In a life I might have lived, I would have been another expression of what author John Gierach described when he wrote Trout Bum.
The book is "the Gospel according to John" for achieving the eternal salvation of fly fishing: Eking out a marginal living, spending just enough time working to earn just enough money to fish as much time as humanly possible before you die.
Gierach has done for decades now what people like me have longed for in vain: Fish, write about it, and make money, even if itís "just enough." Heís done better than just enough, but with more than a dozen titles under his belt, Gierach remains a down-to-earth fellow with no "airs" about him yet a writer who can turn a phrase with wit and charm. It may be about fishing, ("I think I fish, in part, because itís an anti-social, bohemian business that, when gone about properly, puts you forever outside the mainstream culture without actually landing you in an institution") or just the world in general, ("Rural people understand that life is basically a dangerous, unmanageable mess, so when things go wrong, their suspicions are confirmed and itís just a blessing no one was killed.")
In that life I might have lived, I would never have put down that Heddon fiberglass fly rod my dad taught me to cast (if only passably) and happily jaunted down the road to piscatorial hermitage, deviance and dedication, at least by the standards of my so-called betters who work 9 to 5 jobs and live in houses built too close together, eating fast-food and watching too much reality television.
If, perhaps, I had never stashed away that old Heddon in favor of a blue Mustang with a V-8 engine perhaps Iíd have made it my avocation to walk away from all this "working for a living" business and into the general direction of a good fishing hole like I should have.
Really, what does a man need? A couple of good fly rods. A dozen or so flies, tops. I carry boxes and boxes of flies but, like Gierach, only use five or six. Two or three sets of tough clothes, and one set of seldom-used Sunday-go-to-meeting duds, just in case my best fishing buddy strays from the path of righteousness and invites me to a cocktail party or some such torture as that when he becomes the editor of Southern Living and never has time to fish with me anymore.
I must have a home-base, but it should be just a minimal facility, which is pretty much what I got now anyway. The very basic requirements of being relatively weather-proof, with a stove and a couple of good pots; some oil and flour for frying fish; butter, salt and pepper; taters; a bottle of whisky; coupla cigars; a few good books; a fly-tying desk and materials; a sharp fillet knife and, if I make a couple extra bucks at some odd job or another here and there, a weather radio, though bad weather will seldom deter a devout fish bum from fishing.
If earning money gets in the way of fishing, then Iíd be forced to forsake the shack, arriving unannounced at the homes of friends at ungodly hours after sunset. Spend an hour or so exchanging pleasantries and reminiscing, mooch and wolf down a supper then sleep like a dead man until an hour before daybreak and be gone before the rest of the house awakens, leaving them in thanks a half-full pot of their coffee on the burner to start their day. The next night, another friend, and the next, and the next. Iíd have to make new friends all along your way to keep the equilibrium of this plan working.
Once I run out of friends, it would be no great stretch to cook my meals streamside and crawl into my sleeping bag under that finest of lightning systems ever invented, the moon and stars. The supposed sage who decreed "itís not the destination, itís the journey" never ended up on a Rockies stream at around 7,000 feet where you canít even find a footprint much less a cigarette butt or a beer can.
On holidays with the family, every few years at least, I would arrive early for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners and excuse myself with the pretense of a stomach ache from all the rich food, or an allergy to cranberry sauce, and beg off to vanish down the road toward the spot I heard the fish were biting.
My life as a fish bum would have been concerned with finding the best fishing holes in my vicinity. When I find "secret" spots out behind a grove of cypress, or at the far back end of a canal that other anglers pass by daily because itís "too close to the landing and there canít be any fish there," I would jealously guard it and lie my tail off about anything I catch there, because as Don Marquis said, "Fishing is a delusion entirely surrounded by liars in old clothes."
Iíd venture afield, when I had a few bucks to spare again from washing dishes or raking leaves, to north Louisiana hills and if I save money long enough, hitch my way to Colorado to fish high-country streams and lakes for crimson-slashed cutthroat trout. If I was very lucky, Iíd write books and publish them, and if they paid for a new set of clothes once a year, Iíd consider myself a mercifully lucky man.
Iíd be gone for months at a time. Itís not that I wouldnít want to stay in contact, Iíd just be in places where thereís just no good place to hang a clock and telephones donít sprout from the trees. My life as a fish bum would be the envy of all the young up-and-coming hotshot professionals and yuppies, because Iíd be footloose and fancy-free. And as Iíd age, Iíd beguile them with tales of encounters with grizzlies, hooking monster pike on willowy fly rods and the headwaters of streams so far up into the mountains where the air is so thin youíd have to stop and catch your breath between every cast.
Perhaps if I had never put away my old Heddon fly rod and decided to make a career out of journalism and column-writing Iíd be standing up to my knees in a cold stream, rod in hand, line drifting downstream unnoticed because Iím watching an eagle circle its eyrie, little eaglets with their beaks open in waiting. Iíd only notice my fly has been taken by a humungous smallmouth bass when the rod leaps nearly out of my hand with the awesome, irresistible tug of a respectable fish on the end of the leader.
Instead of an aborted attempt at college in archaeology, I would have obtained a degree in humanities or philosophy, perfectly suited to the life of a fish bum. I could have fly fished the lakes at LSU until I earned my letters, then set off to become that enigmatic, eccentric and admirable angler who has shed the bonds and shackles of energy grids, mortgages and rush-hour traffic to fish for bluegill in shallow, green-water coves and for trout in gin-clear, laughing rivers. You call this person "weird." I call him "anointed."
People who fly fish with thousands of dollars in high-tech gear and the latest fashionable fishing clothing would guffaw at my frazzled canvas fishing fedora and decades-old Orvis fly rod, but Iíd handily outfish them coming and going. When theyíd at last sheepishly wander over to speak to me, dying to find out what fly Iím using, Iíd awe them with my humanities and philosophy background by quoting something from, say, Patrick McManus: "Scholars have long known that fishing eventually turns men into philosophers. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to buy decent tackle on a philosopherís salary."
But thatís what I woulda-coulda-shoulda done. Sometimes we wonder "what might have been" but I have a good, happy life with wonderful people in it and Iím very, very grateful for all of it.
Still, I guess I just have to immerse myself in that little fantasy now and then, and even babble on about it sometimes, because as Mr. Gierach himself mentioned, "If people donít occasionally walk away from you shaking their heads, youíre doing something wrong."