Naming Names


The nuances of writing about rivers while preserving self-interest.

[by Scott Sadil]


The pretty steelhead river that runs through town, and the valley above, I named the Beulah.

Good, figurative, allegorical names.

It’s not exactly Yoknapatawpha County.

But you get the idea.

For years I wrote features and a fly tying column for a California fly fishing magazine, even though I haven’t lived in the state for more than a quarter of a century. Trying to remain relevant or authentic to readers on my native turf, I settled for phrases like just across the border, north of the state line, east of the mountains, or that grand catchall, the West.

Or, for somewhat different reasons, and in different venues, I might just make up a name—a form of lying I squared with a practice that seemed widespread and socially acceptable considering what was at stake. Until the day I left California, I was a serious surfer, where for decades tribal localism in the form of broken windshields, slashed tires, and fisticuffs was real. You looked at a photo of some guy tucked into a gnarly barrel that you would give an eyetooth to surf, a spot identified in the magazine as Acidolphilus Acres, and you knew exactly what was going on.

I run into guys all the time who tease me about the Wolf River. A weird and remote desert tailwater, with big brown trout that always look up, even when they’re snooty as stuffed figs, the Wolf has been hammered and written about for at least two decades now. It’s nobody’s secret. But I still can’t bring myself to spell out its real name—an act, in this case, I equate with scratching a phone number inside a bathroom stall, after beginning with something like for a good time, call . . .

Not that I can legitimately claim any moral high ground. Self-interest colors the finest lines. If I get far enough from home, I don’t seem to worry so much about stating a name. In some backhanded way, it’s like those guides who will never take you to the best water if they know you live within easy striking distance. Or you have your own boat. Decades ago in New Zealand I was shocked a guide and I could hold a stretch of public water for ourselves simply by showing up the day before at a nearby hospital and signing our names on a list of a half-dozen or so mile-long beats. Of course, I eventually realized the guide showed me this system only because I was leaving the country soon, not returning to a house in Auckland.

And staying tight-lipped, for whatever reason I might have, doesn’t always help. Once I spent an entire short story, events and characters pure fiction, trying to bring to life my favorite steelhead river without actually naming it. This was back when I had stumbled upon a series of wee muddlers that rose so many fish over the next few years that I look back now and wonder if it was all a dream. Nothing much to my credit; I just happened to be at the right spot before the crowds showed up. But when the story was published, the title I had given the piece had been changed to include the actual name of the river—right there in bold letters on a two-page color spread. Or maybe that’s just how it’s etched into my memory. This same editor, I should add, previously had demanded I delete a passing reference to another river we both fished, made by a character in an earlier piece of fiction.

“If I printed that name,” he explained, “my buddies would kill me.”

It gets complicated. Most anglers I meet are actually happy to share inside dope on favorite waters; they just don’t want me to run home and post the whereabouts information—along with photos of me drooling over mouthwatering fish—on social media. The picture’s not the real problem. You add the name of a place, however, and that thing between our ears clicks, wheels start turning, and the search engines and Google Earth light up.

And there’s this: Is there anything more delicious in this sport than walking blindly into a feast you never anticipated or even heard of? Discovery remains a profound pleasure at the heart of the sport. A couple of summers ago Joe Kelly and I backpacked into a wilderness drainage that really is out in the eastern part of the state. A fisheries biologist and high school science teacher, Joe claims now he knew we had a chance for bull trout. I’d been down into the canyon twice before, on the other hand, and what I understood we’d be up to was fooling wild and rarely disturbed rainbows with size 10 Humpies, a style of unsophisticated trouting I’d be happy to indulge in long after I can no longer shoulder a pack.

We went in light. For the first time in my life, I hiked, while backpacking, in sneakers; I’ve reached an age when every inch of my body can prove suspect if I fail to warm up for three and a half days. Still, I’d had to convince Joe that we carry our boots and waders; wet-wading was out of the question in these cold, crystalline waters, the sort of habitat that could have tipped me off about the bull trout—if only I’d seen them there before.