A River Trilogy: A Fly-Fishing Life, written by W.D. Wetherell. Skyhorse Publishing, 2018. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark for the Summer 2018 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.
Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. — Henry David Thoreau
A reissue of three reflections on fly fishing, Vermont River, One River More and Upland Stream, by prize-wining essayist and novelist W.D. Wetherell, this collection spans his love affair with the sport from boyhood to senior citizen status at age 70. All three present a monthly format, tracing his meditations as the fishing season and his years progress and the natural world order becomes more tenuous. At the completion of this 658 page journey, you will be a convert, if not to the sport of fly fishing itself but to a thoughtful appreciation of all lifeforms.
As someone who barely stayed awake during the classic film, A River Runs Through It, I was more than skeptical about reading this book. My fishing experiences are more of an ADHD variety: piloting a Boston Whaler over the bounding swells of the South Pacific landscape, searching for the sea birds to signpost an active school, and hanging on for dear life when hooking a giant fish. Wading into a river just seemed too tame.
While A River Trilogy is ostensibly about fishing, it is really using fishing as a metaphor for life. More accessible than Thoreau and less heavy-handed, Wettherell with his poetic phrases and knack for selecting the appropriate word for the task, teaches us that fly fishing, when viewed through a lens of quiet enjoyment and respect, is a worthy occupation. And surprisingly, many of his insights mirror some we all have had during our trail running. How many of us have stayed out beyond dark and safety, tempted by one more bend on an unfamiliar trail? Wettherell has done the same while tracing a stream to its source. And like us, he returns again and again over the years to note changes and take his explorations just a bit farther. Similarly, I never tire of the same trail outside my back door as each day reveals new discoveries.
Wetherell admits that more important than the actual fishing is using that activity as an excuse just to get out there and enjoy the outdoors. How many times have we felt compelled to drop all obligations at the beckoning of a perfect day? While training is the justified goal, often it is simply the excuse to escape from our boxed confinement. Only when folks appreciate the outdoors will the environmental issues seem less of an obligation and more of a natural progression.
So besides a general affinity for nature what does the sport of fly fishing have to do with the sport of trail running? Similar to the ski and shoot biathlons, there are now flyathons which involve running a marked trail while toting fishing gear, catching and photo shooting a fish and returning back to camp to sample various craft beers. Penalties are added if you fail to catch a fish and a bonus is in the offing if you net an especially large native variety. So far, most of these events are held out West, most notably the Rocky Mountain Flyathon series where a significant portion of the proceeds is targeted towards river and trail improvements. If you fail to locate a flyathlon in your area, there is always the tempting possibility of documenting your own FTK (Fastest Known Time). With the growing popularity of this independent quest, you are almost guaranteed to attract a following and find some new friends (and beers).
Whether you choose to pursue your fish alone, as Wetherell preferred, or in the company of like-minded competitors, remember that a river is simply a trail that is underwater and every bit as enticing as a dirt trail. Both are teeming with life and ripe for discovery.