by Jack Zajac
In 1966 Corda, my wife, and I were invited to a party at the home of Mike Nichols
celebrating the completion of the film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf".
At the doorstep, as was her custom, Corda was begging me not to bore people with
stories about fishing. That was the night I met Dick Sylbert, the complete angler.
I knew of Dick through our mutual friends David Levine and Aaron Schickler.
The three of them had studied at Temple University's Tyler School of Art and very
early showed the extraordinary talent that carried them to their future career
Dick and I talked about painting and found that we both admired a number of
painters of remarkable obscurity. This lofty conversation took a sharp turn
when somehow the subject of fishing came up. For many people, fishing is seen
as a tranquil, reflective escape, perfect for the deadbeat. It is not so.
Fishing or fly fishing at least takes the nerve of a high wire artist, the skills
of a cat burglar and the dexterity of a pickpocket. Naturally, since we recognize
these traits in one another we quickly made plans for a fishing trip for the
I once heard a cynic describe Dick Sylbert as having a "kind streak".
I still don't know whether it was said in admiration or seen as a weakness, but
on that first excursion, I saw both his generosity of spirit and his devotion to
hard facts. While driving back at the end of the trip, he said, "You know you cast
very well but your flies look like they were tied by a sculptor." Since I really
am a sculptor, this is not a compliment and he could just as well have said "tied
wearing boxing gloves." A few evenings later he gave me a thorough lesson in the
high art of tying flies.
The art and arcana of fly tying is a bewildering trap. The first mention of it is
said to occur in Egyptian hieroglyphics and it's modern practitioners guard their
secrets and their stash of materials with a miser's alertness. They are ruthless
in their hunt for that special fur and feather that can be made to deceive a trout.
Dogs, cats, canaries, parrots and even small unguarded children are routinely dis-
figured by the scissors of a fly tier. Some of the processes of the collection of
material have become a cult.
The "vampire" for instance, is a fly used in streams in the Transylvania mountains
and requires a tuft of hair that must be plucked from the shoulder of a running
wolf in winter.
Dick was a master of this craft. Like all durable artistic traditions, the classics
are respected through time but talented practitioners can enhance the classic with
their own innovations. He brought the same discipline and invention that is so
strongly evident in his major achievements in painting and film production design
to this private effort, which very few people saw. When he went on a prolonged
movie location, he sent me his tying paraphernalia to use while he was gone.
This was an astonishing gesture of trust considering what he thought of my crafts-
In the pursuit of sportfishing, there are many avenues from which to choose. The
most direct way to catch a fish is with a pitchfork on their spawning beds. There
is a middle ground which uses natural bait sometimes doused with scent enhancers,
or secret gypsy formulas, etc. Another way uses soft plastic replicas of natural
bait that glow in the dark. "Senseless Killers" Dick called them. This term was
first used by him when we, the presumed aristocrats as fly fishermen, watched a
pair of these senseless killers pull in fish after fish with their ugly concoc-
tions while we caught nothing.
Nevertheless, the fly fishermen maintain the belief that doing it their way is
the loftier calling since we catch fewer fish and release most of the caught ones.
What all fisherman share, however, is a runaway madness when they get close to
the damn fish. Dick and I spent three long days on the Green River in Wyoming on
what was supposed to be an easy eight-hour float. The reason it took so long is
that Dick had to beach the boat and fish every other pool and had to fish the ones
in between. Dick's benevolence sometimes faltered when it threatened to comp-
his time on the water. When I once broke the news to him that an art dealer of
mine was coming to the cabin and wanted to try his hand at flyfishing with us, his
response was, "Get him a worm" but he reached way back to the New York street kid
in him and it came out "Giddim a woim". "Giddim a woim" Has become our own great
mantra and my sons Chris and Aaron who were thrilled witnesses to the first event
still call it across the water when we are together.
Fishermen have a reputation of being chronic liars and I suppose many of them
are, but the good ones have a confidence that makes exaggeration seem tacky, esp-
ecially if witnesses might come forward to contradict your claims. Dick was very
good at actually catching fish (having good casting skills and fine equipment
does not necessarily guarantee this) and I have plaster casts of a few of his
whoppers in the cabin if there are doubters. He had no need to enhance his own
conquest but he ehabitually enhances the skills and feats of his friends. I prefer
to call it by its more humane term "fibbing" but I’m not sure if he was ever aware
of it. He added a full 15 feet to my casting abilities when describing it to another
friend and I heard him describe the cabin in Wyoming as a three bedroom two bath
affair. He spent many nights in its one-room sleeping on a child's bunk bed but
the crook in his neck and the memory of the ordeal must've already faded.
When "Catch-22" came to Rome I had a chance to show Dick the Sangro River in the
Abruzzi mountains but there was a price to pay for this and that was to get Dick
an Italian fishing license in what is surely the most Byzantine bureaucracy in
existence. A task that would take 10 minutes with the showing of a passport or
driver's license and payment of a fee in any other place on earth, in Rome took
the better part of three days traipsing from one agency to the next and back again.
We finally arrived at the last destination with fistfuls of documents, stamps,
seals, money and the required three photographs of the applicant. We were inter-
cepted in the entry room of Departmento di Caccia e Pescatarian Della Republica
d’Italia by the doorman who was dressed in a splendid grey uniform with red
He took our papers and rifled through them then stopped abruptly at the three
photographs of Dick, two of which show a mug shot wearing a black trenchcoat
draped over his shoulder and a third with the same mug but in which the raincoat
was missing. It had slipped off his shoulder between the second and third shot.
With a surge of pleasure, the doorman raised his fore-finger majestically and
wagged it side to side in our faces. I looked at the wagging finger then at Dick's
crestfallen face and then back at the finger, which I now held firmly in my fist.
I said to the doorman, "If you can tell me why my friend would give you two
of himself and one picture of someone else I'll let go of your finger.
If you can't
tell me, please take this application to your superior." Dick looked
at me< and asked,
"Are we going to jail?" To my relief I heard the doorman say,
"You should sign
this in haste, we have insane people out there."
We were only able to laugh at this after putting a few dozen kilometres between
us and Rome and we did have four great days on the Sangro in the company of an
ancient strain of Fario trout that are mentioned in Roman texts.
It's a great solace knowing we were lucky enough to take the pleasure of fishing
in places of such great beauty, to talk about much more than fishing itself and
to laugh a great deal more than one could hope for.