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Fish Tales: Three Students Create Course to Study Literature of Fishing

June 10, 2002

While Ernest Hemingway’s "The Old Man and the Sea" is probably the most well known big fish story, Carleton College juniors Keith Wolter, Phil Burkhardt and Noah Brenner have found that a surprising amount of literature either discusses fishing outright, or uses it as an important plot tool. The three students and Mike Kowalewski, associate professor of American studies, are all avid fly fishermen, and have developed an independent study course, "The Literature of Fishing."

Their reading list covers fishing writing from the 17th century to the present. Among others, they have looked at classics, from Izaak Walton’s "The Compleat Angler" to popular fiction like Norman Maclean’s "A River Runs Through It" to Richard Louv’s look at America through fishing, "Fly-Fishing for Sharks: An American Journey."

While it’s hard to classify fishing writing as a genre, Brenner points out that fishing plays an important background role in many novels and short stories. "I wanted to see how fishing was examined in literature," he said. "I never thought it got the respect it deserved."

Brenner says that much of the fishing writing that exists wasn’t written solely for people who fish. "It’s interesting to see how an author balances his audiences," he said. "People have an image of a fisherman as a quiet, contented sage by a river. It’s interesting to see how that archetypal fisherman character is used."

All three students grew up fly fishing, and they’ve all had moments on the river when they’ve felt a spiritual connection to nature. "Fly fishing helps you gain heightened appreciation for the natural world," Brenner said.

Burkhardt agrees: "For a brief time, you get to be physically connected to a wild animal. You have such a sense of accomplishment when you catch, and even when you don’t, you still get to be out in the river." From non-fiction to novel to short story, they’ve found that most fishing writing has common themes of religion, connection to nature and meditation.

They’ve also looked deeper into their texts, past fishing-induced reverie to some of the darker issues that fishing raises. "A River Runs Through It" shows a family that uses fly fishing to connect with each other, but also to escape their dysfunction. "Fly-Fishing for Sharks" looks at the conflicts between people fishing for subsistence and those fishing for sport. One of the students’ discussions centered around the hierarchy among people who fish: bait fishers are looked down upon by fly fishers, who think bait fishing isn’t a real sport. There is even strife among fly fishers who judge each other’s motivation and technique.

The students meet with Kowalewski once a week to discuss the readings and the issues that come up. They’ll write two shorter papers analyzing the readings, and then finish with a longer natural history essay. Of course, their study wouldn’t be complete without actually doing what they’ve been reading about all term—Wolter, Burkhardt, Brenner and Kowalewski will take a weekend fishing trip to use as inspiration for their final essay.