By Kevin Haney
To the uninitiated, it might be somewhat surprising to discover that fly fishermen tend to be rather contemplative sorts. During those dark nights and long seasons when fishing is not a promising endeavor, we settle down to the next best thing, reading our vast libraries of ancient fishing lore, interspersed with the odd philosophical tome. And when we do, we usually don’t want to read proverbial stories about “landing the big one,” or lengthy how-to expositions on how to catch the aforementioned big one. Rather, we tend to prefer stories that place our beloved piscatorial pastime within the larger context of life and nature. Stories that, as Hamza describes, “…sparks a light. A light that is both familiar and comforting.” Such is The Zen of Home Water, the latest angling book by Jerry Hamza. Hamza is a John Volker for the new millennium. His book is interspersed with stories about monster brook trout, beautiful north woods streams and lakes, quirky backwoods guides, and legendary fly hatches. Through it all, he shows us one of the most profound truths of life, that “It takes the acquisition of wisdom to understand that a happy life is actually a mosaic of small and insignificant events…we string together moments in life—like pearls becoming a beautiful necklace.”
The iridescent pearls that Hamza strings together are many and include the importance of “freestyling,” that uncontrollable escape impulse that implores us to drop whatever we are doing and head to the stream, any stream, with fly rod in hand. Another recurring theme is the need to unplug from the modern, electronic world. He instructs us how to trespass (with bartered permission) and fish those waters that look so inviting yet so out of reach to the (usually) law abiding. His recipe for squirrel stew is not jealously guarded but freely shared. And his stories of catching giant brook trout in the Maine North Woods allow the reader, who usually can’t participate in such acts of angling greatness, to at least know that they are occurring to someone, somewhere.
Hamza is a member of that peculiar subset of anglers, the bamboo rod aficionado. While acknowledging the cold, hard fact that bamboo rods are nothing more than conglomerations of “expensive blades of grass,” he also realizes that these handmade treasures passed down to us from previous generations will hopefully outlive us (and our car doors) and that we are merely their caretakers for a time. Although the dreaded “g” word (i.e., graphite) does make a brief appearance, Hamza is definitely one of those anglers who would rather hold an aged, organic creation of the bamboo rod maker’s art than the latest admittedly efficient chemical concoction straight from the laboratory. This puts him squarely in the tradition of John Gierach, although Hamza’s writing is better and his stories more entertaining.
Hamza’s own home waters are dual — Maine’s Grand Lake Stream area and the southern shore of the Lake Ontario region. There are echoes of Thoreau’s Maine Woods in his stories of remote lakes and plentiful trout. And while he takes us all around the country when relating his angling exploits (Kerouac’s On the Road is a particular favorite of his), it is evident that the concept of “home water” carries a lot of weight with him. His beloved “Zen Lake,” with its less than perfect history and many small fish, could be the home water of any of us.
Near the end of his book, Hamza talks about what he terms “glimpses of perfection,” those evenings that you dream of, which are “…the gift fish gods give you perhaps once a decade or two…” These are those all too rare times where everything seems to come together to produce a magical outcome, a coherent, beautiful whole that will live in memory forever. I call them “moments of grace.” In such moments, everything doesn’t have to be perfect, but all of those different elements somehow come together to create a perfect, organic whole. Exactly how this happens will probably remain one of those eternal mysteries of life. Taken as a whole, The Zen of Home Water is one of those moments of bibliophilic grace. Anglers and philosophers who choose to add it to their winter reading pile will be much better off for the effort.