Dad with a nice mess of crappie, Lake Cumberland, early 1960s.
He has been gone more than 31 years now. I still think about him several times every day. And, good lord, miss him. Woke up this morning thinking about him. Apologies to Facebook friends who've already seen this photo, but it's one of my favorites. It's hard to think about Dad without thinking about fishing and cleaning fish.
Back in the early nineties, on the odd summer day when my daughters didn't have a soccer game or practice, I'd blast off from my engineering job toward a certain large bass pond about an hour and a half north of Dallas. If everything came together - meaning no more than two or three people wrecked or stalled on Central Expressway - I'd get to the pond, launch my float tube, and enjoy an hour or so of good bluegill fishing on little popping bugs. When surrounding post oaks and blackjack oaks began to cast shadows on the water, I'd switch to slightly larger deer hair bugs - #6 or #4 being all I could handle with a 6 weight rod - and catch lots of small largemouth bass and an occasional three or four-pounder. I'd clamber up the steep bank after dark, load my tube, sit on the tailgate and sip Ski when I had it and Diet Coke when I didn't, and listen to the sound of things being eaten out on the dark water. On the way home, I'd stop for a greasy cheeseburger at a certain joint, then, about 11:00, crawl in next to J., who never asked for a fishing report until the next morning.
I wore out one of those old-style, inner-tube, low-rider Caddis float tubes. I finally tossed the thing when it started falling apart around 2010. As I recall, I paid around $50 for it - as good a purchase as I've ever made. Sure, I always hoped no one would be there to watch me launch the thing or flounder out of the water after dark, and even with a 9-foot rod, my back casts slapped the water whenever I got lazy, but the old tube sure beat the hassle of a johnboat or even a canoe.
Since J. and I bought our lake shack, my fishing has been a matter of walking down the hill and wading along the rocky shore. Just after sunrise or just before dark, I'll catch plenty of small bass and, occasionally, one that puts a worrisome bend in my 6-weight rod.
Lately, I'm getting restless for some of my old ponds and a certain stretch of a certain river. Tube or Kayak? The tubes are much improved nowadays. Easier to launch and get in and out of, and you ride a lot higher. Everyone seems to be going to kayaks, especially in deep East Texas, where anything bigger than a puddle holds alligators nowadays, but I do most of my fishing well north of Dallas. Yes, gators seem to be making their way into the Red-River drainage, but, for now, they're rare. Furthermore, I can't see how a kayak can be anything but a hassle in the near-constant North Texas wind.
Eventually, I'll have one of each, but the tube will come first. I'd already made up my mind, but this video just reinforced my thinking:
"On April 29, 1862, at Rancho Santa Gertrudis,
Richard and Henrietta King welcomed their fourth
child, a daughter named Alice Gertrudis. Her
name seems fitting. She was born on ground she
served the rest of her life. And through her eventual
marriage to Robert Justus Kleberg the King
Ranch empire would continue and grow. From
that King-Kleberg union came another baby girl,
one who would grow rooted in another place in the
Wild Horse Desert: San Antonio Viejo."
Day before yesterday, after a one last email on a proposed word change, we brought the design/editorial phase of Horses to Ride, Cattle to Cut: The San Antonio Viejo Ranch of Texas to a close. By now, the files should've gone out to the printer. The book will be available in October. This afternoon, after two years of work, I gathered up the mess of folders, drafts, and proofs from my desk and the floor and piled them into a big file box. I have one or more of these boxes for all nine of my books. You can accumulate a lot of material over the course of a long project.
The last item to go in, a worn Moleskine notebook, contains all of my notes and the first draft of the book, written in fragments of a few paragraphs or pages at a time among the notes. When I felt I had the makings of a book, I typed and organized these fragments, polishing as I went, into a pretty good second draft. After another four drafts, the manuscript was ready for submission.
Although I usually do magazine articles and columns entirely on my laptop, I've always written first drafts of my most challenging works - long essays and books - longhand. Friends and family obsessed with efficiency find this appalling, but I've found it far easier to finish a first draft longhand because I'm less likely to stop and re-read my own scrawl and therefore less likely to lose confidence, which builds as the pages accumulate.
Just before I put the lid on the box, I opened the notebook at random to the beginning of a section entitled "La Madama." It's dated 10/31/15. Amazing. It feels like I wrote those paragraphs a couple weeks ago.
I always expect to feel relief if not euphoria at this point, but I never do. Mostly I'm tired, unfocused and loathe to think about that next magazine deadline.
Back in the nineties, I plowed through every book John Gierach had written and snatched up his new ones as soon as they came out. Since his break-through Trout Bum (1986) he has been incredibly prolific and, even more impressive, consistent. Although I’ve liked some Gierach essays better than others, I don’t recall a single one I’ve finished and thought, “Well, he’s finally showing some strain.” Not to say he doesn’t sweat over every piece. They’re all tight and elegant, never pretentious.
If I had to pick a favorite Gierach Book, I’d grit my teeth and go with The View from Rat Lake, (1988) published by Pruett, the small, respected regional publisher that also published Trout Bum. (Simon & Schuster has been his publisher for the past couple decades.) But if I had to choose a favorite essay – a just-short-of-impossible task – I’d have to go with “Neither Snow, nor Rain, nor Gloom of Night,” the ninth essay in his Sex Death and Fly-Fishing (1990). If you’ve spent a significant portion of your life hunting, fishing, or birding, you know that good things often happen in weather sane people call “miserable.” Which brings to mind another great Gierach line, one I can’t find at the moment. But I love it and quote it from memory:
“Then the weather turned really nasty. It was perfect.”
I’ll quote precisely from “Neither Rain …”:
“The Blue-Winged Olives happened at least once, either on the Frying Pan or the South Platte: a dank, hideous day of wild fishing at the end of which we wring out our clothing, drive to a bar, and sit in a corner steaming, sipping coffee, looking mean and crazy.”
Been there? I’m thinking of quail hunting in the hills south of the Middle Pease on days so cold your teeth hurt when you got winded enough to breathe from your mouth, and you’d drive back to a certain little diner to sit among other quail hunters and drink a gallon of coffee, knowing the day was growing even colder and you couldn’t miss the late afternoon hunting.
In the last and best part of “Neither Rain …” Gierach describes several days of autumn fishing on the Frying Pan, with his buddy A.K. Best:
“The clouds were low enough that I couldn’t see the lip of the canyon, only where the red cliffs, now more of an antique rust color, dissolved. The rocks were wet and shiny, with rainwater running over them, sometimes in flat sheets, sometimes in little eroding streams that you could hear over the noise of rain and the river.”
The fishing was fabulous, and Gierach landed a big rainbow .
“There had been no other fisherman, and all day only two or three cars had passed on the road, but as we climbed out of the river a guy in some kind of sports car pulled up. He rolled his window down two inches and said through the crack, “Getting any big fish?”
“’I just landed a five-pound rainbow on a number eighteen dry fly,’ I said.
“‘No no,’ he said. ‘I mean really big fish.’
“The guy was young, well-dressed, dry, warm, sitting in a sports car with the heater going.
“’You’re an asshole,’ I said.”
As I quote John Gierach, summer solstice is less than a week away. It’s getting hot in North Texas. I’m looking forward to that first cold, drizzly, perfect day of fall. In the meantime, I plan to reread a bunch of Gierach essays.
Here's the likely cover. Layout is nearly done. Wyman and I are about to start a photo captioning marathon. Wyman shot some 33,000 photos for this project. We're down to a couple hundred plus my 20,000-word essay.
"I wanted a good shot of Leon showing his eyes ( bluer than Leo's ). He is Leo's nephew. Leon was a slow starter. He was two years old before he knew I was in the cattle business. He would go with me, but he was just on a lark. He was just running and being happy, while the other dogs worked. He reminded me of Marmaduke, in the cartoons. Then the last few times I took him out with the other dogs he started to work. The light switch came on."
Funny how that happens. How many potentially good dogs are wasted because of our lack of patience? Good for Randy for giving Leon time to grow up.
With dear friend Cathy Bishop. No trip to Bowling Green is complete without seeing Cathy and Mike Bishop. (Thanks to Mike for snapping the photo.)
I spent last Saturday at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival in Bowling Green. What a great day. I met and chatted with David Madden – one of my literary heroes – and sat next to Dana Chamblee Carpenter, whose new novel, Bohemian Gospel, is selling briskly and receiving strong reviews. Over the course of the day, Dana and I covered a lot of conversational ground, ranging from Southern literature to football (she wanted to play in high school) to the merits of introversion to the virtues of coffee.
This was one of the nicest, best organized literary events I’ve attended; big enough to draw a good crowd, but not so big as to be hectic and confusing. My thanks to event coordinator Sara Volpi and other staff members and volunteers. Of course I’m proud of the festival’s association with my beloved Western Kentucky University.
J. and I spent four of the happiest years of our lives in Bowling Green. We left, reluctantly, only because the careers we’d prepared for weren’t available there. It’s hard to convey the feeling of peace and gratitude I experience whenever I visit familiar places in my old home. Driving from Louisville, where I enjoyed a long lunch with my niece Courtney Chappell Boyer, I got off I-65 as soon as I could, and took backroads to Bowling Green. As I drove into Edmondson Country, Grayson County, and Warren County on once familiar roads I hadn’t traveled in 34 years, the dogwoods blooming in the greening woods and the familiar accent at stops for gas and coffee brought on something close to heartache.
So his April 25 email, accompanied by a photo of another Catahoula at work, with the question “Does this dog remind you of another dog,” made my day.
According to Randy, “He is a nephew of Leo. He is not the dog Leo was, but there is still hope. Happy!” Of course no dog is ever as good as the great one that died too young. But I know Randy, and he won’t put up with a sorry dog. I’m betting Leon will make a good one.