Howell Raines, former New York Times executive editor and author of several books on fly-fishing and politics, always impressed me, not always positively. He tended toward pompous, even after his resignation from the Old Gray Lady in the wake of a plagiarism scandal involving one of his ace reporters.
This is also the opinion I took away from his writing and speeches. Of the latter, I heard plenty. During his hey-day in the 1990s, Raines was a popular speaker at various southern press association meetings. Alabama-boy-made-good, the Birmingham native was sought as a keynote speaker on journalism and current issues: race, economics, foreign policy, presidential politics – you name it. Raines had the answers or, at least, pithy observations.
When Raines published his Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis in 1993, I marched into Books-A-Million and snatched a copy off the shelf, thinking it had to be a great book. Mixing a journalist’s insights with a paean on angling seemed a sure bet, and I couldn’t wait to start reading.
Raines, who had fly-fished with U.S. presidents and assorted VIPs since reeling crappie to the riverbank in the Heart of Dixie as a boy, looked back on his growing-up years in Alabama, when he learned to fish just like me. I started off with a cane pole, graduated to simple spin-cast outfits with names like Zebco and Bronson, and finally learned to handle a cheap flyrod that I used to bull-whip popping bugs into ponds for bluegill and bass.
It seems here the similarity in our lives ends. I was happy with a career at small newspapers; he aspired to a larger journalistic stage. I kept fishing in the tradition of my family and friends. He became an elite angler.
According to Raines, there is a branch in the road of angling that separates fishermen at a critical point in their lives, often around middle age. This detour, departure or road not taken (by the multitude) leads certain individuals away from what he calls “the Redneck Way of Fishing, which holds that the only good trip… is one ending in many dead fish,” and alternately down a path of purist pursuit, involving catch-and-release, meditation and enlightenment.
I recalled his book when crossing the Tennessee River on yet another mission to serve as a pallbearer for a family member who had passed away. The I-65 bridge between Decatur and Huntsville, Ala., spans bayous and sloughs where I grew up, learning to fish in the Redneck Way.
Those boyhood fishing places have names: Suzy Hole, Cottonmouth Slough, Blue Hole, Cave Springs, Jelly Hole, Flint Creek, Mussel Camp. You won’t find a single trout or salmon in these green, slow-flowing waters. But the crappie, bass, catfish, and bream fishing can amaze.
Donning rubber chest-waders or sculling dented aluminum boats, redneck anglers probe the flats that lay bare all winter (flood and mosquito control) but in spring are inundated with shallow water. Depending on rainfall, by mid-April TVA has the reservoir at “full pool,” and fishing begins to peak.
Looking back, I don’t recall our trips as quests for “many dead fish,” but rather an almost spiritual renewal of fellowship and common cause. We grew up fishing in this manner and never departed from it.
On my deathbed if the Lord allows me to frame favorite images from memory, these will include the faces of my wife, sons, grandchildren and family … and the rose light of April dawn over a slough filled with flooded button bushes, fence posts and willow trees.
My father and uncles will be there, encouraging me to step in the thigh-deep water, to feel the pressure on my wader legs and the squelch of mud on the bottom. Carrying our long, limber poles at parade rest, we carefully slide forward, headed for the nearest tangle of partially submerged undergrowth.
The innards of rusty metal minnow buckets trail behind us, attached to our wader belts and transporting live bait that we will swing on wire hooks into shady nooks where hungry slab crappie dwell. The excitement of a cork bobbling to disappear from sight, a weight and pull at the line’s terminus, and the black-spotted silver side of a fish flashing under willow branches is what I will remember.
I don’t need elite or purist. I am a redneck and fish this way. It runs in the blood and family. No need for a middle-aged epiphany to figure things out; I am long past that stage. Fishing isn’t Zen to me. It doesn’t need to transform, although it can.
Several of Christ’s disciples were poor, uneducated fishermen. They were looked down on by the elites. Jesus certainly wasn’t concerned about how they fished, only with the pureness of their faith. I think this is the message to remember, whether you ascribe to Howell Raines theory of angling or are comfortable with a pole, a bobber and a minnow.