Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Jeff Metcalf’s Back Cast is a Collection of Lively Stories That Swim in Deep Water

“The natural world, particularly the wild waters of the west, have been deep balm for my soul. I’m deeply indebted to every stretch of water I’ve had the pleasure to fish.”

This book is a gem of wisdom and interesting firsthand accounts from local author and U. English professor Jeff Metcalf that will entertain and enlighten those who love fly fishing as well as those with little to no experience. These fish stories go well beyond the rivers and streams in which they are set. Metcalf captures many aspects of life, both difficult and beautiful, including challenges that we all must face as well as adversity that none of us ever wants to go through.

Throughout this collection of essays we become familiar with a man who has made decisions both good and bad, but has always found excitement, release, and fulfillment in pursuing a simple yet sophisticated addiction to the water. The writings vary in length and tone to create an experience that is slightly different on each page and keeps the reader engaged. The work as a whole retains an important cohesiveness of subject matter and theme that contributes to the deeper significance of the collection.

Metcalf manages to capture an ethos, a way of life in just a few pages. In The Way It Should Be, one of the shortest in the collection at just a page and a half, Metcalf recounts a tale from one of his companions visiting a fly shop on the Blackfoot River near Craig, Colorado. The store owner shouts at the customer to get out of the shop, telling him that there is a once-in-a-lifetime “hatch,” when the fishing is at its peak, and that he needs to be on the river now! In retelling this story Metcalf conveys the urgency of finding yourself in the right place at the precise right moment, and not wasting that opportunity in the “bait store” waiting around.

Metcalf’s writing has appeared in many publications locally and internationally. Each essay in this compilation was specifically selected for its ability to reflect a much broader purpose and to convey a deeper meaning. “These essays were extracted from the fly-fishing journals that I’ve kept religiously for over forty years,” Metcalf remarks. “The difficulty, of course, was trying to decide which stories made it into the final collection.”

Those who enjoy the sport and mystery of fly fishing are rewarded in this book with wonderful stories, and reference to many of Metcalf’s favorite locations throughout the western United States and beyond. For readers who have limited familiarity with the sport, the stories remain entertaining and significant on many levels. “A few essays have particularly deep ties to my journey through cancer,” he says. “’Split Second,’ written after a particularly tough prognosis changed my thinking about whatever time I have left on this planet.  I was returning from Idaho after fishing Silver Creek when I had to make a split second swerve of my car to avoid hitting two deer that jumped across the road.  I was lucky I didn’t flip my rig and it reminded me just how capricious life is, that so much could have happened at that moment and it would have been catastrophic. ‘The Last Steelhead’ and ‘Unspoken’ both received awards and have been anthologized in numerous publications.  They speak to survival and of loss.  Both are powerful themes in my writing.”

Metcalf indicated in a recent discussion that the book has been very well received. “The sales have been greater than we expected and it’s surpassed all expectations.  I got a phone call from a fly fisher in Portland who told me that he tried to get a copy on Amazon but they were completely sold out.  When I told them it was because Amazon probably only had three copies he almost died laughing.  Had he died, I would have lost a sale, right?” Metcalf adds, “What truly surprises me is how many people have sent emails telling me how much the book has meant to them.  I’ve had email from Croatia, France, Afghanistan, Mexico and all parts of the United States. It’s always such a pleasant surprise when that happens.”

Those in the western United States will immediately recognize many of the locations he describes: the Sawtooth Mountains, the Provo River, the Green River, and more; but locations farther afield are brought to life by Metcalf’s writing with such rich descriptions that those environments will feel familiar as well. Most important of all, however, is Metcalf’s ability to examine how the main characters move through that environment; usually with unsure footing, wading through the currents.

At a recent reading from Back Cast, the author shared a few of his stories with a captivated audience on the fourth floor of the Salt Lake City Library. Following the reading, when asked for a suggestion where beginners might learn the basics of fly fishing without risking injury or looking too foolish, Metcalf responded quickly, “The Provo River is an amazing resource that we have so close to us in Salt Lake City.” He also suggested that starting with a guide is a great way to go in order to avoid making a lot of basic mistakes that he made when he was learning himself over 40 years ago.

Whether you are heading to your own secret spot on the river to search for elusive trout, or just looking to catch a few hours with a great read, be sure to bring a copy of Jeff Metcalf’s book Back Cast. You can still find a few copies on, or at any of Utah’s independent bookstores. It is also available through the University of Utah press website.

Back Cast: Fly-Fishing and Other Such Matters
Jeff Metcalf,
University of Utah Press

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