On Fishing


Photo: A 21-inch Rainbow caught on the Blackfoot River above the Muchmore hole in early fall, 2009. October caddis dry fly with a nymph dropper; the 'bow took the nymph. Photo ©2009 Bob Burns


The following story about Norman Maclean (1902-1990) was first published in 1990 in Fly Rod & Reel; the following introduction prefaced the story in that magazine. It was published again in 2007 in Take Me Fishing: Fifty Great Writers on their Favorite Sport, an anthology edited by John Bryan.

Norman Maclean is now 87; ill health kept him from attending the 1989 Theodore Gordon Flyfishers banquet, where he would be presented with the Gingrich Award. Instead, John Maclean accepted the honor for his father, and then read this description of him. ... In November, he said his father had just come home from the hospital after another bout with pneumonia. Though he lives near Chicago, Maclean still keeps a cabin in Montana, about 50 miles from Missoula. He has signed a contract with Robert Redford to film his famous book, "A River Runs Though It," and production may begin next summer. Negotiations are also under way to publish Maclean's next book, tentatively called "Young Men and Fire," about a forest fire in Mann Gulch, near Helena, Montana, that killed 13 smokejumpers in 1949.



By John Maclean

When I was a teenager, finally big enough to keep up with my father on the Big Blackfoot River, he and I spent several summers alone in Montana at our cabin on Seeley Lake. We once fished 31 days in a row, filling the cabin's freezer with milk cartons that had big fishtails sticking out the top. There was no catch-and-release ethic in those days, and our idea of conservation was to catch-and-give-away to the non-fisher folk in the town of Seeley Lake, who appreciated the protein.

Norman Maclean

My father, Norman Maclean, fished with too many great fishermen to think he was the best, though at some aspects of the game he was better than anyone he fished against.


Once he had a fish on, he almost never lost it. He was a careful and patient player of trout:  The throb of the fish running through the light wand connected him to the natural world he worshipped even as his own father worshipped the natural and supernatural worlds, mingling the two. As you can tell from his book, A River Runs Through It, he fished waters deeper than the river in front of him.


After my father finally slid a fish onto the bank, rushing only at the end when the fish tired and its head could be held out of water, he would muse out loud for a while, especially if it were a big fish. He liked an audience, even if only one teenaged son, though it was clear he addressed a broader public even then.


Standing on the bank with the fish in his hand like a teacher holding out a text, he would recount the details of the battle. Inevitably he turned to what his brother and father would have thought if they had seen the show. His brother, Paul, was one helluva fisherman.


His brother told him, he often said in his muse, that there was nobody as good as Norman Maclean at landing a fish, though Paul criticized him for lacking his (Paul's) aggressiveness in going after fish in difficult spots. Paul became a presence with us on the river, a broad-shouldered figure with a slouch Stetson who would stop for a moment to admire my dad for his artfulness in playing a fish, but who was happy in the knowledge that his creel was heavier and fuller - and always would be.


The old man, my father's father, was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who believed that only God and big fish merited veneration. In his muse, my dad wondered what his father would have thought of him:  no answer came back. The old man was an austere presence, watching from atop high cutbanks as we - dad, Paul, and I - cast for a prize.


I am sorry my dad cannot be here tonight to accept this prestigious prize. He has become an old man himself now, and at 86 years of age can no longer climb the high cutbanks. But after many years of musing, he landed the big one in the end:  He got all the stories down the right way in one place. He has left his own presence in the remarkable book for which you honor him.


Now instead of being only with me when ghosts arise along the river, he will be among us all, as long as men fish and read books.

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