The sport and art of fishing serves as the lens through which John Gierach views everything else. The preeminent fishing writer, author of several books and columnist for Fly Rod & Reel tells more candid, contemplative stories in his latest collection, All Fishermen Are Liars. In Fishermen, Gierach travels from Canada’s Arctic Great Bear Lake to Wyoming’s Miracle Mile on the North Platte River to Kodiak Island in Alaska, landing coasters, lake trout, steelhead and just about everything else with fins. Montana also gets a short chapter, where Gierach talks about fishing the Big Hole and an intriguing small, unnamed lake—he won’t mention where it is, but hints that it’s “nestled among stunted Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir under snow-capped, 12,000-foot peaks.”
Even bad days on the water are good days for Gierach; though with his level of expertise, it sounds like he has plenty of good days. It’s easy to imagine Gierach telling his stories around a campfire, partly because of his conversational habit of using “you,” and a certain gentle sense of humor. It’s also because he has no use for pretension, using the same gear for decades at a time, though happily trying out newfangled stuff. He dismisses the kind of anglers who come from big cities, decked out in L.L. Bean, to hang out at high-end resorts. “It startles me to think any kind of fishing is upscale,” he writes. Open cans of pork ’n’ beans bubbling on a campfire are the kind of amenities Gierach is comfortable with. He’s passionate about watershed health and environmental protection, too, but not to the point of being preachy about it.
For Gierach, fishing is also about the community he meets along the way. I get a kick out of his eye for characters and summation of likable, down-to-earth types. His friend Bill, for instance, formerly “Wild Bill the single fishing guide,” now a married housepainter, can “come and go as he pleases as long as he’s fishing or hunting, but he can’t walk into a bar without his wife on his arm.” Gierach and Bill fish the legendary Huron Mountain Club in Michigan with Sammy, a 16-year-old “compact, broad-shouldered” hockey-playing kid that Bill has taken under his wing.
Gierach speaks with the self-assuredness and quiet enthusiasm of someone whose life has been oriented toward doing what he likes best; his days are immersed in the language of rods, tackle, waterways and writing.
People aspiring to follow a career path that involves doing what they love, like Gierach has, would do well to pay the closest attention to the opening chapter, where he explains the winding path his life took to get him to the right place. It began with an outdoorsy childhood, followed by years of part-time jobs, a willingness to work and being good-natured about occasionally sketchy circumstances. “You continue to try things on for size: jobs, friends, ideas, writing styles, outdoor sports, various controlled substances that are available at the time and a wide range of wild country in all seasons,” he writes. “...You make some mistakes, but none of them are fatal.”
Gierach mentions that maintaining a trustworthy reputation—he’s known for being a fisherman who can keep his mouth shut about primo locations dear to locals—helps him gain access that others might not get. After 30-some years of writing about fly fishing as a career, Gierach says he has the same sort of daily problems as anybody, but he’s ultimately pretty satisfied that stuff like fly rods and fishing lodges are tax write-offs for him.
He complains, at one point, that he only had two days off between one trip and another. Gierach prefers a life with the same easy pace of an afternoon casting from a gently bobbing boat on a lake. It doesn’t make for the most action-packed or intense anecdotes, but a reader can learn a whole lot about fishing—and about life—than they might have expected reading this book.
John Gierach reads from All Fishermen Are Liars at Fact and Fiction, 220 N. Higgins Ave., Thu., April 24 at 7 PM.