Wednesday, February 14, 2007

CJ Chivers on outdoors writing

CJ Chivers interview: Here is the first of a couple interviews and recipes I'm salvaging from For those of you just tuning in, check here for the background.

This is an interview I did in late 2005 if I remember correctly. It was a Saturday morning and I was calling Chivers in Russia to talk about fishing, writing, beer and perserverence. It was incredibly generous of him to give me an inteview and he opened some doors for me down the road -- the conversation stands out as one of the formative experiences in my adult life.

CJ Chivers on fishing and journalism

Recreational angler CJ Chivers, a 40-year old Moscow correspondent for the NY Times, is shaping the way America thinks about fishing.

Chivers honed his fishing skills on the Susquehanna River and Cayuga Lake in upstate New York growing up. Following a stint as a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer, Chivers went on to write for the Providence Journal and then the Times, where he covered the 9/11 collapse from the front lines.

Lately, when he's not running ragged through the former Soviet Union, Chivers has been publishing fishing articles in some of the most influential magazines in the country.

The first time I read a Chivers fishing piece was the November, 2004 issue of Esquire, "Cult of the Striper". Then I saw his byline again on one of the most interesting fishing stories I'd ever read -- Fishing For Dinosaurs, an article about land-based fishing for giant alligator gar, in Field & Stream.

In an industry often overshadowed by glamour travel, boat fishing and gear, Chivers offers the simple voice of a fisherman connecting with his quarry. He gave some insight into his fishing experiences during a recent phone interview from Moscow.

Can you tell me about the changes you've seen in outdoors writing in the past few years?

Most of what you'd call the outdoor writing circuit had gone in the wrong direction over the last twenty years. The writing was not that fresh. There were exceptions, but I think a lot of the readership got turned off to the perpetual sameness and transparent shilling that was going on with some of the magazines, and still goes on with some of them.

There had been some upstart magazines, like On The Water out of New England, which is a terrifically fresh and insightful magazine. It just crackles with local knowledge and enthusiasm.

When Sid Evans [editor] came over to Field & Stream, he wanted to bring back some of the Field & Stream legacy. I think he understood some of the ailments that afflicted the industry and he's been trying to undo it on his property. He did a redesign, tried to bring in new writers, fresher layouts. He's really looking to elevate the magazine back to its old stature with an updated look. And it's been really fun to be a part of it.

And they're now doing the same thing at Saltwater Sportsman, another magazine with an incredible legacy that ran aground.

That's something I'd noticed. Are saltwater magazines starting to take another look at surf fishing? The money has to be in advertising for boats.

If you go back and look at the history of Saltwater Sportsman, when Frank Woolner and his fishing buddies were putting this thing out... If you can get your hands on an old copy at a garage sale from the 1960s and 1970s... what a magazine. It really spoke to fishing in all of its aspects and was written by people who were fishing all the time. They loved their sport and knew a lot about it and were trying to tell the readers all about it.

I didn't read it regularly through the 1980s, so I don't know exactly where the turn came. But by the time I really took a close look at it again in the late 1990s, it had become a "how to catch fish out of boats" magazine. It was almost unreadable.

Fishing on foot is back in at the magazine. They still do a lot of fishing on the boats and they cover both offshore and inshore. But they cover fishing in all of its aspects again.

You cover the conservation issues, as well as tactics and point of view pieces. What do you like writing best?

I don't write a lot of how-to articles. I've written a few. There are people out there who do a better job than me at how-to articles, and there are a lot of better fishermen than me at certain techniques.

If I'm on to something that I think is a little different or unusual that I don't see other people doing, I'll lay out an article. Sometimes they're really offbeat. A few years ago I wrote a short piece on how to catch hickory shad on light tackle. I just wrote a piece in Saltwater Sportsman that they'll probably run next year on how to catch false albacore off the beach using steelhead tackle to throw really light jigs at these fish. There are very few people doing it, and if you become one of them you'll have some success and stop being skunked on these fish.

I prefer writing conservation articles because it's not as covered and I enjoy writing essays on fishing, which is something else altogether.

You wrote an article on catching giant alligator gar in Texas that I really liked. Would you consider those fish dangerous quarry?

Fishing is dangerous to me in the sense that you can have a bad accident on your boat or bust your head open jumping around on wet rocks at night. But I don't think the quarry itself is dangerous.

Maybe a bluefish is dangerous. You might need a few stitches if you're not careful around the hot end. But to me, it's the conditions that can get you more than the fish.

It just seems like predator species have a certain glamour attached to them.

Yeah, but we're the predators. Let's be serious. How many people do you know that have been killed by a fish? It's a boating accident in a storm or drowning by any number of means... taking the wrong step in a walleye river, flipping a canoe in a cold pond. That's where we die. We don't die at the hands of fish.

I didn't think the gar were dangerous. You just needed to be careful handling them. That's all. I'm careful around my neighbor's dog.

You cover such serious topics in your day job. How do you contrast such serious journalism with your fishing writing?

I take fishing very seriously. I don't remember not fishing. My dad taught me to fish really young. I went fishing through the ice, just beyond being a toddler, with my dad. I approach it with the same seriousness of my day job.

I try to research the topic. I try to connect to the people that I spend time with. I try to ask myself why I'm there and what it means that I'm there. Sometimes a fishing story isn't going to have the same self-evident energy that covering the 9/11 collapses would. Of course not. And for that reason, some of the [fishing] stories aren't as resonant as the stuff I do in the New York Times to the general reader. But to me, they are every bit personally as important as some of the stories I've done on the job.

Fishing makes me happy. So fishing writing is a way I can combine my day job - which can be extraordinarily emotionally and physically draining -- fishing writing is a way to combine it with something I love to do. It's a way to restore some joy to the keyboard.

In most of my fishing stories for instance, I can do a story where nobody dies and nothing gets stolen. We cover a lot of grim stuff out here.

Speaking of your current location, do you get to do any fishing in Russia? I understand there are some really great fisheries on that East Coast.

I'm planning to go. I'm planning two really exciting fishing trips for next year, not counting the ice fishing. I'm going to try to do some ice fishing this winter. I grew up ice fishing and I love the sport.

I had big plans to go fishing last year, but the past fifteen months in Russia turned out to be crazy. From [the school massacre] in Beslan to the Ukrainian Revolution, to the Kyrgyz revolution, the massacre in Andijon in Uzbekistan... we never had time to get out of position. You risk traveling eight time zones to get to good fishing water and your beat blows up back here in the western part of the former Soviet Union, and then you're dead. You're at the wrong end of the field.

If next year is quieter I have two really exciting fishing trips planned. One is up in the Tajikistan Mountains along the Chinese and Afghan border, fishing for snow trout. The other is in the Russian far east in Kamchatka. fishing the salmon rivers. Knock on wood, I'll actually get to do these trips.

What's your favorite type of fishing?

For me, it's striped bass fishing at night in the surf on Block Island or on the Rhode Island shore. Because you're out there all alone, there's a good number of fish and it's a huge technical challenge to reach them and also get them in, balancing tackle fine enough to make a good presentation, but strong enough to handle them.

Night fishing seems like the biggest pain in the ass. I've been out there.

No, no. It's the most fun of all. Everything drops away. There's no distraction. You're all alone, the crowded beach is empty. The fish are running twenty times as thick as they run in the day. The fish are large, tasty. And when you're out there at night it completely centers you on what you're doing.

It's very hard to be very good at a lot of things in life. You've got your job, and it's going to be something you want to figure out. That consumes your days. You can get good at being with your family, and that consumes your spare time. What does that leave you for fishing? Well, take up night fishing then. If you're willing to throw your sleep away, you can get really good at night fishing. And if you're going after striped bass and bluefish, you can catch a hell of a lot of fish.

It's really possible to hold down a job and become a very savvy night fisherman if you put in a couple hundred nights. If you've got a demanding day job, you're never going to be a good offshore fisherman. How are you going to get out there? But if you're lucky enough to live within an hour, hour and a half of a fishing spot, you can be down on the water, fish a few hours, get back and get four or five hours sleep and go back to work. You can catch a hell of a lot of fish and figure this thing out.

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