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A guides tale, fly fishing with Jim Harrison

By Skip Clement, Contributor

As much as many of us abhor the misinformation of cable (entertainment) news networks, internet misinformation blogs and forums, and Russian Facebook, Google,  and Twitter misinformation accounts, the modern world of the internet has many gems left to be discovered and searched.

I tripped over one of those gems while looking for book reviews of Jim Harrison’s short stories – novellas. A popular form of literature, short stories. Harrison was particularly skilled at that style.

An accidental tripping landed on an article by Callan Wink writing for the Men’s Journal. The title itself a masterful intrigue – “Jim Harrison’s Fly-Fishing Guide Remembers His Favorite Client.” It was written after Harrison died (March of 2016).

Jim Harrison, whose lust for life — and sometimes just plain lust — roared into print in a vast, celebrated body of fiction, poetry and essays that with ardent abandon explored the natural world, the life of the mind and the pleasures of the flesh. He was 78 when he died. (NYT)

Most people knew Jim Harrison from his books — over 30 of them about characters who liked messing around in the woods and embracing appetites of all kinds and rolling with the joys and consequences that stem from that heart-gut-loin decision-making apparatus. But over the past several years, Jim and I went fishing, and I’d rather talk about that. Rare days. The Yellowstone River in Southwest Montana in late summer. He always wanted to go east of Livingston where the houses are few and far between. Wide open ranch country with the Crazy Mountains jutting up out of nowhere, snow still clinging in shaded crevasses in August. I grew up in Michigan less than a half hour from Jim’s family farm, and I think it takes someone from the Midwest (or as he sometimes referred to it: the land of cheese and gravy) to really appreciate a view such as this. I know he loved it.

Jim and I met through a mutual friend, notorious Livingston fishing guide Dan Lahren. Dan and Jim fished and hunted together for nearly 30 years, and one day when Dan had other obligations and Jim wanted to go, I got the call. That first day I recall being nervous. I’ve never really been the type of person who has a strong desire to meet my heroes. I drove to the river and Jim chained-smoked American Spirits. We talked about fishing the Pere Marquette and the Muskegon in Michigan and we got along just fine.

I’m wracking my brain but I don’t recall ever having a truly stellar day of fishing, catching-wise, with Jim. Still, he always managed to eke something out. As a fishing guide, for some reason, it seems important to make that clear for the record — I don’t think Jim Harrison ever got skunked in my boat. One working eye or not, the man could fish. That being said, Jim was the consummate poet. Often I’d look back at him and his fly would be trailing way off behind the boat and he’d be concentrating on something on the bank or flying over head, birds never failed to derail his attention. Pretty girls floating on inner-tubes, as well. As someone who has been taking people fishing for quite a while now, I can’t think of anyone who enjoyed it more than Jim, especially in the years that I knew him when his health was not the best. Just getting out and away from the desk, watching the riverbank go by and feeling the sun on his face.

Often, at the beginning or end of the day, other fisherman would recognize him at the boat launch and come up to talk. He was almost always garrulous, and gracious, especially if there were dogs to pet. For a man who’d traveled widely, rubbed shoulders with the literary elite, eaten the best food in Europe — he never lost his Midwestern unpretentiousness. Skilled cook, gourmand, and well-known wine aficionado that he was, his favorite river lunch as far as I knew was fried chicken thighs from the Albertson’s grocery store deli, sprinkled with kosher salt, doused in hot sauce. In fact, he once wrote an entire essay extolling the virtues of the juicy thigh. I think, in his view, American society was stultifying under the tyranny of the boneless, skinless breast.

Of course, I’ll never forget listening from my rower’s seat while Jim and his good friend Peter Matthiessen talked about life and writing and fishing trips gone by. Read the complete story . . .

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