“Fishing is not a hobby; it is who we are.”
I’m not a fisherman; chances are I won’t ever be. But, last year, I wrote my soon-to-be-published novel The Pukur and I needed advice on the subject. One of the major character’s hobby is fly fishing. I knew nothing about the subject at the time but spent a very pleasant afternoon with a friend, who was a fanatical fly fishing hobbyist, learning all about this strange and obsessive world.
I jumped at the chance then to review David Joy’s new book, Growing Gills. I figured it would give me insight into the fisherman’s mind which wouldn’t hurt while my novel is in the last stages of editing. There’s always room for a little more research.
I wasn’t disappointed.
David Joy, a self-confessed ichthyologist, was obsessed with fish from a very early age. By the age of five he knew how to hold a rod, set the hook, prepare the reel and so on. By eleven he was raiding his teenage sister’s ten-gallon aquarium to use for his own fish. Though this first and last foray into keeping live fish proved disastrous (for his traumatised sister at least) it reinforced Joy’s desire to be in the fish world rather than the human one.
This is not to imply that Joy didn’t enjoy eating fish too. “I was born into a school of cannibalistic fish,” he tells us – with characteristic bluntness – when describing the cartoonesque image of mealtimes with his family.
“We spent so many hours casting to bream and eating their fried bodies that we all started resembling the fish we caught.”
It’s a vivid picture.
Although Joy writes obsessively about fish, in many ways his book is more about the people connected to his life on the rivers making his book accessible even for non-enthusiasts like me. His descriptions of those close to him are a pleasure to read and often most tender. His affection for his granny is obvious:
“…all I could focus on as a twelve-year-old were her hands. Hands that had picked cotton, cleaned fish, mixed cobblers, and held young’uns now exposed brittle bones and fragile skin as delicate as tissue paper. The story of her life was spelled out across her palms, each line a narrative of her eighty years.”
He never strays far from a reference to aquatic life, however, describing her with “blue veins peeping through the skin of her hands like the forks of an azure river, even her blood mimicking water.”
Occasionally, Joy’s language is a little clumsy and there are some minor, mildly irritating punctuation errors which spoil the flow. But then is he’s describing the world of a fisherman and not the finer points of Plato – though, with a degree in Literature, I am sure he could do that just as well and he certainly quotes from many a fine writer along the way.
Nevertheless, the minor flaws are quite forgivable and part of the charm of the author’s storytelling technique. Reading Growing Gills is like chatting with the fly fisherman himself – rambling, a little ad hoc and, occasionally, a little lacking in direction, but eminently enjoyable. Don’t wait for a punchline or a climax to the book – just enjoy it for what it is: A fisherman’s tales of love and devotion to the waters.
On the whole, he actually writes with artistic skill and certainly sucks the reader into his world of ‘stocked brookies’, ‘bows’ and the importance of cork grips; and especially what those corks really mean for this fisherman.
In his vivid and generous descriptions of other fishermen, like his hash-stoned but expert fly-making friend Zac, you can’t help but admire these artists, or as Joy puts it “Piscatorial Picassos”. Even a non-fisherman such as I am can appreciate – and even be mildly jealous of – the great care and skill with which these unusual folk chase their fish.
Joy gives a great deal of detail about the technique of fishing – this is a world of ‘Woolly Worms’, ‘Parachutes Adams’ and ‘Pheasant Tails’ – yet he never bores, never gets lost in the details. Like a skilful story-teller who knows when to give the reader setting and when to get on with driving the story onwards, so Joy keeps the momentum going by mixing up moments of technical knowledge with the tales themselves.
Sometimes, he even offers philosophical moment contemplating the nature of life as taught to him by the rivers in his life:
“I’ve spent years reading the words of the great philosophers, from Plato to Nietzsche. Though their prose left me awed, their thoughts never taught me as much about life as time spent knee-deep in the water with a fly hung in the hemlocks. Just as soon as my ego grows and head swells, there always seems to be a tree limb to knock me down a peg.”
Elsewhere, he says:
“The wild was nothing more than exactly what it was. Everything was true. Really, there is no greater truth on earth than the reality of the natural world. Humans should dare to be so honest.”
My favourite section of the book describes this adoration for nature best. Joy’s description of night-fishing is captivating. I could imagine being there under a full moon, on the river bank with beer in hand and fish that I’d caught stacked up ready to prepare for a rich and tasty breakfast perhaps. I wanted to be where he was and I felt jealous of the author as he described the coolness of the night; the beauty, mystery and serenity of nature in the dark. I could almost smell the water and taste the fish as I read his words.
Joy has interesting quirks. He won’t kill a trout, for instance. All other fish he will happily catch, kill and cook but not the trout. For Joy, trout are “higher on the totem than others”. Furthermore, Joy describes how he kisses the ‘slimy flesh’ of many of the fish he catches – right on the nose. That’s not for me, no matter how beautiful they look, but still, I admire his devotion.
It is much later – in fact, near the end of the book – when we find out it is a tradition of Joy’s harking back to his childhood, watching Jimmy Houston kiss every bass he hooked on TV. For the author, this is not just about catching fish; his whole life is wrapped up in even the simplest activities. I believe that if you permanently removed the author from his beloved rivers he would gasp for breath as if he was a fish himself.
Of course, no fisherman’s tales could be complete without the ‘one that got away’ and David Joy certainly has more than one. He warms us up early on with the tale of ‘the ugliest fish in the sea’ (named Spike, naturally) but later tells of the one that didn’t so much ‘get away’ as ‘never came near’! After hours of trying to catch the attention of a ‘monster brown’ to no avail, the author had to concede defeat. In Joy’ words: “Anthropomorphizing or not, that fish was smart”. Another tale is about what he calls the ‘grass eater’ a fish that caused Joy to resort to “monosyllabic cursing…more crushing than finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real…”. Even as a non-fisherman, I feel his pain.
Still, Joy is philosophical about these defeats – even welcoming them:
“In many ways the fish that get away are more satisfying than the twenty-inch trout that occasionally take the fly…These are the fish that grow twelve inches by the time the story is told, the fish that lead to tales of Volkswagen-size catfish swimming below a dam, the fish that rip drag, break rods, shatter egos, and never look back. These fish are the reason that I trim my line, tie on a new hook, and cast again.”
I feel certain that any fly fisherman will empathise with this kind of thinking – more than I can. In fact, even though this book is the fishing memoirs of an American fly fisherman, I would recommend it for any man or woman who enjoys the world of chasing, catching and eating fish. Growing Gills is an ideal bedtime companion for any obsessive ichthyologist or for someone who just enjoys getting the rod out from time to time.
For me, I enjoy fish best when they are on the plate and ready to eat. That’s as near as I want to get to these aquatic delights. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed David Joy’s stories in Growing Gills and I envied him for the harmony he has known with nature.
If you are looking for a gift for that fish fanatic in your family – for the times when they’re in the house and not out on the river – Growing Gills is the perfect choice.
Growing Gills by David Joy is published by Bright Mountain Books and is available at Amazon.com
This book review was commissioned by, and first appeared, on Bookhub May 2013