Perceptive anglers know that a successful day on the water requires a nimble mind. “Successful” in this case refers to the art of figuring things out; a raised fish, a hooked fish, a lost fish, or a landed fish are all better than the alternative. Nimble anglers are the ones who adapt tactics to conditions. Yes, the bite’s been good, and this lure has worked. But now the weather changes, or you lose the lure, or the fish have moved on. What do you do then? Bad anglers continue forcing the same pattern into the water. Good anglers adapt, with mixed results. Great anglers are struck by a figural bolt of lightning, and do something brilliant, eccentric, or simply crazy.
I put myself in the middle tier. Take for example a good late summer bass bite I fished on the Haw River not long ago. Early September is when the shadows hurry to grow long, and the water, clear from a dry summer, moved in a cool, unhurried flow. Topwater action had been hot all summer long so I reverted to habit: poppers and plugs. But this was a section of river notorious for its deep, narrow channels and fish that hesitated to rise. After an hour of failing to persuade the fish, I switched my bait from a noisy topwater plug to a jointed sub-surface lure. The tactical change obtained the desired result, and fish that were in no mood to strike at the surface chase down a lure that swam a foot below the air. Stubborn adherence to established pattern – out. Largemouth Bass on every other cast – in. Granted, this was not the grind of a tournament event, where pressure and exhaustion come into play.
Monte Burke’s engaging and well-written Sowbelly offers the literary analog to the versatility I have in mind. Mind you, I refer to the book. Most of the anglers depicted in it are another matter.
Burke’s book apparently surveyed the conditions of the bass fishing world and noticed something had changed. Bass fishing had become specialized for some anglers, myopically so. By contrast, the majority of books about the Largemouth Bass are handbooks and guides, books of anecdote, or encyclopedia of tackle, boating techniques and advice. There are excellent books bass fishing, but most are rare, old and hard to find these days (Jim Gasque’s Bass Fishing comes to mind). Burke adapted to the conditions and wrote a book about fishers instead of fish. And in doing so, he avoided idealizing them or making them seem folk heroes (a tendency of many bass fisherman’s autobiographies). He gambled instead, departed from the bass book formula, and it was a brilliant idea. As for the anglers, they stand in contrast to Burke’s nimble work, and the difference benefits Sowbelly in every way.
Let’s start with Sowbelly’s design. The book’s structure is uneven, in the best way. For instance, in chapter 4, Burke describes how fishing for the black bass overtook the more historic and venerable sport of fly-fishing for trout in mid-century America. The account begins with John Bartram’s first writings of the fish in the late 18th century, proceeds to Dr. James Henshall’s valiant yet unsuccessful attempts to persuade the public of the bass’s fighting prowess one century later, and then brings us to the mid-20th century. Burke accounts there for several factors that combined to make bass fishing popular, and wildly so. Among those factors, Burke includes a wave of dam building that created large impounded lakes more suitable to bass than trout, the boom in building farm ponds (and the widespread stocking of bass in them), the invention of new materials for rod-building, fishing lines and motorboats, and the booming economy and population that turned to recreation on the water in mid-century America. And because Burke’s book is a book about personalities, let’s mention his excellent discussion of Ray Scott, the founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, who had a vision of bass fishing as a competitive, televised sport, and made it a corporate-funded reality.
In all, chapter 4 of Burke’s book is as informative and entertaining an account of the history of Largemouth Bass fishing as one can ever read. It avoids the goofy humor that spoils many other works on the subject. Furthermore, Burke dares to use scientific and industrial history to explain a popular sport. In doing so, he avoids the Transcendentalism and mystical cliché that spoils much of the writing about fishing for the sacred trout. Indeed, his polemic against the Orvis crowd has teeth: he refers to Maclean’s A River Runs Through It as “navel-gazing” and the trout purists as “snobs” (94). He errs, too, when he fails to mention that Ray Scott had the idea of introducing required catch and release practices to tournament bass fishing because he was inspired to do so by the kind folks at Trout Unlimited. But it is a minor point; as a history of the sport of bass fishing, Burke’s chapter should be required reading for all bass anglers.
Now, versatility: the chapter is the fourth of nine in the book. To most readers (and writers), this would be the logical choice for chapter 1: give a brief, entertaining history of the fish and its sporting pursuit, and by doing so provide context that readers need to follow the main story. But no, the chapter is fourth, and it follows three chapters that are devoted entirely to California anglers who are famed for catching huge bass (as an aside, the section on the swim-bait craftsmen in chapter 3 is terrific). And chapter 4 is followed by a chapter that concerns the story that is essentially the seed of the entire book: George Perry’s famous world record Largemouth Bass, caught in Georgia in 1932. In chronological terms, the book moves from California from the mid-80’s to roughly 2005, then jumps back to the 18th century and brings us up to Ray Scott in the 1960’s and 70’s, then jumps back again in time to 1932. If one were to make a map of this timeline, it would resemble the frantic movement of a novice bass angler who tears across a new lake in his sleek new boat, hopping from bluff to cove, channel to grass bed, before finally settling on a point or two. In this way, Sowbelly challenges its readers to follow its chapters from outside the book. It assumes the best of its readers in this way. For as we all know, that young angler in his fancy boat may be the experienced farmboy who, accustomed to a john boat, tears across the lake with new found speed and wins the day’s event. What appears as chaos to the bystander may in fact have some purpose. We can only see it, however, watching from the shore.
I would not want to attribute something as deliberate as a method to Burke’s book, but the book holds itself together with ease as it moves through its chapters. One can imagine the book in outline as I described it, with chapter 4 being the first, chapter five the second, and so forth. But there was a shift in tactics; what seemed a sound strategy at the start was apparently changed, and chapter one became chapter four. Like a smart angler, Burke changed his approach, and it works.
And this is perhaps where “obsessive” comes back into play: as the book’s sub-title notes, its topic breeds something that defies logic and method, and this is precisely its logic and method. The anglers in question chase a single goal: the world record Largemouth Bass. As I mentioned before, this is after all a book about characters. There are the compulsive California anglers who spend more than 200 days a year chasing big bass, a lot of gamblers, the anglers who best one another in rivalry and subterfuge, the dreamers and the frauds. There is the journalist who jealously guards the reputation of George Perry, the man who ate the world record bass in 1932. And what to say of a man, the son of a wealthy Alabama family, who squanders a fortune trying to raise the word record in ponds he has built, on land he has purchased, for that sole purpose? These anglers are not the run of the mill B.A.S.S. (Bass Angler’s Sporting Society) anglers of the competitive variety. Louis D. Rubin Jr. described the B.A.S.S. crowd in his book The Even-Tempered Angler as men who organize themselves into “dens for the purpose of competitive boasting.” The majority of the men Burke describes are loners who, after years or even decades of fishing for giant bass, have essentially isolated themselves from friends and family. In the background, barking at the edges of these fishing personalities sulk estranged wives, angry kids, and every breed of skeptic and hater who harass, schmooze and snitch on the successful, big names in this sub-culture of the sport. There are even fawning Japanese journalists who travel across an ocean to record the minutiae of the angler’s lives. Clearly, this lot’s story should not and cannot be told in a straight line.
Burke saves the best chapter for last. Sowbelly concludes with a tour de force that crystallizes that outside view to which I referred above. In the last chapter, Burke travels to Cuba to meet and fish with Samuel Yera, a Cuban bass angler. Samuel, or Sammy, as he is called, observes the American bass scene from a distance. He puzzles over some things, desires others, and offers a poignant counter-balance to the complete insanity of most anglers described in the book. By contrast, Sammy regards the sport as most Cubans regard the United States: by acknowledging a deeply shared history, alluding to his own country’s failings, and with skepticism regarding American excesses. Like the book’s other chapters, Sammy’s chapter times its quotes well, offers limited but interesting context, and Burke appears in it as an interested observer (and sometimes fellow angler). If there is bias in Burke’s narration it is evident here, and it is a bias of the best sort; it establishes a necessary perspective to the tragic or bizarre tones that color the other chapters, yet without losing itself in moral platitudes or cliché.
In the end, Sowbelly achieves something rare in writing about fishing, and even more uncommon in writings about the Largemouth Bass: it avoids becoming a manual on how to fish or how to live. Yes, it is an honest book about the personal and social consequences of the sport, but it is also something more. It offers a perspective from which to recognize that versatility is the first victim of specialization.
Why would a Bowfin angler review a book about Largemouth Bass? Why not? I read tons of fishing books, scientific studies, nature books, and about anything I can to keep my mind on my favorite past time. And I may as well share my thoughts; after all, despite what Burke says, the trout fishers have written more, and better books, about their sport, and in that contest, the bass anglers lose (although Burke’s book makes up a bit of lost ground).
But there is one moment in the aforementioned chapter 4 that deserves mention with respect to the Bowfin. Burke argues there how the Largemouth Bass succeeded the trout because the bass is a warm-water fish. In a warming climate on a planet dotted with artificial lakes, he argues, the bass is the ideal predator. It would seem, according to Burke, that the bass adapted to North American water millions of years as if waiting for this moment. One hears the comment a lot these days: that a certain fish is more adapted, or more vulnerable, to climate change. And this is true – our brook trout are vanishing, for instance, and it isn’t because we are catching them all. It’s because their environment is becoming uninhabitable to them. My eyebrows go up, however, when I hear it said that the bass, or any fish, is more well-suited to warm water, as if this would somehow resolve the issue. It won’t: every fish will suffer in a hotter world. Well, almost every fish.