Interview: John Gierach

By Scott Richmond

John Gierach is the best-known fly-fishing writer of this generation. Last month he traveled through the Northwest on a tour to promote his new book, At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman.

I met John at the Perfect Cup, a cafe in the historic Willamette district of West Linn. John pushed back his Filson hat and lunched on a tuna sandwich. I sipped a cup of tea. Between sips and bites we chatted about his latest book and the state of Western fly fishing.

Westfly: John, tell me about your new book, At the Grave of the Unknown Fly Fisherman. Is it another collection of essays?

Gierach: It's essays, but they're linked to each other. The book is more of a continuous narrative than my other books. It follows a fishing season--before, during, and after. It's more novelistic than my other books.

Novelistic? How do you mean?

It's an accretion of detail. You see the story happening rather than be told what's happening. I noticed that the book is shorter than my others, which is good. It means the writing is tighter.

Glen Wolf did the artwork at the start of each chapter, as he did for my other recent books.

How many books have you written now?

Fourteen. Fifteen if you count my first book, a book of poems.

How did you get started writing?

I wrote recreationally in high school. I was published in the school literary magazine.

Did you read a lot when you were young?

I was sick a lot when I was a kid. My mother read to me. She got books in fields I liked at the time. Hunting, African safaris, stuff like that. Hemingway. Later I got into Steinbeck, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gary Snyder.

Who do you read today?

Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Mark Spragg, James Galvin, Annie Proulx, among others.

Whose writing influenced your style?

Hemingway, Harrison, McGuane. Of course all writing today is influenced by Hemingway's style.

Which fishing writers do you like?

I don't read many fishing writers, although I like Ted Leeson's work. Generally I prefer authors who aren't fishing writers. They don't have an ax to grind. They don't have "attachments"--don't automatically self-edit to avoid pissing off advertisers. That's one of the advantages of writing a book: you can say what you can't say in a magazine. You can develop a story better, write a longer, more elaborate and charged piece.

You write out of your "flow of life," don't you?

I guess. Fishing doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's part of real life. The traditional "Field and Stream" article showed a world where only cliches existed. Everything was idyllic and perfect. That's a cold, male fantasy, not the real world. McGuane--and Gingrich, to a lesser degree--put fishing in the real world.

What trends do you see in fly fishing writing today?

You see more woman on magazine covers. That doesn't mean they haven't been fly fishing all these years, though. There's never been a shortage of women fly anglers. In the 1890s there were women's waders and shoes. Cork grips were developed for women, not men. Up till then grips were rattan, but rattan was too rough for women. There were enough women fishing that it was economically feasible to build rods with a cork grip for women's softer hands. Within ten years nearly all rods were built with cork grips.

What other trends do you see?

There's too much emphasis on the "big" waters. In the last decade there's been the marketing of unrealistic expectations. It used to be that you could go seasons without catching a 20-inch trout. Now if people don't catch several in one trip they won't tip their guide.

I was on a panel at a sportsmen's show, and one guy was pimping a lodge where you could "catch 40-50 five-pound trout" in a day. Why would you want to do that? Wouldn't you get bored? Most guys I know would rather stay in their cabin and get hammered than fish like that.

You look at the magazine ads today and it's all scoring--size and body count. I don't see that attitude in the anglers I run into.

Could that be because of the places you fish?

Probably. I see a lot of young, "extreme" fly fishers, anglers who are into other sports. They're hip and don't like commercialism or class distinctions. They fish really well with cheap gear that you don't see advertised much.

You like to fish the small headwater streams, don't you?

Yes. I love the backcountry, up above the dams. You know, fishing's been good up there despite the drought. The low water is all below the dams. That's part of the problem with the press's emphasis on the big waters. Everyone goes there. Well, maybe that's good--for me. There's thousands of miles of open water above the big-name tailwaters.

If you know a region, you know where to go under all conditions. I love my part of the country. If I didn't write books, I'd never fish more than sixty miles from home.

Really?

Well, maybe not. I do like to see new places now and then. Try new things. I've done some steelheading recently.

Where?

I wanted to learn to spey cast because it was so intriguing to watch. I fished with Mark Bachman on the Deschutes and the Sandy in Oregon.

Mark's a good guide. I've fished with him and learned a lot about spey casting from him. Did you catch some steelhead?

I hooked a few and landed some of them. I got so I could spey cast and not hook myself.

I'd be standing in the river and feeling like my casting was pretty good because I could handle all the runs I was fishing. Then I realized that we'd passed by four or five good runs and that Mark was only putting me in the ones that suited my novice spey casting ability. It's the sign of a good guide that it took me a couple of days to realize that.

John, you fish, you write. What do you do for fun?

I have a personal life that I enjoy and don't talk about in public places. But writing and fishing are my passions. Like all passions, they're great when they're going well, and awful when they're not. Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get. They keep drawing you out. You never get perfect.

Thanks for talking to Westfly. And good luck with the new book.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).