A fiume runs through it

An American on a fly-fishing pilgrimage learns that in Italy, it's who you know that counts.

By Thom Elkjer

Published November 12, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In his classic book "The Italians," Luigi Barzini observes that the basis of society in Italy is the family, not the law. This is because in Italy, there is either no law at all, or so many that it's impossible to sort out the tangled heap of overlapping jurisdictions. So you call your brother, or your uncle, and he arranges things for you. Americans, on the other hand, rely much more on their own initiative because there is usually a clear and stable structure for getting things done.

Barzini's analysis remained abstract for me until I began researching a novel set in Italy. The protagonist of the story goes fly fishing there, which meant that I, diligent author, would have to do the same. Before I left the states I talked to Graziano, a longtime friend of mine living in the town of Vicenza, near Venice. He told me not to worry, that all Italian rivers were public and there were no special laws to be concerned about. I started packing. I landed in Rome in late summer, when cleansing rain separates the heat of the day from the cool of the evening. I checked into my hotel, consulted the phone book, and looked for a sporting goods shop where I could get a fishing license. To my delight, I saw that there was a new fly fishing shop only ten minutes away. I looked at my watch and smiled. I might get to the river that very evening.

The shop owner spoke no English, but I had enough Italian to learn that the Fiume Velino, a good-sized river northeast of Rome, held fish year-round. But when I told the guy I wanted a fishing license, he looked confused. Perhaps you should go to the post office, he suggested. I explained more slowly that I wanted to fish not only in Lazio, but also in the north of Italy. He shrugged and suggested that I visit the Italian Department of Hunting and Fishing, somewhere on the via Nazionale. This made more sense, and I headed back to the hotel to look up the address. There I bumped into Giuseppe, the proprietor, while looking in the phone book.

"It is not in the interest of the government to help you," Giuseppe pointed out. "They do not even wish to help Italian people. Why will they want to help an American man to take their fish?"

"A friend of mine in Vicenza told me it was easy," I said.

"Is he close to you, your friend?"

"Like a brother," I said.

"Then go to your friend," Giuseppe said. "Not to the government."

I should have heard the echo of Barzini. But my entrepreneurial American ears were deaf to that kind of talk. "I can do this myself," I said, and dialed the number of the Department of Hunting and Fishing. After I explained what I wanted, I got a flurry of very fast Italian, the only words of which I understood were ufficio postale ... post office.

I decided I must be using the wrong word for "license," because everyone thought I was asking for stamps. While I irritably looked through my dictionary, Giuseppe picked up the phone, hit the redial button, and got through to the same woman I had. They chatted merrily for ten minutes, evidently discovering they had several friends in common. Finally Giuseppe hung up.

"Did you find out where I should go?" I asked.

"Post office," he said. "There's one around the corner."

It took half a day and two visits to a nearby post office, but I eventually got a scrap of paper that allowed me to fish for three days in the state of Lazio. It cost more than a year's license in California, but I didn't care. I had successfully worked the system, or so I thought.

The next morning I drove out of Rome in my rented car and picked up the Velino River west of Rieti. From the highway I looked for good fishing spots. I could have arranged to have someone guide me to the best places to fish, but I had a map and a car and I had done this before, in the U.S. If you kept your eyes peeled and were willing to hike in from the highway, you found good places to fish. They seemed even better, of course, when you found them yourself. The first place I stopped was lovely, the river curving through a sun-dappled valley dotted with farm houses and olive orchards. I spotted a small bridge from the highway and walked down to it through a grassy field, feeling like Nick Adams in Hemingway's story, "The Big Two Hearted River." From the bridge I could see fish rising in the morning sun. I felt a congratulatory surge of self-reliance, and set to rigging my rod.

It was not until I looked behind me, preparatory to casting, that I saw the sign. In large red letters it said divieto di pesca. No fishing allowed. I lowered my rod and looked around. A man appeared in the doorway of a farmhouse a half-mile away, and he was looking right at me. I walked back up the hill to my car.

For the next eight hours I drove throughout the province of Rieti. Every time I stopped, I hiked farther to reach an even more remote location that was perfect for fishing. Every time there was a sign saying divieto di pesca. Each time I would think about ignoring the sign and fishing anyway. Then I would skulk back to the car. I might have been independent, but I couldn't break the rules.

A day later I left Rome and went north to Vicenza. When I told Graziano about my frustration in Lazio, he said he would introduce me to someone who could arrange everything to my satisfaction.

"I don't want to be a burden to anyone," I said quickly.

"Maurizio is like my own brother," Graziano said. "It is no problem."

After dinner that night we met Maurizio, who said he would be happy to take me fishing.

"But first you need a license," he pointed out.

"I'll go to the post office tomorrow morning," I said suavely.

"Do you want to go fishing, or do you want to mail a letter?" Graziano inquired politely.

"For the license," I said. "I go to the post office for the fishing license."

The two of them laughed uproariously, then Maurizio explained that it would be impossible for me to get the approvals I needed on my own. If I would give him my passport, he would return it to me the next afternoon with everything I needed.

He was as good as his word. What he put in my hand, however, hardly resembled the "license" I had gotten in Rome. There was a Venetian state booklet, which had to be filled in with the date, location, and number of fish each day; provincial stamps for the Vicenza region; and special riders for individual rivers. I noticed that my signature had been casually forged on each of these documents, and that together the fees totaled more than 200,000 lire. When I offered to reimburse Maurizio, he just smiled, exposing a mouthful of truly bad teeth, and said it had cost nothing.

There was a message in all this, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It appeared that the law was more complex in the north than in the south, but paradoxically it was also much easier to comply. How could that be?

Early next morning we drove up the Brenta River in a light rain. I dreamily envisioned hooking native trout in rustic streams, my fly rod bent double as I played a leaping four-pounder. So I was surprised when we pulled off under a freeway overpass that thundered with every passing truck. The river was a hundred feet wide and roared below high cliffs on the far side. You'd need a telephone pole and steel cable to fish water like this, I thought. It turned out I was not far wrong.

I got out of the car with my rod case in my hand, but Maurizio told me to put it away. "We will fish the historic Italian way," he said. With that he produced a pair of high-tech, carbon-composite telescoping fishing rods that extended 25 feet and weighed about ten pounds. The rods were made in Japan, which meant Italian history had some chapters I'd never read.

We did not even cast with these monster rods. The idea was to hang a worm about ten feet off the end of the rod, hold the rod out over the water so that the worm hung in the water, then wave the rod so the worm seemed to be borne downstream by the current. It seemed impossible that any self-respecting trout would fall for this gambit. I was just glad that no one I knew would ever see me: a confirmed catch-and-release wilderness fly fisherman, hauling trout out of a river next to a screaming highway, using live bait and less finesse than a behemoth on "All-Star Wrestling."

Suddenly I felt a tug on my line. I lifted the rod and there was a foot-long trout hanging off the end of the line, squirming angrily. I thought it was a fluke until I put another worm in the water. I caught five fish in five minutes, and after that I didn't feel so religious. I lost track of everything but the fishing, until I heard a shout behind me. I turned and saw Graziano pointing to where lightning had just flashed against the far cliffs. I could not hear him above the roar of the river, so I shouted something in response and turned back to the water. More lightning struck, even closer. Another fish took my bait. This was great!

The next thing I knew, Maurizio was practically dragging me back up the bank and out of the river. He pointed out that I had been standing knee-deep in the water and holding a 25-foot carbon rod out in front of me during a lightning storm. I had to admit, it was a pretty good way to get electrocuted.

We repaired to a nearby bar to wait out the lightning. I was aglow with my success on the river, and asked about heading even higher up the valley, where the river was smaller and I could use my fly rod. It is difficult, Maurizio said, to get the authorization. I asked why. Had not Graziano said that all the water was public?

"The water, yes," Maurizio said. "The land, no."

"You mean all these licenses are no good?" I asked, holding up the papers Maurizio had secured for me.

"You must have all of them also," he said. "But higher up you must also know somebody who lives along the river. That is the final approval."

Now I understood why we had been fishing next to the highway. I also understood that the adventure I was having was not something I could have cooked up on my own, no matter how much independent initiative I displayed or how many laws I followed. I looked at Maurizio and Graziano and felt a wave of brotherly affection.

Suddenly Maurizio stood up and walked over to the pay phone on the wall. When he came back he picked up his cigarettes, which meant we were leaving.

"I remembered that my sister's husband knows a guy who lives quite high up the river," he said.

"Did you talk to the guy?" I asked. "Can we go?"

"I did not speak with him," Maurizio said. "But my sister's husband says this man is like a brother to him. It will be no problem."

© 1998 by Thom Elkjer. Used by permission of the author.

Thom Elkjer

Thom Elkjer is a freelance interviewer and scriptwriter whose work has appeared in print, on stage, in video and in "Travelers' Tales Paris" and "The Road Within." He lives in Mill Valley, Calif., and is the author of "The Ones That Got Away."

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