Mike Lawson's 'Spring Creeks'

Mike Lawson's 'Spring Creeks'

Plus, striped bass 'On The Run,' and two books by Stephen Bodio

  • By: Seth Norman
On the Run: An Angler's Journey Down the Striper Coast By David DiBenedetto (2003: William Morrow) 256 pp; $24.95 (?) Well researched and written, On the Run presents vignettes of many East Coast striper notables, and some of them are out of their minds. Better yet, the book delivers descriptions of places that, taken together, offer both a north-to-south portrait of a Phoenix fishery, as well as hope. If linesides can make a comeback-if anglers and others can exert the influence to filter, un-dam, regulate, lawyer and legislate conservation measures-then maybe other species will see a renaissance someday.In the meantime, what's happening from Maine to the Outer Banks is exciting enough to catch and keep a young's man fancy. Also get him to quit his job and abandon Manhattan for a while, along with a girlfriend to whom the author explains his intentions, then never mentions again… Mission: to follow through a season the southbound striper migration, Labor Day to somewhere in December, casting all the while. (This has been done at least once before, which doesn't subtract anything from David DiBenedetto's venture.) From deserted beaches and crowed jetties…while standing waist-deep on wave-rocked boulders surrounded by foam…from big boats and small, a raft and a kayak…even while buoyed only by a neoprene bodysuit and fins-are float tubes for wimps now?-swimming out into swells, there to fight fish whose first run may plant you face first in the sea. If this is angling as an extreme sport on occasion, and occasionally an urban adventure, then it's fair to say of DiBenedetto that he "got game." He certainly is game: if there's somebody out there selectively spearing stripers while free-diving, or filming them while holding his breath, he'll have at it, although not without trepidation. In fact, the author will almost always answer the call of a bass blitz. If the winds are howling he'll throw a Kastmaster or plug. If his sage of the day says "eels it is," he'll drown one. Whenever he can, he casts flies. I started by saying On the Run is well written. It's a challenge to slip so much history into a travel story and ease descriptions of places and people and movements into the flow, between tides as it were. But DiBenedetto manages well enough that I inhaled his book in a day. (I was snowbound, true, but I could have distracted by my vise or other vices.) Often he relies on finding the right person, letting him or her talk, then distilling dialogue that does double or triple duty-revealing character, personalizing politics and offering "here's how I catch them." One of DiBenedetto's quests, to find and interview the man who caught the current world record-and with it a quarter million dollar prize-requires some dogged footwork, raises difficult questions, and is ultimately suffused with an odd pathos. "Most anglers I met, though they didn't know the man, despised him. I'd been told he was drifter, a cheat, a junkie, and an alcoholic-all of it unsubstantiated…" When the author does get his man, he elicits this plaintive summation: "He took a deep breath… 'You know,' he said, 'I was just doing something I loved. I can't read or write, but if I could, I'd publish a book called The Night I Hooked the Devil.' " Interesting stuff, and I hope to see more from this author. Maybe after somebody shows him a trout. Spring Creeks By Mike Lawson (Stackpole Books: 2003) 288 pp; hardcover; $59.95 It's all about challenge. Slick waters full of cruelly selective fish, sometimes monstrously large, which scrutinize your efforts and punish every error… Spring creeks have a special place in the world of fly-fishing and the hierarchy of practice. Some anglers head to famous venues already practicing rueful smiles, expecting humiliation-less hopeful of scoring than a slow-pitch softball player invited to face Nolan Ryan. It's not really skunked, you know, when some finny smoothwater sage ignores your trico. It's only evidence that you tried and failed to find the Grail. On the other hand, to triumph on these waters suggests a fisher has reached the sine qua non. Success is de facto evidence that he or she went prepared with good tackle, waded well into the right position, cleverly matched the hatch, presented precisely, then hooked a fish fought with a soft touch and wise hands. Indeed, it's likely that on the way home they bowled a 300 game, played below par at Augustus, and maybe crewed the America's Cup. Mike Lawson "grew up fishing the Henry's Fork" with a fly rod. It's a measure of his reputation that Gary LaFontaine and Jack Dennis were among those insisting he write Spring Creeks. It's a measure of the author himself that he hesitated, daunted by the task, and by admiration for his predecessors in print. Lawson reels off of list of these authors in an introduction where he also describes the fitful starts and stops that led to Spring Creeks, acknowledging that while rereading favorite books to build his confidence he was instead "crushed with humility." "The first time around, I read with the desire to learn how to catch selective trout on spring creek waters. I didn't fully comprehend the contributions that were the hallmark of these respected anglers… More importantly, I realized there really isn't anything new in this kind of fishing… What could I add that hadn't already been discovered and written about?" What indeed? Lots, it turns out. Appropriately enough, a piece of the answer to that lies in Lawson's appreciation of others' insights. Hardly a page goes by that he doesn't cite somebody else. With many mentors he identifies where and when he discovered their work, how the ideas he encountered influenced his approach and perspective, perhaps how he adapted these to conditions he met on his own home waters; and, on occasion, Lawson takes issue. Most often he uses sources to initiate, amplify or expand a lesson: "I didn't fully understand spring creeks and their correlation to my own fishing until I read A Modern Dry Fly Code by Vincent Marinaro… " "According to Malcom Knopp in Mayflies, tricos are multi-brooded, producing morning hatches between June and October. In my personal experience, they are much more important during the latter part of the season… " "If the trout doesn't move to your dead-drifted nymph, try giving it a little line twitch as it approaches his field of vision. Sawyer described this 'induced rise' technique in Nymphs and the Trout." To amplify and expand on that point, Spring Creeks bibliography contains more than 50 books, and I bet half of them are cited more than a dozen times. Vincent Marinaro, Alfred Ronalds, Frederick Halford, George Skues, Brian Clark, John Goddard, Col. E.W. Harding, John Hewitt, Charlie Brooks, Dave Whitlock, Joe Brooks, Fred Arbona, Frank Sawyer, Doug Swisher, Carl Richards, Ernie Schwiebert, Art Lee and Art Flick…You get the picture. You also get lots of pictures in the nearly 300 pages of this large format book, some simply gorgeous, others instructive, especially Dave Hall's illustrations. The images punctuate 11 chapters, beginning with introductions to spring creeks generally and to the trout that live there. Major insect groups each get a chapter of their own; so do terrestrials; and Lawson has lots to say about baitfish and crustaceans. There's "Matching the Hatch," and "Unmatching the Hatch," "Presentation," "Strategies" and "Responsibilities," along with appendices on flies and equipment. While this arrangement leads to reiteration-the life cycle of a mayfly obviously ties to presentation, strategy, and patterns-that was fine with me, given the amount the information. I also appreciated that many or most of the lessons arrived via Lawson's own adventures, offered in a voice that's soon familiar, and often conspicuous for self-deprecating humor. In a tome this size, about subjects often complex, pedantry would have prevented me getting very far. Instead, I felt comfortable. Eagle Dreams Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia By Stephen J. Bodio (Lyons Press: 2003) 256 pp; hardcover; $22.95 On the Edge of the Wild Passions' and Pleasures of a Naturalist (Lyons Press: 1998 and 2003) 208 pp; Trade Paperback; $12.95 Long time readers of this magazine and column will be pleased to hear that Steve Bodio-my predecessor as FR&R's Books editor-has released a new book, and that one of his essay collections is now in paperback. To the latter first: On the Edge of the Wild contains a pair of superb essays on fishing, lots on hunting; also sections on raptors, food, and "the kind of life I found worth living so far." They're all pure Bodio: thoughtful, learned, full of lyrical passages about country that measure up to anybody writing today. All these qualities pale beside the most salient element of the author's style: heart. Eagle Dreams, Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia, has nothing to do with fly fishing, so will only engage readers interested in truly unusual country, memorable characters, and the intricate relationships between people and animals. It's really all about respect, honor, insight and appreciation-and eagles of course, perched on gauntlets, staring across steppes studded by monoliths, sometime over oceans of bones…watching and waiting to hunt from on high. At one point Bodio borrows an old German adage to describe Libby, his wife: "I'd steal horses with this woman." If he does, I'll buy the book.