haven’t seen in sixty years but I still like to say those names. Under instruction from my elders, a person did not use lead in any form, because lead was considered contrary to the spirit of things. A man with sinkers in his pocket was considered to be something very low. Dry flies, wet flies, and streamers were the order of the day. Anything more was tennis without the net.
The trouble with knowing why you fish is that you may find there are others who you don’t want to fish with. The nature-driven spiritualist does well to avoid the numbers guy. A guide friend of mine spotted a rare and beautiful wading bird while poling a famous tarpon fisherman. When my friend pointed it out to the renowned angler, he was told, “That is a bird. That is not a tarpon. Let’s start paying attention, please.” What happened to fishing as an immersion in nature? It makes you wonder if, in view of all we hold genuinely sacred, the nation is in steep decline, or if you have simply lived too long and have lost the ability to adapt. It was time to write a few friends who love to fish and ask them how they like being old.
I’m working on an essay about growing old as an angler, based so far on my own insufficiency. But I’m hoping you might have a word on the subject, as little as a sentence, or more. If I am disparaging your enduring youthfulness, forgive me. These days you really can’t tell. The elder fisherman of yore, in his pipe and crumpled fedora, was happy to give away his age and state; but today’s veteran may well have had a face lift, or swim laps in a thong—a timeless figure at once chipper and creaky, who goes on casting and awaiting results. This might be an ideal time to heave yourself off the sofa and toss me a few words from the abyss. I’ll be grateful if you do.
As the following will show, they’ve had this on their minds.
DAVE GRUSIN, RIDING SHOTGUN, & SKIP HERMAN.
Dave Grusin is a jazz musician and composer. While shaving and watching TV, he noticed he had won an Academy Award. That’s Dave. He’s been a trout fisherman all his life since his upbringing in Colorado. He has crossed North America with a fly rod in the front seat of his Austin-Healy, a long drive in the long ago, with the top down. He brings a haiku level of concentration to the matter of angling while old. “Re: aging on the stream: How many chapters would you like?”
Skip Herman is a recovering lawyer with a house on a Montana river. If the Smithsonian ever needs an example of an angling fanatic for future generations to study, they should put Skip in a glass case.
“Nursing home? Home care? No. I am going into an Assisted Fishing Facility.
“Wheel me out on a platform. Hand me a size 18 bluewing, pre-tied to a 5X tippet. The only issue is whether the monofilament deteriorates in strength and memory before I do.”
John McPhee is a national treasure, the author of many great books that explain the world to us, somehow managing to combine gravity, faultless prose, good humor, and modesty. I wish everyone wrote like John McPhee.
“I flyfish for the chain pickerel, always have, and almost always with yellow kiwi muddlers, but now, at 87, I sit down in the canoe. Long, long ago I had a coach who said of English teachers, “They have to sit down to pee.” The full range of his remark was lost on me for seventy-some years until my sense of balance became eroded by peripheral neuropathy and I had to sit down to cast, even in a heavy and stable canoe, throwing the shooting head in the direction of Atlantic salmon. And I regret the contempt, however faint, that I once felt toward fishermen sitting in chairs on the shores of lakes and the banks of rivers. I can no longer wade in currents. If I’m not in a boat, I’m casting from a chair at the edge of the water.”
I met Bo long ago on the Whale River in Labrador and fell for his elegant spey casting, new then to us duffers, and his discernibly deep commitment to fishing. Bo is a Londoner and his insatiable drive to catch fish has mostly been confined to the salmonids. He has made 36 trips to New Zealand, and he is one of the few to ever catch a 50-pound Atlantic salmon. To see him, the year he caught that great fish on the Alta in Norway, tear his hair out over a small Montana trout that wouldn’t eat, is to know the depth of his love for our sport.
“Of course, bloody decrepitude is sneaking in like a thief in the night. I am just back from Iceland where I fished alone as much as possible to avoid extended hands trying to help me up banks. I felt like Melania swatting away Trump’s hand!”
photo by JAMES ANDERSON
Tom and I have lived down the road from each other for at least a couple of decades. He needs no introduction here except to say that he is a garden variety outdoorsman of the unpretentious sort produced by the American Midwest.
“First came the wading staff, then the judgment that slow water over a smooth bottom is likely to hold more fish than the deep pockets and fast current against the boulder on the far side. This was followed by the firm grip of the twentysomething guide easing me into the stern chair, tying on the fly, and asking, “Didn’t you used to know my dad? He was in juniorhigh when you graduated from high school.
“Finally, it is the nodding off in the warm sun while your fly bounces against the current.”
Dr. Irving Weissman—old friend, native Montanan, lifelong fly fisherman—is a director of the Stanford University Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. He is a world-renowned researcher of stem-cell science; he once told me that his early life as a trout fisherman was key to the mental instincts that made him a scientist and researcher. Irv is great company, a bon vivant, and his interests, including literature, are very wide.
“I just came out of the Bob Marshall on the Sun River side. Thirty years ago was our last trip this route. Back then I ran down screes, rapidly and safely crossed knee- or thigh-deep rushing water, all with speed and accuracy and confidence. Now at 78, nearly 79, I have lost my confidence, and step gingerly with a wading staff, nearly toppling many times as I make my way up a single side of the stream. Sort of like remembering to face downhill while skiing a mogul run. Am I wobbly because I’m out of practice in my daily life, or is it just aging showing itself?
“Several thousand years ago our species probably survived an average of 30-40 years— still reproductively active, but decreasingly physically dominant, and therefore decreasingly reproductively successful. We are born with a variety of blood-forming stem cells and a variety of brain-forming stem cells, and a variety of muscle stem cells. Someday we may be able to select for young stem cells of each type to slow down aging, but it won’t happen soon. Nevertheless, I am happy that I can still fish, tying my flies on the line much more slowly, getting to the fish a little later than before, guessing what they might be taking; and most importantly, still able to keep the rhythm of the double-haul and watch the fly land where I want it to. So, my muscle and brain long-term memory hasn’t gone yet, and at my age, that is what I have accepted and appreciate.”
photo by TIM DAVIS/PATAGONIA
Yvon is an inspired innovator of outdoor equipment, a renowned mountaineer and an excellent fisherman. As an innovator, he is unafraid to make mistakes; hence, the huge box of hand-tied, sky-blue flies that was meant to end the search for perfection, now succeeded by an eternal version of the pheasant tail nymph.
Yvon is a fierce fighter for the natural world, perhaps the most committed of all. It says a lot about his generous spirit that in the face of the world’s war on nature Yvon still knows how to have fun. Here we have pure YC: he knows ahead of time what’s going to happen on the water, prepares correctly, and keeps his sense of humor when it all goes to hell.
“I didn’t know where Nelson’s Spring Creek was, so I drove around aimlessly. Finally, I gave up and went to Sweetwater Fly Shop and asked a teenage clerk for directions. He sent me 35 miles the wrong direction. I had tied special flies for the occasion and stashed them in a small box in my pants pocket. I searched three times, looking with increasing desperation for that little box, but I just couldn’t find those specially tied midges. (Guess what was hatching all day?) When I got to dinner I reached into my pocket, and there they were—the exact flies I needed for that hatch.”
Fred is my cousin. We have fished together since we were boys. On Saturday, I will fly from Montana to his home in Rhode Island and we’ll do it again. When we fish, much of what we remember about our long-ago fishing will come back, catching tautog and choggy minnows with tarred handlines, making model swordfish boats like the ones our heroes sailed out of Sakonnet Harbor to faraway seas.
“For me, a perfect day is one that begins with a predawn departure by boat in pursuit of striped bass, then having an early cup of coffee with my fishing friend, Tony—after biking up to the Commons to fetch a morning paper—then gardening with grandchildren, strolling down to the harbor for a swim, cooking and eating fish-stew made from the day’s catch, all the time wearing the same khaki shorts and worn tee-shirt in which I started the day.”
Nick Lyons, a splendid fishing writer himself, has single-handedly through his publishing made the world know that angling literature of the Americas has the breadth and importance of any in the world. He is a skilled and exacting angler and a thoroughly cultivated human being. At the time of my inquiry, he had recently lost his wife and son. Nick is undeceived by mortality and I hope, and expect, his spirits to rise.
“It’s hard to cast when the pinched nerve in your 86-year-old back barely lets you stand without pain or falling, and if you do, the damaged rotator cuff in your left shoulder renders hopeless your line-hand. Happily, the last cataract operation provides a ringside seat for the sparest sipping-rise hatch.”
photo by JAMES ANDERSON
In his works, Carl Hiaasen has made and populated a world that never existed before Carl Hiaasen—a world of astonishing invention and comic vision. He’s a great fisherman of a kind that once came along with South Florida homeboys; urban, imaginative, and ever aware of the tropical sea at the end of the street.
“The challenge of flyfishing in my sixties presented itself vividly on the bonefish flats of Bimini, where I learned that even mild sciatica becomes a breathtaking hindrance when one is trying to evade a seven-foot lemon shark.”
Rocker Huey Lewis lives here in Montana. He is a dedicated trout fisherman who seems to only have one fly rod, an old Winston. I’ve never heard of such a thing. I, and all our friends, can’t figure why Huey is so unflappable and normal. We’re quite sure he’s the nicest person we know. He can really fish, and if you invite him to do so, he’s on the way.
“I’m 68, and there’s a list of things I can’t do anymore, and a much longer list of things I can’t do as well as I once did. Flyfishing is on neither list. I confess, however, that without magnifying glasses, a wading staff, and zipper-front waders, I’d be a goner. I’d probably have to play a lot more golf, and that’s on the second list.”
Tom Bailey went to my college and behaved so badly that, though he completed his coursework, his father had to sue for his diploma. After Tom founded the Janus Fund, our college saw its way to forgiving him. It was not mutual. I first knew Tom as a Henry’s Fork regular, living in his van with his flyrods and jazz records. Tom likes to learn, whether it’s economics, fish, or horses. He’s a pleasure to fish with because of his infectious happiness when he’s standing in running water.
“Lately, I’ve been remembering an evening on Poindexter Slough, near Dillon, several decades ago. It was a particularly frustrating evening with an obvious PMD hatch, and I was getting pissed and changing flies like a madman—different sizes and stages (duns, cripples, emergers) while the light lasted. Finally, when I went back to my van in the parking lot, I ran into a very old man loading his stuff into a 1948 Willy’s Jeep. He told me he’d had a great evening which of course brought me to my knees. He had a small campfire going and invited to share a drink with him. I pulled out my flask of George Dickel and we spent the next hour talking about fishing. Somewhere in that hour he told me that, when you reach your last stage as a fisherman, you are satisfied with finding just one fish in a difficult spot, observing the fish, trying for it, perhaps hooking or catching the fish, and enjoying the river in great light. And you love it. I have never forgotten the conversation with that old man. As I age, I am more like that last stage.”
I must have known Bubba for over forty years because that’s how long I’ve been married to his sister. Our original iteration was as Key West hell-raisers. He is a painstaking lover of fun and adventure and applies his family work ethic to all he does without losing the piratical twinkle when he is contemplating his next, often unexpected, move. I have no idea what it will be but I can’t wait to find out.
“Fishing and aging are two things I have been doing for a long time, and adding up a few close calls, several bad car wrecks, one airplane crash (or should I say big splash), and a stage fall, I am just glad to still be here and still be fishing. But one thing I have noticed as a septuagenarian fisherman is a reduction in the amount of fishing crap that was part of my life for a long time. I’m not back to a cane pole and a bobber, but I think I am doing better.
“My love of surfing now outweighs my love of fishing, but I still like my time on the water, if not so much in faraway places. I haven’t fished Montana, Belize, the Yucatan, Panama, and God knows where else in a long time. The end of my dock on Peconic Bay in the summer, night-fishing for bass with my spaniel, Gracie, snapping at their tails before we release them, the bass flats of Madaket and the edge of the Gulf Stream east of Cay Cay, where cautious permit still drive me crazy—those are the spots I care about these days. But if I get the urge to go, I head out with my Martin guitar, a 9-weight, and a surfboard just in case. As Mark Twain said, ‘There is no use in walking five miles to fish when you can depend on being just as unsuccessful near home.'”
GUY DE LA VALDENE
Guy and I fished together often in the Keys, usually for tarpon, which have been Guy’s passion for most of his life. Guy is a thoughtful writer on the things outdoorsmen love. We’ve run dogs, hunted birds, and talked about all of our problems for many years.
“Age and surgeries should have by now rendered my desire to fish a memory, but they haven’t. What has impaired my desire to fish is the unimaginable invasion of anglers with expensive fishing clothes and two thousand dollars’ worth of equipment. They do the same thing I have been doing for almost sixty years, and, like golfers, they like to talk about ‘their day!’ I am a saltwater flyfisher, and on my last tarpon trip in the northern Gulf of Mexico, my guide, whom I like very much and have known for ten years, took his phone out of his pocket and talked to his friends, mostly other guides, 48 times in a six-hour tide trip. I have retired from tarpon fishing.”
photo by BOB WHITE
I first knew John only as an admiring reader, a state that has only increased with each of his books, starting with the classic Trout Bum in 1986. He writes in the unadorned, pure American voice of a man who knows what he’s talking about.
“I once said that the solution to growing crowds of fishermen was to arrive earlier and hike farther, but at some point hiking farther and getting older begin to diverge in inconvenient ways. As I write, two young guys are on my roof sweeping the flues for my wood stoves; a job I once did myself, but that my knees and faulty sense of balance now advise me to hire out. Wading and rock scrambling are now harder for the same reason, although I can still do both. (More and more I catch myself noting the things I ‘can still do,’ as if there were an expiration date attached.) I can’t spot small, drab flies on the water as unerringly, so I lean more toward patterns with big white wings. But I could lose sight of a size 18 bluewing at age 30, too. Speaking of flies, when did they start making the eyes on hooks so small? On the plus side, I’m less competitive now, and can be genuinely happy for a friend who catches more or bigger fish than I do, although I’d just as soon he didn’t make a habit of it.”
photo by JAMES ANDERSON
George Anderson, the River Rhino, is the most effective fisherman I’ve ever known. His drive to catch fish is unparalleled, and he has the skills and technical proficiency to make it all work. I’ve always enjoyed fishing with George because that’s what you’re going to do and that’s all you’re going to do. Leave male bonding and fine dining at the door. If age keeps degrading his fishing skills, in another 30 years George will only be as good as the best angler you ever fished with.
“I have to accept lower expectations now than I had when I was younger. Fishing dries, I just can’t see my fly on the water like I used to, and this causes a lot of missed takes. Bad ankles have also become a problem for me, and they affect my ability to wade. I’m no longer a river rhino, more like a river pussy!”
Marshall Bloom is a doctor and scientist, a researcher of the world’s dangerous viruses. He has lived in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana for half a century. I first knew him when we long ago had our potlatches at my house in Livingston—big trading events where packs, flyrods, elk rifles, car parts, and elk jerky were swapped. It was the best low-grade materialism I have ever experienced. Marshall has been a lifelong trout fisherman who understands his responsibility to the environment, and acts upon it.
“What’s holding me back from flyfishing? Many of my favorite fishing buddies have become either incompatible, incapacitated, or incinerated, but there are still a few. And my son in Seattle has taken to flyfishing, raising the prospect of coastal cutthroat and steelhead. So, it can’t be that. Plus, there are still remote native-trout streams within a day’s drive. So it can’t be that either. I think it must relate to something about the stages of flyfishing. I’ve always felt that the ultimate stage should be when you go from catching fish to helping fish. Tying my own flies has given way to teaching middle-school kids to tie, and fishing outings have often given way to working on trout conservation. Maybe I am approaching that ultimate stage.”
Spencer Beebe’s immense achievement in conservation began with his work at The Nature Conservancy, then as founding president of Conservation International, and more recently the creation of EcoTrust. While his efforts have been sufficiently wide-ranging to include the tropical Caribbean and Rocky Mountains, the temperate rainforests of his native North Pacific Coast most ignite his entrepreneurial zeal for regional, sustainable, economic growth.
“Just because I grow shorter, deafer, blinder, and a little soft in the middle, doesn’t mean I can’t stumble around barefoot in a cold salmon-nation river. Green water, even a little soft glacial blue, rolling over big, smooth boulders surrounded by coastal temperate-rainforest cedar and spruce is still a good place for a riverside lunch while brooding about the human dilemma in the age of the Anthropocene. What better place to reflect upon our eroding planetary life-support systems.
Will there be forests after fire? Or grasslands? Will there be cold-water refugia, ongoing snow and glacial melt, clean gravel for spawning, and ocean-acidity levels that support abundant phytoplankton, the foundation for life and food in the salty plain? When I release this steelhead, will it be with thanks, or an apology?”
photo by VAL ATKINSON
I’m putting Lefty in here as I meant to do, and as a kind of Hail-and-Farewell since he has recently passed away at 90 after a splendid life that included not just fishing wherever and however he felt, but also a long and happy marriage, and memorable clashes with Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Lefty grew up almost a ward of his community, dirt poor, in a town where three or four families owned everything. He lived in the ghetto, subsisted by bush-bobbing catfish and selling them at the market, his clothing outfitted by charity and subjected to humiliating Christmas portraits in the local newspaper, allowing the better-off a chance to celebrate their generosity. Lefty joined the army, was quickly trained, and soon found himself in the Battle of the Bulge. In his first encounter with the enemy, Lefty’s first lieutenant, standing next to him, was shot in the head. They crossed the Rhine on cabled barges while the Germans picked them off from a bluff with 88s and machine guns. When they reached the far bank, Lefty was sent around with a few men to eradicate the gunner’s nest on the bluff. They killed the German crew.
He helped dismantle concentration camps, his upbringing giving him no chance to anticipate the horrors he would find. When the battle in Europe ended, Lefty thought he would go to Japan, but the war was over and he was sent to Maryland’s Fort Detrick, a center for biological warfare, tending seven-story chemical tanks that led to a centrifuge. Lefty contracted anthrax and his soonto- be-remarkable casting arm turned black.
Then he went fishing. With all the displaced energy of his experience he built a useful life that impacts so many of us who love our angling. I met Lefty in the late ’60s, when his reputation as an angler, writer, and overseer of the Miami Metropolitan annual fishing tournament— something that seems not so significant now but was at the time on all of our minds in South Florida and especially the Keys—an institution fraught with controversy, much of which Lefty had to unwind at some peril. One disgruntled and world-famous flyfisher who may have cheated on a world record, offered to take everything he had—house, car, and bank deposits. Lefty, as the world knows, was a great innovator and a remarkably unselfish fishing companion. He once arbitrated a Cuban fishing contest between Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro. Thought very much a political conservative, Lefty remarked that Castro was a delightful, companionable fellow and Hemingway an absolute prick.
Lefty’s passing has caused me to remember a day in the Bahamas as we sat in a bonefish skiff on Andros and he discussed the problems of aging. I say “problems” because Lefty liked problems and enjoyed working through them. That day, he could not rotate his torso at all and it required peering around awkwardly looking for a bonefish. Once he had one spotted, his still-remarkable casting skills allowed him to rifle the fly to a fish. Lefty was justifiably proud of the many knots he had invented and whose strength he tested on a special machine. That day his biggest fish came off: a bad knot. As he looked at the curlicue at the end of his leader, an aspect of aging seemed to have finally struck him as discouraging, and all he could say was, “I can’t believe it.”
Maybe that’s how we old anglers feel: we can’t believe it.