The Zen of Home Water
By Dana Sturn

In 2014, writer Jerry Hamza won Fly Rod & Reel magazine’s Robert Traver Award. This award, which today is administered by the American Museum of Fly Fishing, recognizes “distinguished original stories or essays that embody the implicit love of fly fishing, respect for the sport, and the natural world in which it takes place.” This was back at a time when print still mattered, and for an outdoors writer the fly fishing magazines were among the toughest markets to crack. To win the Traver Award and have your story featured in FR&R was a pretty big deal.

Back then I had recently sold, and feeling a bit burned by the heat that decision generated, I ignored most of the goings on in print and elsewhere and focussed on my own writing. Other than the work of McGuane, Harrison, McLennan, and Gierach, I didn’t read much related to fly fishing beyond the end of my pen. This was unfortunate because I missed Hamza’s work, which I would have enjoyed.

You will, too.

Jerry Hamza’s collection "The Zen of Home Water" was published in 2020, so I’m a bit short on the strike here. But it’s a great book, full of stories about the fly-fishing life and what we gain, lose, and avoid by pursuing it. And the book is still available in hardcover.

Previously I’ve written about my habit of jumping around in story collections. Yes, I know full well that an author probably had some sort of design in mind when they ordered their stories as they did. But a life well-lived isn’t linear, so why should we approach a collection that way? Like writing, reading is a creative act, and any author who has collected their short works should tolerate—even welcome—a reader who engages with it as a creative act of their own. With "The Zen of Home Water" I jumped around, using Hamza’s titles as a guide. The ones that grabbed me I read first, then followed up with the others in no particular order. And since, after a prolonged summer in Vancouver it was suddenly autumn, I started at the end with “An Autumn Day.” 

“Life, when lived properly, mirrors good poetry,” writes Hamza at the outset of “An Autumn Day.” We can argue about what constitutes “good poetry,” but it’s tough to argue whether Life mirrors it. And to this I would add “good prose,” which “An Autumn Day” certainly is. At some point most every writer seeing grey in their temples will consider an “Autumn” story, full of imagery and heavy with the metaphor of a life’s waning days. I attempted it at the close of my story “Hating the Thompson” the same year Hamza won his Traver Award. In “An Autumn Day,” Hamza, I think, does it better. If you are of a certain vintage, you will recognize yourself in this story.

Next I read “Solstice Solace,” wherein our storyteller briefly wrestles with whether or not to share a prized possession with strangers. Anyone who has secreted along a good bottle of something on a steelhead trip will relate.

I followed this with “Kodachrome,” a story I found among the least satisfying of the collection, if only because it develops like a joke that sets up a disappointing punchline. That’s not to say it isn’t a decent story. Just not one of Hamza’s best. 

The collection’s namesake, “The Zen of Home Water,” was my next read, and it quickly redeemed things for me. Here is a story that takes a huge risk in its very title (for these days who would risk calling something “The Zen of” anything after decades of readers being subjected to this hackneyed expression). But it’s a brilliant story about those places that stay with us, and the people—old friends and new—who make them so. Trout and steelhead snob that I am, “Home Water” is one of the rare stories that actually makes me wonder if I would enjoy smallmouth bass fishing. And more important, it makes me yearn for places like this, waters with a personal history that draw me back. Years ago Alberta’s Bow and BC’s Thompson were my home waters. But both have changed so much now that I feel adrift. “The Zen of Home Water” reminds us all that the past, present and future need reliable anchorages. It’s well past time I find a few of my own. 

I won’t share all of my reading list with you, because that may rob you of the enjoyment of creating your own. For there are lots of good readings in Zen, and I would hate to influence apart from encouraging you to wade in wherever seems best. But it’s important to mention one more.

“The Escape (or, Gone Missing and Presumed to be Having a Good Time)” initially concerned me a little. At 38 pages it’s a big story in a collection of mostly smaller ones. That’s a big investment when you’re used to rather quick reads that fit between the stirrings of a chili pot, or the minutes before you turn out the bedside lamp. This page length signals a double whiskey commitment. It’s a sign that the author is willing to bet they have something special in there, important enough to sustain your interest after the bourbon is gone.

Turns out he was right. Although “The Escape” is sprawling when compared with most of the other selections, it still presents an intimate portrait of unexpectedly excellent Colorado high country angling, and a trip to see Steely Dan at Red Rocks. Full of Hamza’s wry observations about life and fly fishing, “The Escape” might just be the best piece in the book.

When you finish "The Zen of Home Water," it’s likely you will want more, and the good news is that Hamza authored a previous collection of outdoor stories published in 2015 called "Outdoor Chronicles." When you order Zen, pick up that one too. 

"The Zen of Home Water" by Jerry Hamza. Published by Skyhorse Publishing (2020). US $24.99/Can $33.99. 

Dana Sturn

Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn