A JERK ON ONE END

Reflections of a Mediocre Fisherman

By Robert Hughes

Ballantine. 126 pp. $18.95

The literature of fishing is broad and surprisingly deep; surprisingly, that is, because one would not expect what Robert Hughes calls "a ridiculous human passion" to yield writing of such quality and meaning. Yet among many other things, fishing, as Hughes says, "largely consists of not catching fish," so the long stretches of tedium it entails encourage contemplation, and the brief moments of excitement heighten and concentrate the participant's sense of drama, all of which is rich raw material for the writer.

To wit "A Jerk on One End," Hughes's witty, self-effacing, knowledgeable and outspoken "reflection" on a pastime at which, by his own ready admission, he is "mediocre." It is published by Ballantine as part of a strange series of short books called the Library of Contemporary Thought, previous volumes of which have been written by the likes of Anna Quindlen, John Feinstein, Jimmy Carter and Vincent Bugliosi, with future ones due from the likes of Joe Klein, Donna Tartt and Don Imus, suggesting that the definition of "thought" at Ballantine is exceedingly eccentric.

Well, Hughes can think, and he can write, too. As few readers need to be told, he is the art critic for Time magazine--perhaps the last truly serious writer to labor in a magazine now chiefly engaged in groveling before the brain-dead stars of mass entertainment--as well as an irregular performer on public television and the author of numerous books, including that superb history of his native Australia, "The Fatal Shore."

How Hughes finds time for fishing amid all this heroic work he does not explain, but he lives far out at the tip of Long Island, which "was one of the world's great fisheries and, though considerably depleted, it still is." There he fishes for striped bass ("the best-tasting and the most amenable to any kind of cooking") and bluefish, which, as he says, are easily caught and must be eaten at once, for they lose their flavor fast.

Blues can be caught on the beach, and one need not sail far offshore to find stripers, but tarpon and other big fish require deep water. Hughes writes with gusto about big-game fishing, "one of the toughest forms of sport ever devised, and not to be scoffed at by those who have not done it," and he writes with genuine lyricism about the thrill of it:

"The jump of a tarpon is startling and scary. It can go as high as ten feet. The fish explodes out of the water, twisting and whipping, a column of quicksilver in a storm of foam. It is an epiphany. Nothing is more silver than a tarpon in the sunlit air. It hangs at the top of its arc and then crashes back into the sea. Then it does it again, and again. Short of a big billfish tail-walking, these acrobatics are the most exhilarating sight that fishing affords."

Hughes is also a devotee of fly fishing, which he learned as a boy under the stern but loving tutelage of his father, who taught him standards of behavior that everyone who engages in such sport should observe: "Assume that any gun you touch is loaded. Never point it at anything you don't intend to shoot at. Never shoot anything alive unless you mean to eat it. And never, under any circumstances, fish for trout with anything but a fly."

The explanation for this last "had both practical and moral aspects," the former being "that fly fishing was usually a more effective way to catch trout than live-baiting," while "the moral aspect was related to the elegance" of it, "the superiority of fly fishing for trout over all other ways of angling." Indeed, my only complaint about this lovely book is that in the course of his ramblings through the literature of fishing, Hughes somehow manages to omit what seem to me the two finest books about fly fishing--perhaps the two finest books about fishing, period--"My Moby Dick" and "The Spawning Run," both by the late William Humphrey.

Hughes has written a celebration of fishing in all its sporting forms, but he has also written an angry and despairing protest against the commercial fishing industry, "devouring its own future," employing modern technology to strip-mine the sea with merciless intent. He writes with passion about how fish must feel when they are hooked and reeled in, whether by commercial fishermen or sportsmen:

"But one wonders if, from the fish's point of view, there was ever much difference between dying ignominiously on a long line and dying, nobly we are told, on a shorter line connected to Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey, or oneself. The pursuit of big-game records, which inspired the Hemingways . . . of another generation, now seems a peculiarly empty form of machismo, however intense the momentary triumph, however mingled its impulses may be with estheticism."

So Hughes now reels them in and then tosses them back, since "the joy of fishing is in the catching, not the killing." In this as so much else, he is absolutely right.