The books that didn't get away

CRAZY FOR RIVERS by Bill Barich The Lyons Press 80 pp., $16.95

FISHING WITH THE PRESIDENTS By Bill Mares Stackpole Books 255 pp., $14.95

STANDING IN A RIVER WAVING A STICK By John Gierach Simon & Schuster 235 pp., $23

ROYAL COACHMAN:THE LORE AND LEGENDS OF FLY-FISHING By Paul Schullery Simon & Schuster 220 pp., $24

THE COMPLETE ANGLER: A CONNECTICUT YANKEE FOLLOWS IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF WALTON By James Prosek HarperCollins 324 pp., $30

Let's talk fishing. It started when I was a boy in Florida, with a cane pole, sitting on my grandfather's cypress dock. Later, a friend and I began a guide service, covering Louisiana's vast coastal marshes out of Delacroix and Westwego.

I've found a lot of water to explore over the years. This past summer, a canoe trip to Crooked Lake in Ontario produced my best smallmouth bass. But my wife landed the biggest fish, in fact the best fish of the year recorded by our outfitter - a 22-pound northern pike, on six-pound test line.

If you've ever fished, however, you know that it's something more - with eagles circling overhead, or a family of otters swimming alongside the canoe - that actually provides the lasting wonders. There's always a new discovery around the next bend.

That's true also in a group of fishing books just out this spring:

In Crazy for Rivers, Bill Barich takes readers with him from his first boyish flirtation with crappie fishing to a full-blown affection for stalking wild rivers. Barich paints pictures of how it all feels. These are fishing stories drawn with humor and a keen sense of place.

Heading out on one trip, Barich experiences a hair-raising drive along a mountain road on his way to fish the Tuolumne River before sundown.

"We rounded a bend and the trees fell away, and we were confronted by an astounding panorama of the canyon.... The sun, molten orange, was low in the sky and it cooked the rocks and soil down below to a fiery mineral incandescence. The canyon was a magnificent pit, an utter miracle of geology, and way at the bottom glittering like the tiniest speck of water, was the Middle Fork." This is a small book, only 80 pages, with the simple pleasures of stories well told.

From George Washington to George Bush, Fishing With the Presidents offers a fascinating account of how some of America's chief executives have sought solace with a fishing rod. Author Bill Mares includes presidential perspectives on everything from escaping the trappings of public life to sharing private moments with friends at streamside.

For example, Mares describes the time first lady Rosalynn Carter caught 20 trout from one pool. President Carter rues the fact that Mrs. Carter often "caught the largest or most trout, leaving me to equal her catches only by rising earlier and fishing longer!" Another anecdote quotes Herbert Hoover: "Presidents have only two moments of personal seclusion - prayer and fishing, and they can't pray all the time!" You'll find this a companionable, fun book - like a summer day drift-fishing with friends.

Fishing sometimes feels like Standing in a River Waving a Stick. But John Gierach makes the "stick" experience come alive in 22 essays.

One of these, "Fish Camps," aptly sums up both the real and philosophical differences between a fishing "lodge" and a "camp." The author finds himself "much more comfortable at a place that calls itself a camp." If you're really a fisherman, he opines, it isn't the first-class accommodations you're after. "You're there to fish," Gierach knows, "and in the odd hours when you're not fishing, you'll need food and a dry place to sleep. With that in mind, you won't nit-pick about the ambiance ... and if you've had much experience with fish camps, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that there's a door in the cabin."

Gierach's book should be welcome in any fish camp. Read a story aloud to your buddies at night. Hit the sack. And be back on the water at sunrise.

If you're interested in a bit more than good fishing stories - say, the noble history and mystique of fly fishing - then Paul Schullery's Royal Coachman: The Lore and Legends of Fly-Fishing should fill your tackle box nicely. Schullery is a naturalist, former director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing and, of course, an avid angler. He is also a good writer.

I particularly appreciated his essay "Cumberland Dreams" because it's about fishing for smallmouth bass. Nearly all fly fishing books are about trout. Don't get me wrong, this book is mostly about trout, but I sometimes get too much of a steady diet of rainbows, browns, cutthroats, and brookies. A nice bronzeback leaping down a Pennsylvania river makes a great change of pace.

A visually beautiful book, James Prosek's The Complete Angler: A Connecticut Yankee Follows in the Footsteps of Walton is a constant pleasure. From his stunning watercolors to the "civilized" angling Prosek describes as he retraces the rivers Sir Isaac Walton had known in the 17th century, the author opens a window on what a "complete" fisherman really is.

Readers will be captivated by Prosek's adventures in the English countryside. Prosek casts for Lord Denning's six-pound trout, a fish fattened up by the bread that villagers regularly toss from the Whitchurch bridge. Or he suddenly comes upon his "dream house" in Ovington Mill. Here, the River Itchen, flows directly under his host's dining room: "There was a slight, unobtrusive murmur made by the water pushing through. It was a peculiar sensation to look at the great wood floorboards and hear music coming from them. It must be one of the greatest dining rooms in the world."

As you're getting your gear ready for another season, there's bound to be time for a good fishing book. Any of the above should find a comfortable place in your creel or tackle box.

*When he's not canoeing or fishing, Bill Moody is editor of the Christian Science religious periodicals.

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