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Fly Fishing the 41st: Around the World on the 41st Parallel by James Prosek


Rating: (Recommended)


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I never imagined myself reading a fishing book, but when an Executive Times reader who noted my review of Blue Latitudes suggested that I read James Prosek’s book, Fly Fishing the 41st, I gave it a try. While I still can’t imagine myself fishing, I was hooked on Prosek’s fine writing, and became captivated by his trip around the world as he fly fished along the 41st parallel. Here’s an excerpt from pp. 94-8, when Prosek was in Eastern Europe with Johannes, whose day (night) job was as a baker, but whose real vocation was fishing:

I looked to Johannes to be my Virgil in the inferno and hoped that he was capable as a guide. The roads were unpaved and the fields beside the road were unevenly cut by hand with scythes.

After eight hundred kilometers on the road that day, we spent the night in Erzincan at the Hotel Berlin. It was a run-down establishment with no furniture in the lobby, just a desk and a telephone. We were required to leave our passports at reception overnight.

"I don't like the idea of leaving my passport here," I whispered to Johannes.

"You only have one passport?" Johannes asked, striking a match to light a cigarette.

"Don't tell me you have two?"

"Of course, so does Ida. "

We rented one room with two beds and I slept on the floor. At about one in the morning I woke up with a dry mouth and a full bladder. There was no water to drink and I couldn't get the bathroom door open. Ida was snoring loudly, making gasping noises like a slain cow, and Johannes let out farts at intervals. I tried to fall back asleep but could not.

As the sun rose, and a cool breeze crept through the window, I heard the call of "God is good" broadcasted from the spires of every mosque in the city. It echoed through the street, a high plaintive song.

"Allahuekbahhh. allahhhhalllaaahhh."


The next morning I purchased several postcards depicting the mountains near Erzincan and wrote messages home on them as we drove east.

We crossed the Euphrates River twice as it wound back and forth under the road, and turned north to follow a smaller tributary called Balik Cay, or fish stream (C in Turkish is pronounced ch; (cay, besides being the word for stream, is also tea in Turkish).

In the town of Mercan, at my request, Johannes stopped at a post office. At a table in front of the building, several mustachioed men were seated playing backgammon. They looked at us and squinted from the bright sun, chewing on dried figs they took from a pile between them.

"Alabalik?” Johannes asked.

They pointed in the direction we were going, away from the Firat Nehri (Turkish for the Euphrates), and said we would find trout in the village of Balikii, twenty kilometers distant They offered us tea and figs but Johannes declined. "We don't have time for tea," he said to me, "we only have time for trout."

We drove toward a range of low snowcapped peaks, called the Otiukbeli, and arrived in the village the fig eaters spoke of. A small river flowed through Balikii, under a bridge and through a shady poplar grove. From the bridge we could see a skinny man, his long trousers rolled up, standing with a fishing pole in the middle of the stream. We stopped to watch him fish.

The water in the river was somewhat opaque and milky blue. It flowed around his legs and an eddy formed downstream of him where he dropped his bait, which looked to be a ball of bread. Johannes called out to him over the sound of rushing water,


"You think he's fishing for trout?" I asked Johannes.

It was nearly midday and the reflection of the sun on the rippled currents was blindingly bright. A cool breeze blew from the poplar grove carrying a strong scent of cow dung.

Our eyes were fixed on the fisherman when an old man came up behind us. He deared his throat audibly to get our attention. When we turned, he lifted an open hand to his dark forehead as a kind of greeting.

"Alabalik, " he said after a long silence, "evet, " yes, and shook his head from side to side. Johannes looked at him with a hopeful glance. The old man spoke again like an echo of himself from parched lips under this thick gray mustache, "Alabalik. "

When he said the word alabalik—the i is pronounced like the u in put, and the word was spoken deeply and aquatically—it was as if he were uttering a secret that should not be shouted. He seemed excited to help us. Perhaps, I thought, he was a fisherman himself.

Johannes wanted to make it dear that we were interested in the indigenous trout. He told him repeatedly, "ala, ala," red, speckled, trying to communicate through mime and drawings in the dust on the hood of the Land Rover that we wanted only the native trout with the red spots.

"Evet," the man said, and to show he understood he took out a small container of paprika from his pant pocket, spread some on the soft underside of his arm, and mixed the powder with a little spit to produce a soft vermilion color.

"Yes, yes! " Johannes shouted, delirious with pleasure.

The man pointed up the river. A wind rustled the leaves in the poplar grove.

"Alabalik," he said, and looked at the sun and then his watch, "no," by which he meant to say the sun was too bright for fishing at that hour. "Cay?”  he asked.

Johannes turned to me. "Sometimes we must drink tea to get trout," he said.

The old man told us to wait in the poplar grove while he prepared the tea. We sat beside a small aqueduct in the shade and waited for him. Ida brought her book to read, but put it away when the man returned carrying a tray of tall clear glasses and a silver pot.

He sat down with us, Indian style on the grass, and as he poured the tea, he began what I inferred, from the different pieces of languages he tried to use—German, French, and English—was a philosophical discussion about the virtues of country life over city life.

"Istanbul," he blurted, "no good," and spat in the dry earth. He took a bit of soil and rubbed it on his forehead, then filled his teacup with water from the aqueduct and drank it. "The sound of the stream is good for sleeping," he said through a combination of speech and mime, "the water is pure for drinking."

He told us his name was Celal Boz and shook our hands. Then he took out a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, but there was only one left and the filter was broken off, so Johannes offered him one. He accepted, lit it, and puffed, staring into the foliage of the poplar trees above him. He took a sugar cube from a small bowl and pointed to cultivated fields on the other side of the river. "I farm sugar beets," he said in broken German. A small boy came up to Celal's tea tray and stole a lump of sugar. He put it in his mouth and sat within earshot of us. The tea had become stronger. We were nearing the leaves at the bottom of the pot, the sun was lower in the sky, and Johannes was impatient to go fishing.

But Celal was not impatient. His hospitality was thorough and unwavering. We would not go fishing until he gave us a tour of his home.

He carried the tea tray and we followed him to the steps of his abode, where we took off our shoes and walked in. The room was dim and colorful in contrast to the bright stark landscape outside. On the wall opposite the door were two portraits. One, Celal explained, was his father, and the other, Kemal Ataturk, the former President of Turkey (Ata-turk, or “father of the Turks,” known for Westernizing the culture and introducing the Roman alphabet). Celal was proud to show us he had a shower and a telephone. He offered us lodging for the night and invited us for dinner.

Johannes said the word again, “alabalik,” as a hint that he wanted to go.

In addition to his fine writing, Prosek is also a watercolorist, and some of his prints adorn the pages of Fly Fishing. All readers will find Fly Fishing the 41st to be an engaging story of the lengths we go to pursue our passions. Some of my favorite scenes were those fishing in the Seine from I’le St. Louis. Next time in Paris, I may take a second look. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the triple talents of Prosek as writer, painter, and of course, fisherman. Read Fly Fishing to find out how he and Joannes became schwartz fischer.

Steve Hopkins, June 21, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Fishing.htm


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