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'The Complete Angler'

By James Prosek

Chapter 1: Casting Lines

May 28, 1999
Web posted at: 1:37 p.m. EDT (1737 GMT)

Many of the discoveries and advances that have surfaced along the river of my life have been serendipitous consequences of my passion for fishing. My essay for college entrance was on ice fishing, and the man who interviewed me at the Yale admissions office was a fisherman.

I matriculated at Yale and on the second day of school in New Haven, I joined the crew team because they rowed on the Housatonic River where I grew up fishing. Sophomore year I entered a contest for book-collecting sponsored by the rare-book library at school and won with my collection of trout books, introducing me to the community of Yale bibliophiles. Junior year my own book on trout was published, and suddenly it was no longer taboo to talk about fishing during dates. My senior-year roommate and I put our affinities for singing and acoustic guitar playing together in our band called Trout, playing our original tunes at local coffeehouses, which did even more for my dating life.

So you see, when it came time to write my senior essay for the English major, it was only natural that I choose for my subject Izaak Walton and his book "The Compleat Angler." The library on campus had ninety or so editions, and when I would flip through one of them, first carefully dusting it off, a quiet world was revealed through silent etchings of Walton making a toast in an English pub (to a good day of fishing, no doubt) or conversing with milkmaids who sang him songs by the stream. And as I sat on the cold stone library floor, I could hear the stream pushing from its spring and the trout sipping flies; could see swallows dipping to take those flies, their shadows cast on the stream bottom by the sun behind them.

I'd always had a desire to see new places, so during my undergrad years I made several attempts at traveling fellowships offered through various endowments given to Yale. There was one called the Bates Fellowship that would give several thousand dollars to students who wanted to study or had worthy and studious projects to do over the summer. The first year I tried to get it I proposed a trip to Colorado to attempt to rediscover the yellowfin cutthroat trout, a fish that was thought to have been extinct. The project was deemed of no "merit." Who cared about the yellowfin cutthroat? Clearly not the selection committee who interviewed me. Merit came to be a word that eluded me. In fact, I had a long history of proposing projects for fellowships that just didn't quite seem to make the cut. An extensive study on trout and their habitat for a ten-thousand-dollar scholarship in high school was runner-up to a girl and her computer program that taught elementary school kids geography.

When they announced the winner in front of three hundred people, my argument that kids could learn more geography from walking a trout stream than from a computer program seemed to lazily dissolve like so many inhibitions washed away by the din of clinks and rings of congratulatory drinks. Some people think fishing is sitting on a log with your line in the water, and I'll admit, sometimes it is. I've already mentioned that I proposed to the Bates committee that I wanted to travel to Eastern Turkey and catch trout in the headwaters of the Tigris River, sage descendants of those which had witnessed man's fall from Paradise. At the interview I declared: "In his 'Paradise Lost,' Milton stated, 'There was a place, where Tigris at the foot of Paradise, Into a gulf shot underground, till part Rose up a fountain by the Tree of Life,' in the Garden of Eden." That idea didn't fly either. A combination of the danger of fishing where Kurdish guerrillas were fighting the Turkish army and what they imagined would be my problematic attempts to interview trout about man's fall contributed to their decision.

But I knew that if I persisted, as all good fishermen do, eventually I'd get something. When, as a sophomore, I won the Adrian Van Sinderen book-collecting prize, and was awarded $350 with which to enhance my collection of trout-fishing books, I became friends with the chairman of the selection committee, Stephen Parks, curator of the Osborne Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Parks made it his imperative to introduce me to every bastion of Yale society, and though he was an erudite powerhouse--Yale B.A. 1961, Cambridge doctorate, Edinburgh University postdoctoral fellow--I did not find him intimidating. He is a gentle man and took a keen interest in the book about trout that I was writing at the time, as well as our mutual love of books and art. He wore his tweeds and British cap, rain or shine, and spent Thanksgiving in England. "Thanksgiving?" he would say in jest. "Is that the one with turkey and cranberry sauce, or is that the Fourth of July?" Though born in Columbus, Ohio, he was educated in the United Kingdom for at least seven years, and I considered him more of an expatriate Englishman than an American by the way he talked and carried himself. He was one of many Anglophiles I'd met in America before realizing that I was one myself.

Dinners at his house, which he affectionately called "Liberty Hall," on Bradley street in New Haven, became a twice-a-month affair. One night, drinking red wine and eating his souffle, he suggested that instead of proposing projects for fellowships that I would never win with, I should propose something that would appeal to the committee. Steve Parks had never cast a line in his life, though he was sensitive to my fishing passion because he had done scholarly work on Charles Cotton, the good friend of Izaak Walton, and knowing of my affinity for "The Compleat Angler," he suggested that I propose to go to England and fish in the footsteps of this father of angling while stopping along the way, of course, to see some old books in some old libraries.

He was right. It made sense and was perhaps my best and only chance of winning a fellowship for a fishing-related project. It was the right mix of the scholarly and the playful, and Walton, besides Hemingway, is probably the only figure who has been taken seriously in literature for writing on fishing. They just might bite. It was a brilliant idea because I would, of course, be doing research over the summer for the senior essay that I would write in the fall.

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Izaak Walton's "The Compleat Angler"
Troutsite: The official Web site for James Prosek
HarperCollins Publishers
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