Posts Tagged ‘Fly-fishing’



The following is a beautifully written obituary written by Pete Zander upon the death of his beloved brother Corky.


In Memoriam: William Paul (“Corky”) Xander
b. 4/10/1943
d. 2/19/2020

As many of you who were former students of my oldest brother Bill Xander — but who was always known to me as “Corky” — have learned, he passed away a little before midnight on Wednesday, February 19, 2020. He would have been 77 on April 10th of this year.

I was up in Twin Peaks, CA, up near Lake Arrowhead, for the week helping my daughter Kristen, who had fallen and ripped ligaments in her right ankle. She has two young sons, ages 5 and 2¼, and she desperately needed help around the house and with the boys, especially since her son Alexander had turned 5 on Feb. 12 (we Xanders pick great birthdays!) and had his birthday party last Saturday at an indoor pool at a resort where around 50 adults and kids partied. And little Evan Xander Flores is feisty enough to keep several adults busy and occupied.

During the night early on Friday morning the 14th, Kristen received a message on her phone from Corky’s wife Maj, who said he was ill and she needed Kristen to get in touch with me. When she told me the message early Friday morning, we figured it was something worse than pneumonia or the flu. A battery of tests and a biopsy confirmed that he had an advanced case of pancreatic cancer, and we feared he only had weeks, maybe even days left.

You’ll have to forgive my referring to him as “Corky” and not “Bill” or “Mr. X.” He never WAS “Bill” to me, and since that was our dad’s name as well, an abusive, alcoholic, 24-karat SOB and proud of it, I have an understandable reluctance to call my brother Bill. So, Corky it is.

Ironically, he felt as if he was in the best shape of his life, quite a statement when you consider he was a letterman in four sports in high school: Football, basketball, baseball, and track. He could’ve had a fifth letter as a swimmer, but on a qualifying swim, though he’d been the fastest of anyone on the team weeks earlier, he was extremely ill from pneumonia and damned near drowned. So I’ll call it four sports but put an asterisk next to it.

It is indicative of the profit-driven health care system in our country that his cancer wasn’t discovered sooner, not that it would’ve mattered in the long run — pancreatic cancer is tough to detect, tougher to fight (fewer than 5% of patients survive it for very long), and in Corky’s case, it hit hard and fast. Like I said, he felt he was in great shape, walking 3 miles a day, working out in the gym on weekends, and doing well.

In mid-December, he felt extremely ill and knew he needed help. So the procedure was to take some blood samples, wait two weeks; do an x-ray, wait two weeks; do an MRI, wait two weeks; do an ultrasound. He had been hospitalized twice for 3-4 days at a time and two emergency 911 calls, certainly enough time ONCE to do all of those diagnostic tests, but there’s no PROFIT to be made that way, of course. It is emblematic of our fucked-up profits-driven system that his first appointment with an oncologist — a cancer specialist — wasn’t even scheduled until yesterday, literally “a day late” and hundreds of dollars short.

I will never think it was a blessing that he was only sick for two months. Having an aggressive form of cancer is NEVER a blessing, but it is somewhat comforting to me that he only suffered for those two months. When an ultrasound revealed some shadowing on the pancreas, a biopsy confirmed that he had pancreatic cancer and that it was already at Stage 4.

When I talked to him on Friday last week, when he was still in the hospital, his first words to me were, “Well, this is really fucked up, isn’t it?” Despite the clearly bad diagnosis and outlook, we had a lighthearted talk, and I told him we’d get down as soon as possible to see him, With Alex’s birthday over with the next day, my son-in-law Ivan Flores drove Kristen and me down to Bonita last Sunday to see him.

He opened his eyes and said, “Hey — it’s my ‘baby brother!’” Yeah, as the third and last boy in the family, I was ALWAYS going to be the “baby brother.” To my mom, who preceded Corky in death by 5 years, I was always her ”baby boy.” But I can live with that . . . especially since it means living.

According to his brother-in-law Albert, he had not been able to have conversations with anyone for more than a minute or so without nodding off for five minutes. So it was remarkable that last Sunday he was able to talk with us nonstop for an hour and a half. He only got sleepy after he’d been given medication that made him drowsy, and of course it was important to keep him on the medication schedule.

I do feel especially blessed that we were able to talk for as long as we did, and our conversation was a rollicking one, covering talking about fishing trips we’d done. I know all of you former students of his will be pleased to know that we even got into Faulkner and Hemingway. Well, MAYBE you’d be pleased to know that! But certainly, he had a love of literature and especially that of his two favorite authors. Me, I’ve always been more of a Steinbeck person; but then again, I was a marine biologist. At least Hemingway was a trout fisherman!

I’ll get into some fishing stories because I truly believe that if he hadn’t been an English teacher and he hadn’t had the satisfaction of sharing his love of literature with all of you, I believe he might have become a fishing guide. I mean, can you imagine it — getting PAID to go fishing??? As the Russian-born comedian, Yakov Smirnoff used to say, “America — what a country!”

Corky was 11¼ years older than me, with our brother Terry born 4 years and 10 days after Corky and 7 years before me. He and I looked a lot alike, and people often commented on it to us. Once, I replied to someone, “Yeah, but I’m the better-looking one!” After that, it became a contest to see who could snap off the one-liner before the other did. Our voices were so similar that his first wife Cat once called, expecting to speak to him. I had answered the phone, and she began talking, under the assumption that it was him to whom she was speaking. After a couple of minutes, when the conversation began turning to a direction I didn’t believe I should be hearing, I interrupted her and said, “Um, Cat — you DO realize that this is Pete you’re talking to and not Bill?”

I know this might shock some of you, but my brother was NOT perfect. Oh, sure — we did the usual brotherly stuff, like the aforementioned “I’m the better-looking one” line. But his imperfection stems from our Thanksgiving Dinner in 1974. We were having the dinner at his home in Mira Mesa, and I was already contributing to the effort. I began baking what everybody calls a “German Chocolate Cake,” but the truth is that the cake has nothing to do with Germany in the least. The sweet chocolate used in the recipe was made by a company called German’s, which was bought out by a company called Baker’s, so the cake is called “Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake.” If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourselves on the supermarket aisle where chocolate for baking, coconut, and nuts are sold.

Anyway, that year, I did a friend from back East a favor. He knew a girl who was going to school in Pomona, east of L. A., at Pomona Pitzer College. She was going to be stuck in southern California while everyone else at the school went home to their families. She was going to spend the entire four-day weekend all by herself on a deserted campus and dorm, and that was just too awful to think about, so I told my friend Chip that I’d be happy to bring her to San Diego and have her spend Thanksgiving with us.

In order to make all of that work, I had to get up at 4:00 in the morning, slap my face around a little . . . or a LOT, and bake the German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake before I drove to Pomona. It was no big deal — I could do that cake in my sleep, and I pretty much did. But cooks always talk about how, for instance, a bread dough has a proper “feel.” It sounds esoteric but is well-founded in fact. For example, KitchenAid mixers do an AWFUL job of making the dough we use for making our famous Thanksgiving Dinner rolls.

As I made the cake batter, it just didn’t look right to me. I couldn’t identify what the problem could have been, and I merely shrugged it off as being really tired and sleepy. But when I put the three cake pans into the oven, it became apparent quite rapidly that there was something seriously wrong with the batter. In the oven, the batter began burping and bubbling like some God-awful witches brew, and in fact, the goddamned stuff was BOILING. I had no idea what was wrong, but I was committed to seeing this through, so I gamely marched on, baking the layers longer in what eventually was a futile effort to salvage all of those expensive ingredients.

After I removed the layers from the oven, they sagged ominously in the middle. I made the coconut-pecan frosting and tried to frost the thing, but it sagged in the middle like a disgusting soggy doughnut. It clearly was a disaster of immense proportions, and I was mortified.

Of course, the family was giving me a ration of shit over the cake, but I had no idea what had gone wrong. Finally, Corky asked where I got the flour to make the cake. “I got it from the flour canister on the counter,” I said, pointing to the largest of four wooden containers. He began laughing demonically and said, “Pete — there was BISQUIK in that canister!” Bisquik, of course, is an instant mix for making breads, rolls, muffins, pancakes, and the like. It contains flour and the usual leavening agents, but it also includes shortening, so my precious German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake, my pride and joy, got a double dose of fat!

I was livid. “Well, how the FUCK was I supposed to know THAT?” I yelled. “What, did you also put salt in the goddamned sugar shaker too?” I screamed, but all everyone could do was laugh at my predicament. The cake was an absolute disaster, and one of our favorite desserts was MIA that Thanksgiving. Totally mortified, I drove up to Pomona, retrieved my friend’s chum, and returned to San Diego for our dinner. That evening, in what was perfectly in keeping with the disaster that my poor cake had become, we went to the premiere showing of a disaster flick, “Earthquake,” starring Charlton Heston and a host of aging, washed-up film superstars, about a high-rise hotel that becomes a death trap when a massive earthquake strikes L. A. I don’t know if Chip’s friend was comforted by that thought at all, but she survived the evening, as did I. But I was STILL really pissed off about the cake!

Corky helped raise me and also acted to protect me from the worse actions of our dad. One Saturday morning, though, when I was about 7 or 8 and just a scrawny little kid, our dad had beaten me pretty severely with his leather belt. As any of you know painfully well who have had the unfortunate experiences of dealing with an abusive parent, oftentimes there isn’t any reason or anything you might have done that triggered such a response, and as a quiet kid, I certainly can’t imagine what I could possibly have said or done.

He beat me so savagely with his leather belt that the welts on the backs of my legs were swollen nearly ½” high, and the edges of the belt had even cut into my legs and were bleeding. It was a little after 10:00 a.m., and our mom was grocery shopping when this happened. When she walked in the door, carrying bags of groceries, she entered into a surreal situation: Corky and Terry were in the kitchen, wrestling and fighting over a butcher knife.

Our mom set the bags down, ran into the kitchen, and began pulling on Corky. Terry had the knife in his hand, and she was yelling at them to stop it as she pulled on Corky to stop him from doing whatever the hell HE was doing. Finally, he yelled out to her, ”God DAMN it, Mom, STOP IT. Terry’s trying to kill Dad!”

Once all that commotion settled down, she found out why that skirmish had taken place. She came into my bedroom — the one I had to share with our dad — and I was lying on the mattress, face down and crying into my pillow. By this time the welts had turned a horrific red and purple, and the bloody edges of the welts had quit bleeding and were beginning to coagulate.

She stormed into the kitchen, grabbed the kitchen knife, and plunged it against our dad’s belly. “You son of a bitch!” she yelled. “If you EVER touch that kid again, i’ll stab you with the goddamned knife!” Just another typical Saturday morning in lower-middle-class gang war zone National City back in the 1960s.

But Corky just didn’t help raise me or try to protect me from the worst predations of our dad. He introduced me to classical music, still a great love of mine. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was a good enough trombone player (which I’d taught myself how to play after 7th grade, so I could be in the junior high’s jazz ensemble) that I received an offer to become an apprentice trombonist with the Chicago Symphony, at that time easily one of the three or four greatest symphonies in the world, and I would have had the opportunity to study conducting under Sir Georg Solti, the 20th Century’s finest interpreter of Beethoven.

I had also applied for acceptance in a summer-long oceanography program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. If I hadn’t been one of the 41 kids from all across North America chosen from among the nearly 2,000 applicants, I would’ve accepted that fabulous offer and been, at the very worst, a very well-paid trombone player in Chicago. As Fate would have it, though, not only was I accepted in the oceanography program, but the National Science Foundation awarded me a grant to cover the entire cost of the program, and I became a biologist.

Corky and Terry also introduced me to rock ’n’ roll, which of course EVERY kid back then loved. I distinctly remember horrifying Sister Mary Daniel, my first-grade teacher at St. Mary’s in National City when she asked if anyone had anything they’d like to share with the class. Little brown-noser that I was, I raised my hand. “Yes, Peter?” she asked, and I walked up to the front of the class. “My brothers taught me how to do The Twist!” and I began gyrating before the class and the stunned Sister Mary Daniel. Well, what the hell — SHE asked! Guess it was yet another mortal sin I’d racked up . . . .

But let’s go fishing. Or, at least, let’s go trudging through some of the semi-legendary stories of our fishing adventures.

When I was still in high school, Corky and I would go fishing in tiny Santa Ysabel Creek, a little stream that in the winter and early spring months was occasionally stocked with hatchery trout. Remind me to tell the story about the bull at Santa Ysabel Creek, okay? Not verbal bull or even bull trout — a BULL, a real, snorting, no-kidding, charging bull.

Oh hell . . . . Well, screw it. Why wait? I mean, if my brother’s recent illness and passing is to be used as a learning experience, it is that anything could happen to any of us at any time, and that life has to be LIVED. There’s no waiting around for Life — you’ve got to grab it by the horns if you will. Yeah, that is a pretty cheesy introduction to the story, but what the hell!

So, about The Bull. To former students of my brother, who was a great fan of Hemingway and Faulkner, it sounds like a Hemingway short story doesn’t it?? “The Bull of Santa Ysabel,” right?

Corky and I had been fishing in Santa Ysabel Creek, which is just about a mile north of Dudley’s Bakery in northern San Diego County, an amazingly popular bakery that draws people from everywhere (their Dutch Apple Bread is awesome . . . their cinnamon bread is pure heaven; and — well, they ALL are).

Anyway, there is a large pasture or grassy meadow there, right up against State Highway 79. You have to go under a barbed wire fence and cross the meadow to get to the fishable upper portion of the creek in the hills to the east (interestingly — at least to me — the DFG had stocked Santa Ysabel Creek back in the 1930s with 15,000 Paiute cutthroat trout, an incredibly rare trout and native to just a couple of headwater creeks above waterfalls in Alpine County, tributary to the East Fork of the Carson River). We had been fishing for a couple of hours, it was getting late in the day, and we were at the meadow.

We’d never seen any cattle there before, but on this fateful day, there was a very large longhorn bull at the far side of the meadow. We were minding our own business, and so was the bull. Unfortunately, at that very moment, the bull’s business was US.

As we walked, so did the bull. As we walked faster and faster, the bull did the same thing, matching our pace. With about 30 yards to go, the goddamned bull began charging to cut us off, and we both began running for our lives. The bull had the angle, and the only way we would get out safely was if we ran down to the fence at full speed and slid under the barbed wire fence, a dangerous move even if executed successfully. Of course, Corky didn’t have to outrun the bull — he just had to outrun ME. But back then, I was a really fast runner, and we were neck and neck, hauling ass to get to the fence and to safety.

I yelled to my brother, “We have to slide underneath the barbed wire on the run!” and he yelled back, “Yeah — I KNOW!!” We got to the fence just about the time the bull did, and we both slid on the gravel under the fence like Jackie Robinson stealing home. Only then, safely on the other side of the barbed wire fence, complete with skinned and bloodied elbows, could we laugh our asses off at the craziness of challenging half a ton of pissed-off pot-roast-on-the-hoof trying to gore us. I mean, FUCK Pamplona, right?? But we survived.

In 1974, a geography professor, at San Diego State, Gene Coleman, who also taught at Southwestern Junior College in Chula Vista and who became a good friend and a trusted personal and political advisor, told me about Pauma Creek — really, the classic version of the “secret fishin’ hole” of fishing lore. He only told maybe one student a year about this little piece of heaven on Earth, and he knew that I was the kind of person with the right ethic who would appreciate the stream and respect its solitude and relatively unknown existence.

Pauma Creek is a rugged little wilderness stream, flowing from Palomar Mountain State Park, formed from the confluence of Doane and French Creeks, and draining the southwestern slope of Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County. It is a sometimes tributary to the San Luis Rey River (now blocked to would-be spawning steelhead by a concrete bridge abutment).

From Gene’s description, Pauma Creek sounded like a much better stream — a rugged wilderness stream that involved a lot of rock-hopping and crawling, but more importantly, the trout were not stupid hatchery fish but real native trout, remnants of the original rainbow trout/steelhead that arose in streams in San Diego County before the most recent Ice Age, the ancestors of all rainbow trout throughout their range from northern Baja California to Alaska and to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. These were not mass-produced production-line factory trout — they were the real thing.

The only non-native fish in the stream were brown trout that had been stocked in the 1930s — and WHY??? — and I had caught the only one we’d ever seen there, and green sunfish washed downstream from Doane Pond. We’d only ever caught two, and we killed both since they are voracious competitors with the trout for food and would eat baby trout. Since I’ve had green sunfish as pets, I know how aggressive and voracious they are, so we did our own habitat enhancements to benefit the trout. The trout were native, not stocked; the green sunfish are found east of the Rockies but have been planted everywhere, so it was “Vaya con Díos, piscas verdes del Sol!” or however “green sunfish” translates into Spanish. Sorry about that. So much for being forced to study German in high school, a REALLY helpful language if you were going to become a biologist in San Diego! Yes, even the college and university system is a screwed-up educational mess. But to students of my brother, that won’t come as any damn great surprise.

The fishing in Pauma Creek was superb and tested our skills at reading water, even in miniature, and required stealthy approaches to avoid spooking the skittish wild fish. We could always tell when another fisherman had accessed the creek ahead of us by sliding down a steep primitive trail from a road about halfway down. We used ultralight gear, 2# test line, 1/32 oz. Dardevle Skeeter lures with barbless hooks and released all of the trout we caught.

Within a couple of years, I’d named some pools, something that occurs on famous salmon and steelhead rivers, not creeks you can jump across. At the first waterfall, as one goes down from Palomar Mountain State Park, there is a very large deep pool with a waterfall plunging over the granite boulders to climb down and over. My knees were hurting, and Corky wanted to fish that deep pool for the monster trout that surely was there (one that he finally caught, years later, and had break off before he could land, photograph, and release it). I found a split boulder above the pool that was a perfectly comfortable granite chair, so, resting my knees, I named the waterfall pool “Orthopedic Rock.”

There were others with similarly offbeat names; but after all, look at who the crazy bastard was who was naming them!

“‘Freight Train’ Pool,” about 3 miles down, where an enormous trout would come charging out but was never hooked solidly. In order to get the fish to come out, we got one cast only: The lure had to be cast sidearm underneath overhanging tree branches so that it bounced and ricocheted off two boulders in order to get the lure back where the trout had its lair (note to a beloved former girlfriend of mine: Try doing that when you’re fly-fishing, Beckie!). Sometimes the little barbless treble hook would tangle with the line, making it impossible to hook the fish and spooking that pool; at other times, the fish was charging too hard to get a tight enough line to set the hooks; and

“‘Nettle Nuts’ Pool,” where the only way to get downstream was to do the splits and bend way down under a fallen tree, where stinging nettles growing up toward the tree made the effort, um, a very very cautious one. Well, you get the drift.

My brother and I had made a number of trips down to Baja, going all the way down to the very tip of the peninsula at Cabo. In fact, the town at the end of the Transpeninsular Highway was named San Jose del Cabo, NOT Cabo San Lucas. But all of the norteamericanos — well, all of them but for us sticklers for proper use of the language! — called it Cabo San Lucas. Mexico eventually gave up and called the whole damned area Los Cabos, though there’s only the one cape. Whatever.

Hell, I can’t even get away with using adverbs after the verb or not ending a sentence without a preposition without ignorant people bitching at me. If you knew Corky, then maybe you have an inkling as to what my attitude is like — I refuse to give in to ignorant assholes, and God knows we’ve got more than our fair share of those in our society. Even had some as President of the United States. Er, had/have. At least Corky dedicated his life to helping thousands of kids over the decades wade through the mess that is the English language, without resorting to the typical bullshit like forcing students to diagram sentences.

In talking to my sister-in-law Maj, Corky’s wife, Thursday morning, she shared a story with me. Before he passed away, she had a video monitor on him so that she or the attending nurses or the family members helping out could know if he needed assistance. On Tuesday, he became restless and tried to get out of bed. Then, she said, he was doing something odd in his sleep, even for a Xander: He was raising his right arm in the air, waving it around slowly (see? Adverb after the verb!). Then a little while later, he did the same thing but with his left arm. She didn’t understand what was going on with him until it dawned on her later: They had been planning a trip to Scotland so that he could go fishing for Atlantic salmon in some of the world-famous rivers there. She thinks that his subconscious, in one of the last actions of his life, was having him practicing his fly-fishing casting in preparation for that trip.

I once read a short story about a trout fisherman who’d died (and ladies, I’m sorry our misogynist society and language makes anything but a male version of the language seem clumsy and awkward). He didn’t know whether he had gone to Heaven or Hell, but there he was in the afterlife, standing in his chest-high waders and fly-fishing in a beautiful river. There was a hatch of insects on, and there were trout rising everywhere. He was giddy with anticipation — so, he was in Heaven! He flicked out some line, began false casting, and stripping out more line, and there, near the opposite bank of the river, was a truly spectacular huge trout.

He laid out a perfect cast and began stripping in line in short twitches. The huge trout turned and began to pursue his fly, but a plump 14-inch trout grabbed it instead. That fish jumped everywhere, and the guy was thrilled! He played the trout for a minute, enjoying every second of the experience, then brought the fish in, used pliers to remove the fly from the trout’s lower jaw, and gently released it.

He began false casting again to dry the fly, and sure enough, the monster he’d eyed earlier had resumed feeding. He again laid out a beautiful and perfect cast, right in the goliath’s feeding lane, but again, a smaller trout grabbed the fly. This time the man brought the fish in rather unceremoniously, released it, and resumed trying to catch the monster.

But try as he might, every time he thought the huge trout was going to take his fly, a smaller trout always beat the big fish to it. It was then that the ugly realization dawned on the guy: He wasn’t in Heaven after all — he was in Hell!

It is a sad but inevitable reality that we all die someday. I personally want to believe I’m immortal, and I will continue to think that way until and unless, of course, I find out otherwise the hard way, as I suppose all of you mortals will discover yourselves. But if one has to die, as my beloved brother did a few days ago, what better way to end your days than to pass away with your mind getting ready for the wonderful fishing trip that he, unfortunately, did not get to take.

Very few of us get the opportunity of choosing how we leave this plane of existence. But what we leave behind — the people we met, the lives we changed, the improvements we made to our society, to our nation, and to our world — will be the testaments to who we were, what we did, and how we made a difference.

All of you whose lives he touched, affected, and hopefully made better, are the testimonials to his lifetime of service to education. I hope you have wonderful memories of my brother and will continue to live the lives he hoped you all would, that will you pass on to your loved ones the lessons learned under his tutelage, and be the men and women he hoped you all would become. Thank you, each and every one of you, for being a part of his life and for giving his life the meaningfulness and sense of reward he felt.

— Pete Xander

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The Blackfoot River flows a few miles east of the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana.

It is difficult to describe what the Blackfoot is like, because many of its natural qualities seem to have theological overtones. Maybe that’s why the Indians considered it a holy place. After the spring runoff, the water is blue-green and swift and cold and running in long riffles through boulders that stay half-submerged year round. The canyons are steep-sided and topped with fir and ponderosa and larch trees that turn gold in the fall. If you listen carefully, you notice the rocks under the stream knocking against one another and making a murmuring sound, as though talking to themselves or us. The boulders along the banks are huge and often baked white and sometimes printed with the scales of hellgrammites. Many of the boulders are flat-topped and are wonderful to walk out on so you can fly-cast and create a wide-looping figure eight over your head and not hang your fly in the trees. Wild roses grow along the banks, as well as bushes and leafy vines that turn orange and scarlet and apricot and plum in the autumn. When the wind comes up the canyon, leaves and pine needles balloon into the air, as though the entirety of the environment is in reality a single organism that creates its own rebirth and obeys its own rules and takes no heed of man’s presence. The greatest oddity on the river is the quality of light. It doesn’t come from above. There is a mossy green-gold glow that seems to emanate from the table rocks that plate the river bottom, and the trout drifting back and forth in the riffle are backlit by it.”
Burke, James Lee. Light of the World: A Dave Robicheaux Novel (p. 326). Simon & Schuster.

“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (1976).

Classical, baroque or romantic, spare or lush style is a preference or a fashion but good writing is good writing.

maxresdefaultFly fishing is a wonderful thing. A friend of mine, Dennis Machida, a determined fisherman, took me fly fishing a few times. He tried to teach me how to do it. I liked it a lot, although I was not a very good student.

There was a comedian I saw once who described a women’s mind as always full and buzzing with thoughts and ideas but a man’s as packed with boxes each containing only a single thought. At the center of all those boxes is one box that for a majority of men was the most important. That box is empty. Many men spend much of their time there.

I always thought fly fishing was something that a lot of men put into that particular box. Imagine standing for eight or so hours in freezing cold water whipping a piece of string back and forth above your head making lazy S’s in the sky.

I think it is interesting that neither of the authors quoted above actually mentions catching fish. It is not the purpose of fly fishing to catch fish. Oh, maybe one or two just to show people you actually went fishing. The purpose of fly fishing is to empty your mind of thought. It is a type or meditation for those who like to be uncomfortable while doing it and are infatuated with gear.


More reflections on fly fishing:

I had written the above in a post I send now and then to several of my friends and re-posted at This and that…. It is always flattering when someone responds positively to something I write. The following is from Naida West one of my favorite authors. I consider Naida’s historical trilogy, The California Gold Trilogy, to contain three of the finest historical novels written about America. Unlike others who merely place their story in another era, Naida’s involves mostly actual people taken from diaries and other sources to which she adds missing thoughts, motivations and dialogue and a character or two. Her characters are not kings and queens and the like, but ordinary (and some not so ordinary) people who populated the banks of the Cosumnes River in California more than 100 years ago.

I loved your reflections of fly fishing, such as this: “(Fly fishing) is a type of meditation for those who like to be uncomfortable while doing it and are infatuated with gear.”

Here’s a reflection of my own:

My lawyer father, a delightful actor on life’s stage if one winked at his pursuit of women and booze, grew younger before my eyes as he neared his favorite trout streams. By the time we left the road and bumped violently over bushes and rocky outcroppings seeking a place to stop, he was a wide-eyed child at Barnum and Bailey’s tent door. He bounced out to retrieve his gear while I steeled myself for a day of boredom with the windows up, my only excitement murdering mosquitoes that had snuck in while the door had been open. As the sun edged across the sky I poached in my sweat, recalling the day I explored a riverbank in shorts while he fished. The angry welts all over me, overlapping even under my shirt, just about killed me or so I thought. My dad had scoffed and said I should control the effects with my mind like he did. Umm, no. He admired swamis who barefooted across glowing coals.

Yet for an hour or two, coming and going, I had my dad to myself. At the wheel he recited story-length poems by Longfellow, Gray, Coleridge, and Poe, using theatrical emphasis to convey the meaning of outdated idioms. Between poems he answered questions about the words and phrases, always in an interesting way, repeating the stanzas where they were used. I memorized some of those poems before my mother & grandmother hauled us to CA, and in the 8th grade my teacher had me go from room to room in Carmel High School reciting them to classrooms of older kids. I saw my dad only a handful of times after we left Idaho, though he lived until 1989.”




It is great to be reminded that there was a time when people quoted Longfellow, Poe and others instead of relying on street corner argot and advertising slogans to prove their intellectual integration with the greater American culture. For example, I often sprinkle my speech with the word “fuck” in an effort to signify my affinity for the common idiomatic mode of discourse we Americans use to express ourselves.

Speaking of Longfellow, I always felt he got a raw deal from the critics. He was part of a movement that began with Washington Irving and continued until Whitman gave up the ghost in an orgy of pantheistic individualism. They tried to create a new song unique to America out of the diverse traditions of those living or migrating to the continent at the time. True it was mostly wrapped in Yankee sensibilities. Nevertheless, they tried to bundle into a single melody the  of the stories Native American, Knickerbocker, Frontiersman, Acadian, Settler at the edge of the primeval wilderness and even the sad songs of slavery.  One can recognize those songs and stories even where altered to fit nativist sensibilities. I guess they were trying to write a “New World Symphony” decades too early. A violin differs from and oboe in its history, shape and sound, but, in a symphony by Brahms, together they create a song far different from what either could accomplish separately. No one criticizes old Johannes for failing to allow each instrument its own solo. Even Jazz requires the solos to doodle around with the underlying theme. (Come to think of it, Jazz was another attempt to meld the diverse music of several cultures, relying in part on the fundamentals of European folk music, African syncopation and rhythm, and Klezmer instrumentalization.)

Romantic and fuzzy headed, this movement died at mid-century when the two true songs of America emerged, one indescribably evil and malicious. The other almost as bad, lacking a unifying theme other than simple revulsion.

Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, an attempt to use new interest at the time in Native American culture and legends to create a syncretic myth for the new country, has been soundly criticized. At first, the criticism appeared to emanate from the trolls of that era who focused, in part, upon the poems idealization of a people whom they believed deserved their extinction. Later, because the poem relied on the study of Native American culture by a man who was one of the first to take an interest in their way of life, it was ridiculed because significant portions of that research were in error and more recent studies decades after the poem’s publication came to different conclusions. This is like criticizing the ancient Egyptians for not using reinforced concrete to construct their pyramids.

Did you know that reciting the Song of Hiawatha provides greater psychological and physical benefits than meditation? It’s true, try it. Find a quiet room, darkened but not devoid of light. Make yourself comfortable and slowly, in a hushed voice as deep you can manage, recite the poem making sure you accent it properly.

Longfellow used the trochaic meter instead of the iambic that is more comfortable for Indo-European speakers. It is a more common rhythm in Ural-Altaic languages (in this case Finnish) that Longfellow believed, rightly or wrongly, reflected the natural rhythms of the language of the First Peoples. In any event, for some English speakers, it seems to produce a chthonic throbbing that reverberates in the marrow of their bones like the moan of a cello.

Try it, you’ll like it. Do not begin with that portion of the poem that we learned in grade school but at the beginning with the Introduction. To get you started I include it here:

“Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?
I should answer, I should tell you,
From the forests and the prairies,
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs,
From the mountains, moors, and fen-lands
Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
Feeds among the reeds and rushes.
I repeat them as I heard them
From the lips of Nawadaha,
The musician, the sweet singer.”

Note: Do not try this with Evangeline or any of the Acadian poems. Those rhythms can cause mild stomach upset to the inexperienced.


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