On dismal winter afternoons when the rain is pouring down in torrents and the wind whistles through the tall firs and spruce trees on our Seaview property, I sometimes find solace by relaxing by the fireplace in my favorite leather chair in the family room and re-reading stories and articles written by some of my favorite authors.
Some of the writers whose prose I will always cherish once wrote for The New Yorker magazine - writers like E.B. White, Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling. My story today is about a piece Liebling wrote for the New Yorker back in 1940, when he was serving in Europe as a war correspondent for the magazine. The story is about fishing on the Seine River near Paris.
I mention it here because it concerns a specialized type of fishing, one of my favorite subjects, especially now that the spring Chinook salmon season is fast approaching on Northwest rivers.
For those readers who haven't yet sampled the words of Joe Liebling, let me introduce him by quoting the dust jacket squibs from one of his books. (To be sure, dust jacket quotes always should be accompanied by a grain of salt, but you can make up your own mind after reading some of Liebling's stuff.)
"His essays on New York provide a loving but eccentric portrait of the life of the city," the dust jacket quote says. "Book reviews, musings on his youth and on great food, comments on the responsibilities of the press, observations on social customs and, of course, his reports from Europe just before, during and after World War II, all display the unquenchable curiosity of the writer ... A.J. Liebling has often been regarded as one of the greatest of American journalists." I second that last declaration.
In those long-ago days Liebling often cabled many of what his magazine called "Letters from Paris" - and there is one particular letter I will always remember because it concerned fishing.
It must have been rather slow day when Joe Liebling penned this story in the midst of the war build-up, because it describes how French fishermen on the Seine River go about catching carp on that famous stream. Yep, that's right: catching carp.
Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines "carp" in several ways. First, it means to censure or find fault, particularly without reason. We already know that, don't we? Or, to boast, or brag.
But for the purposes of our story, the word carp is defined in Webster's as: "A large-scaled fresh water fish, genus Cyprinus, that is largely used as food and lives in ponds or other tranquil waters. It breeds rapidly, grows to a large size and lives to a great age." (Sounds as if the carp has solved the mysteries of a long and happy life, doesn't it?)
But the point of our story is what Joe Liebling wrote about it back in 1940 to describe the way certain Frenchmen fished for their elusive prize, the fabulous carp.
Liebling started his piece with these words: "Anyone who may have doubts about French tenacity of purpose should consider the Gallic method of capturing a carp."
He goes on to describe the way the fishermen walking along the bank of a sluggish stream sees a big carp idling in a spot he likes. The fisherman knows that if the fish did not like the spot, it would have moved on, for such is the nature of carp.
Any fly fishing purists among my readers will be allowed to skip the next few paragraphs, because they concern old-fashioned bait fishing of the most primitive sort - although quite effective.
Liebling relates how the fisherman goes home and cuts up a batch of old Gruye're cheese. Early next morning he returns to the river and tosses some of the cheese cubes into the river near where the carp is resting. He repeats this offering regularly for the next few days, and the carp eventually becomes interested and begins gobbling all he can reach.
After about 10 days the fisherman baits a large hook with a cube of the old cheese, tosses it into the river and waits for a big carp to grab it.
Now the author relates the fisherman's anxious moments, because the carp is not only strong but intelligent for a fish. Instead of wasting energy on leaps, he rushes for rocks or weeds or tree roots, trying to foul the line.
"Sometimes," Liebling writes, "the fisherman comes upon a carp that will not eat cheese, in which case he tries boiled potatoes or bread rubbed with garlic."
Liebling says it might take weeks "to please the palate of a carp" but the fishermen don't seem to mind. They respect the carp for its conservatism, its common sense, its discriminating tastes in food and its ability to survive in large numbers without the aid of fish hatcheries.
The author goes on to say that every Frenchman not in uniform (and there was a war going on) seems to be buying a reel, a bait pail, a landing net, or a bamboo pole at one of the fishermen's-supply stores on the right bank of the Seine.
Does that sound familiar? As the spring salmon season approaches in our area, all the tackle shops and fishing stores are quite busy. Fishermen are always ready to try any gimmick they might think would help them catch fish, no matter how much it costs.
But back in France, where Joe Liebling was observing local fishermen, he had this to say, "If a fisherman has no chance for carp, then he tries for perch, and if the perch don't cooperate he fishes for minnows. Just so he is able to fish for something." He also writes that the fishermen he saw along the banks of the Seine are of the same type as Americans who try for swordfish on a light line. They seldom catch anything but "are looked upon as sportsmen and get their pictures in the papers."
War or no war, editors of Paris newspapers found space to print these pictures with such captions as: "Spring brings the fishermen and the book merchants back to the Seine."
Well, I'm not so sure about book merchants (never having seen any along our river banks) but I know one thing for sure. Spring salmon season in the Pacific Northwest brings hoards of fishermen back to their rivers and streams every year about that time. Let the Frenchmen fish for their fat carp, and we'll try for our esteemed spring Chinook salmon.
In fact, my fishing buddy and I went out for early springers just the other day, right after Valentine's Day. Some would say that's a little too early - and the neah-sayers were right this time. We caught nothing, but we had a fine time on a beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the mid-50s.
Seekers of the elusive spring Chinook can only hope that pre-season forecasts hold true and the Northwest run turns out to be a record-setter as predicted. One encouraging sign is that fishing will be allowed all seven days a week this spring on the Willamette River near Portland, instead of the very restrictive and extraordinary three days a week allowed last year.
All I can say is "hooray," and I can hardly wait for that first strike.