“I fish, therefore I am,” a piscatorial philosopher might write. Those of us who fish—who grew up fishing or who grew into it—find in it both a ground for who we are and a basis for bonding with others. “A fishing life” is in that sense a tautology: life and fishing just go together, and we go through that life together with the friends with whom we share it.
For Tom McCoy, that friend has been Mack. In Letters to Mack: Book One (the first of a series published by McCoy that now includes a second and a third volume, subtitled Correspondence from Montana to Montauk and Correspondence from Islamorada to Pulaski), McCoy shares with his readers letters to a old friend with whom he was “closer than brothers” in grade school and beyond and who the currents of life (the Vietnam war, families, jobs) carried away, then restored. Throughout the pains of career problems, family problems, and health problems, they have supported each other. “Our friendship is about being there for one another,” McCoy writes, “both knowing that our relationship is a forever thing and not to be broken by our mutual misbehaviors or the happenings of the world around us or the miles between us.” And as these letters attest, the ground of that support and of their bond has been fishing.
At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau writes: “I . . . require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.” Mack now lives in Las Vegas, about as far from McCoy’s Long Island as you can get, and not just in physical miles, but Letters to Mack is indeed a sincere account that bridges that distance and that brings the two together on the basis of “a fishing life.”
It also is a collection of really good fish stories, well told. They’re not all about fly fishing, although there are plenty of accounts of fly-fishing trips to the Catskills, to the Adirondacks, and to the San Juan, as well as of saltwater fly fishing on Long Island. Some just involve being outdoors, bagging peaks in the Adirondacks, although they’re told in the voice of an angler who returns again and again to the mountain streams. And some involve conventional-tackle angling, mostly for striped bass and blues in the salt.
Always, in the background, there also is life as it comes to us, including the attacks of 9/11, job pressures, health woes, a lament for a beloved dog that had to be put down, and more. But in the foreground, pulling it all together, is fishing, and as McCoy writes, “It is not about catching the fish, it’s about being there.”
“Being there” is what the stories that McCoy tells are all about—the details, the texture, of a fishing life: early morning risings, losing big ones, searching for fishable water on a trip when the rivers are blown out. Here’s a passage from “Predawn Fishing,” chumming for stripers on Long Island Sound.
At 5 am the birds are out working, The chum sinks slowly, and when the current is running it stays near the surface for a while. I cast toward the bow and near the boat to give the bait a chance to sink before the seagulls pick it up. The old gulls don’t work that hard. They wait 100 feet behind the boat for the chunks to fly off during a poor cast. Once in a while, as floating bait rises to the surface due to a tight line, the gulls will pick it up and your adrenaline spikes as the reel sings, but it’s just a gull.
As with angling itself, it’s the little things that add up to a fishing life.
And as with many self-published books, a reader who’s attentive to the sorts of little things that editors care about will whine about such issues in Letters to Mack, but anyone who likes a good story about the kind of life we anglers share will find enjoyment here.