Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Writing and Fishing

Joe Reese

I think writing is a great deal like fishing. I’ve had some small triumphs in both, but in the eyes of the fishing world, as in the eyes of the literary world, I’m pretty much a complete failure. Somehow, it doesn’t matter. I will keep going back to the typewriter, and I will always go once more, as E.B. White could not stop doing, “once more to the lake.”

Fishing for me is like this. It starts at Wal-Mart. Every spring I go there and buy a fishing license. Then I get a kit that includes bobber (white/red plastic—this, the bobber, is the most important part of fishing); a small packet of lead sinkers; an assortment of hooks, all designed to be taken carefully out of their small packages and spread over the carpet on the floor of the car trunk, where they will become stuck, requiring much effort to get them
out; a knife (partially to cut tangled fishing line, partially to cut the hooks out of the carpet in the trunk of the car); and whatever other small bits of equipment I happen to need.

Then I go to a filling station and buy a small carton filled with moist dirt and big fat night crawlers, which are, for the novice, worms. Also to be purchased at the filling station: Vienna sausages (one can), cheese nips (small packet), Three Musketeers bar (tried Snickers once, wasn’t quite right), and Wild Cherry Pepsi (one can). It’s important of course to keep the worms separate from the food for what should be obvious reasons, except when you really think about it and check the nutrients, poisons, and chemicals, you realize it
would be healthier just to eat the worms.

And then once more, I go once more to the lake. It has to be a partially hidden lake, not impossible to get to, but also not just sitting there for the whole world to see. It can be in Georgia, Texas—I’m a southerner, but I’m sure I could fail to catch fish in the north, too. Ideally, the lake should be ideal. No boats, but if there must be boats, then let them be canoes or paddle boats—small, non-arrogant craft paddled if by more than muscle power then by no more than chugging ripple-motors, laboring quietly to attain two miles an hour.

I myself will not have a boat. I will sit down on the bank. No, that’s not right: first I will get my rig together, and then I will have earned the right to sit down on the bank. Tie on the
sinker. Six inches below the sinker goes the hook. Thread the line through the top of the bobber, then around and around and around again, through the bottom of the bobber, clamping the line so it cannot move. The worm must be dangling five feet or so below the
floating white top of the bobber.

Cast out.

There is the bobber, absolutely still.

And surrounding it, immense, glasslike, seemingly unpopulated with anything living and especially with anything that might care about me—the lake.

Now: open the tin of Vienna sausages. Put the metal top—curved back now, sharp-edged, dangerous—in the plastic sack from the filling station. Turn the tin over so that the juice runs out on the grass. Wurgle somehow the middle Vienna sausage out, almost destroying it in the process. Eat what tattered remains of it there are, realizing with some contentment though that the rest of them are free to be taken out easily with thumb and forefinger. Snap open the can of Pepsi, drink a long slurp of it, and let the carbonated cherry mysterious cola otherworldly taste mingle with the only other absolutely unique (and indescribable) taste in the world—the taste of a Vienna sausage.

Time then collapses upon itself.

And the bobber—for one split-second—disappears beneath the surface of the water.

It reappears.

Fishing has happened.

This one moment—this disa immediately followed by rea—ppearance of a plastic sphere, cheaper than the cheapest toy, too small for a Christmas ornament, too useless for a child’s plaything—this one moment is the essence of fishing.

To me, it is the essence of a great many things.

Think about it: how is it possible that a fish swimming, doing its thing, out in the middle of that immense lake of which I know and understand nothing at all, could make contact with me, sitting at the end of a few odds and ends bought at, of all places, Wal-Mart—and yet it has happened.

There! Look! Bobber gone!

Bobber back!

Happened again.

Whether I catch this fish is hardly of much importance.

I have communed with it.

Or rather—all the more astonishingly—it has communed with me, because I haven’t moved one inch since getting here (except to eat my sausages), while it has had to come from God-knows-where.


No, I’ll be happy to go to the trouble of catching it, studying its magnificent blue gold pink aqua colors (since it will almost undoubtedly be a perch/brim/sunfish), and the trouble to
wurgle it off the hook (wurgling is an essential fishing verb, for both the sausages and the fish), apologize to it and get it back in the water. But all of that is an afterthought.

Just as is the newspaper that I read upon my return home. The sports page. Pictures of trophy-winning fishermen. Bass tournament winners. Long strings of huge fish, two pounders, twenty pounders, two hundred pounders, two thousand pounders. Hemmingway fish. Men
with baseball caps and grins. And exotic names of fish. Muskelunge. Walleye. Atlantic Sheephead. Silver trout.

Silver trout!


Afterthoughts all.

Those men (and sometimes women) are not like me. Are they really, though, any more essentially fishermen than I am? Especially when the bobber disappears? For all their equipment, sonar, bass boats, stringers of huge dead fish—are they really more fishermen than I, with my Vienna Sausages?

Maybe. But if they don’t take time really to look at the colors of a sunperch, as it swims away—then I don’t think they are.

They are not like me.

Nor are the great writers. I’ve spent years as an adjunct English teacher first in the Atlanta area, then in community colleges around Dallas and Fort Worth. In the halls of the English
department, wherever I happen to be teaching, I study the bulletin boards. Creative writing bulletin boards. Poetry contest winners. Sometime I think I should bring the fishing pictures up here and substitute them.



I have found it immensely—immensely immensely immensely—hard to get anything published in my life. Just as I have to cast out a million times for every one bite I get in fishing—and that one a very small bite, a nibble, from a bream or perch, just so I have to send out a million stories for every one acceptance I get—and that one a very small acceptance, a non-paying one, from magazines called not The New Yorker, but something like Nocturnal Ooze.

But here—look! Look at this bulletin board. Look at these people.



Conrad Darbner will be there. Conrad Darbner has:

“Won the Cynthia Epworth Prize for best novel seven years in a row. Published a hundred and seventeen novels, sixty of which have been best sellers, and still are. Occupied for three decades the Sylvester Weasel Chair of Creative Fiction at both Harvard and Stanford Universities simultaneously."

And he’s just one of the writers who will be there. Jacob Trimrock (three hundred and seventy eight novels) will be there; Arnold Barnoldblog will be there (author of the sixty-eight-part series on the life of Amelia Earhart, two million pages in all); and four hundred and sixty eight other authors, published authors, tenured authors, writers of hundreds and millions of novels—will be there.

And live, and live—well, that kind of life.

In Silver Maple Horn, New Hampshire, at the base of the Raggletrop Mountains.

And yet, and yet…

One of the characters in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a graduate student in a spiffy English department, tells his girlfriend how many famous poets the department has, to which she shakes her head doubtfully and says:

“But they’re not real poets, are they?”

He doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

They’re published; they go to conferences; they’re tenured. Of course they’re real poets.
But I wonder like Franny: are they all real poets?

Look at how many of them there are. If all of them are real poets, then there must be so much great poetry out there, tons of great poetry, books and books and books and books of great poetry.

And if that’s true—if there’s that much great poetry, so many tons and tons and tons of great poetry…

…then why are so many people out there in the world who hate poetry?

I guess I could go to these places (SUGARBREAD) and introduce myself to these people.

“Hi, I’m a writer, too.”

“Oh really?”



“Thank you.”

And that would be that.

Except that I would have seen the Trebelhorn Mountains and met a great many people with facial hair (some men writers have facial hair, too).

But for that matter, I could go to BASSMASTERS, and shake hands with the man who just caught four hundred and sixty-eight largemouth bass. Maybe even at the same Trebelhorn Mountains. It just wouldn’t mean anything.

No, I have caught as many big fish in my life as I have had novels published.


The first novel was published by a small house in Lubbock, Texas. The novel was called Katie Dee and Katie Haw: Letters from a Texas Farm Girl. It was a book about an eleven-year-old girl growing up on a farm in Texas in the 1950’s. It got a couple of nice reviews, and then it disappeared.

Except it didn’t completely disappear.

Someone from an elementary school called and asked me if I would come and be the visiting author. I didn’t really feel like I was an author, but I said yes and showed up, not knowing exactly what to do.

I pulled up in the school parking lot and looked at the entrance. Above it hung a huge banner, reading: WELCOME JOE REESE, VISITING AUTHOR!

Well, there it was. If the banner said I was an author, then who was I to question it?

The bobber, after innumerable casts, had disappeared.

I walked into the hallway. A class of kindergarten kids was being herded from one room to another. They saw me—then all of them, as one, unprompted, ran as fast as they could and hugged me around the knees (which was as high as they could reach); all of them, as one,
looked up at me and beamed. Didn’t say anything; just beamed.

It took a long time for the teachers to pry them off me.

Finally, they toddled off down the hall, looking back at me and waving. Isn’t that, as Willy Loman would say, a remarkable thing?

Somehow, writing and fishing make sense of things.

Maybe not the tournaments, maybe not the conferences, but those are not the essentials of either activity.

Real writers, like real fishermen…commune.

When communing is so hard.

So, I will type once more a thing that I hope will make form out of no-form, and send it out.

Just as I will prepare to cast out my Wal-Mart rigging…

And once more with E.B. White…go once more to the lake.


Joe Reese is a novelist/storyteller/adjunct English teacher, based in Athens, Ohio, but originally a southerner (born and raised in Texas, long a resident of Atlanta). He has two novels: Katie Dee and Katie Haw: Letters from a Texas Farm Girl and Dear Katie Dee: More Letters from a Texas Farm (website: He’s just finished a novel called TAAS: A Novel of the Standardized Examination, which deals with one day in the life of a Texas high school driven insane by the desire to be EXEMPLORY rather than just excellent. He’s also written plays, short stories, and articles, and put in thirty-six years of English teaching, during which time he’s been fired by almost every institution of higher learning in the country. In spite of this, his wife Pam still says she loves him, as do his kids, Kate, Matthew, and Sam.

© Joe Reese

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012