Eric Engberg, one of my fishing buddies a couple decades ago, was an on-the-air reporter for CBS News for 26 years until he had emergency bypass surgery, bagged his television career in 2002, bought a used trawler and retired to Florida to fish and enjoy the good life.
He told me a year or two after he retired that he had gotten rid of his television and made it a point never to watch the news because he regarded it as an unnecessary distraction that might interfere with his fishing. Eric had found his calling, which was to chase fish rather than the next news story that obsessed most of his former colleagues.
A few years before he retired, Eric took his wife with him on a vacation (which he saw as a fishing trip) to Colorado. After a few days, he told me later, his wife had pretty much had her fill of following him from stream to stream and decided to visit a mall, but didn’t insist he accompany her.
So Eric set off on a quest for John Gierach, a former hippie who grew up fishing in Minnesota and moved to Colorado years before to chase trout and hoped to eke out a living writing about it. Neither goal proved elusive. Mr. Gierach has spent 50 years or so catching a lot of fish and not just in Colorado which he makes clear he still loves and is excited to hook a 10-inch brook trout as a 50-inch muskie or just about anything in between.
He’s also written some 22 books and attracted readers who rightly consider him the reigning dean of fly-fishing writers. All of his books are about a lot more than fishing; they’re about the beauty of the country, dogs and perhaps most of all life. He’s found an audience that only begins with devotees of fly-fishing, but to fly-fishers he was pretty special even then.
Eric called me the next morning to tell me that he’d made his way to Mr. Gierach’s hometown and to the fly shop he sometimes mentioned in his books.
“I walked in and there he was with his fishing buddy A.K. Best. They were standing by a pot-bellied stove enjoying their morning coffee.” He continued excitedly telling me about it, “The whole scene was just as I’d imagined it. It was like I’d walked into one of Gierach’s books … or the Twilight Zone.” Eric found himself tongue-tied as he shook hands with the two legends about whom he’d read so much. He told me, “I’ve interviewed Presidents, King and celebrities and never been at a loss for words, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. So I just blurted out: ‘Mr. Gierach, I really love your writing.’”
Actually, anyone who has read John Gierach could have told Eric that that’s what they would have said had they been there that morning. Mr. Engberg said it all. Anyone, including those who’ve never held a fly rod or seen much sense in chasing either 10-inch brookies or 50-inch muskies who has read one of his books, would have said exactly the same thing.
John Gierach’s latest is “Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers.” It’s a tour through his life from his arrival in Colorado when a small but unexpected inheritance allowed him to alight there and buy the “least expensive house” in the county in which he settled. The house may not have been much, but was near a small stream with some decent fishing and that made all the difference.
He’s travelled a lot in the years since and writes of many of those trips, including his return to the Midwest and fishing for trout in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Non-anglers may get a little lost since he mentions flies they’ll have a hard time visualizing, but they’ll enjoy it nonetheless. He writes a lot about dogs and especially “fishing” dogs. He’s known a lot of them and to Mr. Gierach some of them seem to have been at least as interesting as some of the people who crowd the once solitary streams he still loves.
Mr. Gierach evokes the feel of the areas in which he’s lived or visited in a way that anyone who has been to places like them will recognize. On one trip he and a fishing buddy wanted a pizza and were referred, rather hesitantly, one surmises, to a “biker bar” on the outskirts of the little town in which they found themselves because, well, it had the best pizza in the area.
His description of the bar puts you there and says a lot about where many of us are today: “there were a few hogs in the gravel parking lot and Steppenwolf on the jukebox, but many of the bikers who were convincingly menacing back in the Fifties and Sixties are grandparents on social security who go to bed at nine o’clock.”
Open it, read it and, like Eric, me or John Gierach fans the world over, you’ll end up wanting to read everything the man has written because you, too, will really love his writing.
• David Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
• • •
DUMB LUCK AND THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
By John Gierach
Simon & Schuster, $27, 240 pages
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.