Fishing for the Unknown: a Tribute to Jim Harrison
“Barring love I’ll take my life in large doses alone—rivers, forests, fish, grouse, mountains. Dogs.”
Each autumn the gales of November blow from Canada and raise 20-foot waves on Lake Superior that ravage the gorgeous and rugged shoreline of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Home to legendary American author Jim Harrison for much of his life, this coast of the freshwater sea pervades Harrison’s work in spirit and is home to many of his most enduring characters. A gem of that coast is Marquette, a town whose Landmark Inn houses a Jim Harrison suite.
Living in Marquette, I first read Harrison’s work as a twenty-something English major who’d been beckoned north by the wilds of the U.P. I was naïve of his status as a literary and cultural giant, as a novelist, poet, outdoorsman, fly angler, gourmand, and live-life-to-the-brim legend—though, like most people, I had heard of his most famous work, “Legends of the Fall.”
I didn’t know much about him, but his writing immediately struck me as real—a rarity in today’s MFA-driven literary world—real not only in place but also in character, in emotion, in the human relationship with the outdoors, in the nature of his poignant and epic storytelling and its ability to grab its readers by the shoulders and knee them straight in the guts. I was hooked, spending the next several years reading and rereading his extensive catalog.
His writing is typically set in the wild place he knew and loved: Montana, Mexico, Arizona, Northern Michigan, the Sandhills of Nebraska—and his characters’ lives revolve around the things he himself was passionate about: fly fishing, long hikes in the mountains, good food, philosophies of great poets. His prose and poetry is full of recurring themes likely to infuse themselves in the psyches of anyone passionate about the outdoors, like the idea of small gods inhabiting the natural world around us; they are fish, they are birds, they are fluttering abstractions that he could nearly see with his blind eye, its vision having been snuffed out in a boyhood accident. He, like his characters, relished the beautiful and potent aspects of the world: mountains, streams, rivers, lakes, forests, dogs, birds, fish, food, wine, whiskey, sex.
The connection I’ve felt with him and his work stems not only from the places where his stories are set, so many of which have played intimate roles in my own life, but also from the deep respect given to life, human and otherwise, and to things that were here long before us and will be here long after we’re gone—mountains, forests, rivers. This is not to say that his writing is serene and contrived; it simmers with bold humor and fresh observations on the absurdities of human behavior.
The RV’s library is small, but its Harrison selection is decent.
In reading each of Jim’s last several books, usually finishing each within days of its release, I’ve slowed my reading down toward the end, wanting to make it last, knowing that with Jim’s age, deteriorating health, and years of hard living, his words may soon be finite. I finished his last book, “The Ancient Minstrel,” on a road trip to Arizona this past March. The ending had such finality that I turned to my girlfriend and told her that I hoped he’d live long enough to write at least one more.
The next day I found out that he’d died at his Arizona home, pen in hand. He’d died the same afternoon I’d finished the book, perhaps at the same moment, for all I know. I’d never understood why people cared so much about the deaths of celebrities, how the death of somebody you’ve never met could have such significance, but now I understood.
Once, while living just down the road from Marquette’s Landmark Inn I heard from a friend that Jim was there, having a drink in the 16th floor bar that overlooks Lower Harbor. I thought about going but didn’t, not wanting to be the obnoxious gushing fan; this I regret. I did write him a letter once, which I like to think he read. I wrote about the places in Michigan we had in common, fishing, and his character Brown Dog, who to me is right up there with Huckleberry Finn as the quintessential character in American literature.
Brown Dog lives completely in the present, lives a life free of worry. If he has twenty bucks in his pocket it’s a windfall; he’ll buy a six-pack, hide a few pints of schnapps in the woods he frequents for a rainy day, and go catch a few brook trout for dinner. We should all be a bit more like Brown Dog; in that spirit I’ve invited some good friends to the RV that I now call home, which happens to be parked on the blue ribbon trout fishery that is Utah’s Weber River. I view this weekend as a sort of tribute to the life and work of my favorite writer. Our plans are simple: fish, drink, play with dogs, and eat well, making Jim’s meatball recipe on the Camp Chef.
The recipe, which he published in his collection “The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand” is now internet famous within the large and loyal following of his food and wine writing. I’ve made it before, but this time I’m adapting it for the camp kitchen. Eating well in the outdoors—Jim would have loved it.
We spend Friday night at the tavern and then casting mouse patterns into the black water until 3 am. Needless to say, we are moving slow on Saturday. Nothing much happens on the water anyway—no trout rising, no bites on nymphs or streamers.
We are skunked, disappointed, and discouraged. I take solace in Jim’s belief that good fishing doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the angler, or even the fish. “Good and bad aren’t part of my fishing lexicon,” he says in his essay, “Older Fishing,” from the fly fishing anthology Astream. “The good can be part of the quality of light that day, or the quality of bread, salami, or hot peppers at lunch. The bad can be weather under forty degrees, which I no longer care for.”
@jeff_sorenson and his fishin’ dog, Neko.
We get back to the Winnebago late in the afternoon, pour some drinks, and get to cooking. It feels good mincing garlic outside, preparing food more thoughtfully than simply tossing raw meat on the flame. The anchovies smell amazing as they melt into the olive oil, and we joke about putting one on a hook and casting it into the river; we’d probably have more luck that way.
We form the meatballs, nice and big, and then brown them in the Dutch oven. We fill tumblers with good whiskey and plate up, toasting to Jim then digging in. The food is incredible, the meat tender to the clichéd point of melting in your mouth. The flavor is robust without any one ingredient being over the top. I think it’s the anchovies that make it. We let the dogs clean our plates and Dutch oven; they love it.
Back on the river the fish are rising now, and clouds of bugs swarm the surface, pale mourning duns, we think. I tie on a PMD and cast to a rising trout, but he doesn’t seem interested. Then I try a Parachute Adams and watch my fly drift atop the glassy water with the slow-moving current. A fish hits it hard, and I feel the rod tremble, almost explode, in my hand as I set the hook. My reel whirs as the fish runs. He jumps as I bring him in, a beautiful brown. I net the fish and admire its brilliant colors for a second before pulling out my fly and holding the trout beneath the surface until it regains strength and swims away.
@bigwaterbigearth with the catch—and the release Photo: @charliewfischer
A couple of casts later I hook another and am not even disappointed when it shakes the hook after a few minutes on the line. Then there’s another one, and this one feels larger. He makes a couple of powerful runs before I get him to net.
Upstream I hear Jeff and Charlie yelling in excitement. We are all catching fish, and we are all happy. There are a few more fish before dusk.
“…fishing is the activity that ensures my sanity.” -Jim Harrison
Sitting outside the Winnebago, under the stars, we cheers and clink our tin whiskey glasses together, because a great day on the water deserves a toast, because that’s what we do. I propose a toast to Jim, because what Jim Harrison was, what his work will always be, what he represents, at least to me, is the lakes, streams, and woods of my Michigan past, the mountains and rivers of my Utah present, and the wilds of my future unknown.
It’s evident from the writing he left behind that two of the things he appreciated most in this world were his natural surroundings—thickets, birds, moving water and the small gods within it—and breaking bread with people he cared for.
Though I released that fish back into the river an hour ago, I can still feel the bent rod’s cork handle trembling in the flesh of my palm, can hear the buzz of my reel as that brown made its run, and can see the trout’s painted colors slipping out of my hand, fading, and finally disappearing into water. I cannot think of a better tribute to Jim than this moment right now, sitting outside here with good friends as the sun sets behind these purple mountains, satisfied bellies full of a good meal prepared with love, welcoming darkness with a dreamy whiskey buzz.