. . . Summer 1998
In September 1990, I was driving home to Minnesota from Oregon after a combined fishing and business trip in which no fish had been caught and no business had been done. Covering 1,800 miles in 46 hours, I zoomed by rivers and lakes with no time to stop and fish. I began to reflect on the many times I'd passed this way before, always promising myself that I'd return some day just to fish. By Idaho, I was really upset because I knew I'd been fooling myself. I'd never make it back to fish these rivers. It had been just a fantasy.
By the time I got to Montana, I was feeling better. So much better that I resurrected my fantasy--and improved on it by coming up with the idea to some day fish all 50 states. Halfway through North Dakota, I stopped thinking in terms of "some day," and my fantasy began to evolve toward reality as the idea formed in my head to fish all 50 states and write a book about it.
I'm an artist--a printmaker and photographer--and I decided that this project would be a work of art and a book. The book would have lots of photographs, which I'd take myself while traveling from state to state. Maybe a series of prints would come out of it. Maybe a call to the Guinness Book of World Records would be in order. No question, this was a big-time idea, and I'd support the project by selling my art to museums and galleries along the way, between fishing experiences.
As soon as I got home, I called my artist-fisherman friend James Holmes in Kansas and told him of my plan for The Fishing America Project - A Work of Art. He said he liked it, then asked, "You'll need help, won't you?" "Holmes, we've had so many fishing trips planned that didn't materialize, I wouldn't plan another with you unless you signed a contract."
"So send one down. I'll sign it."
I called my attorney the next day and asked him to design a contract. When I picked it up, he said, "I want to sign the first one." That's when I realized that I could fish with a different person in each state and that everyone would sign a contract to fish with me.
Under the contract, "the Artist will be solely responsible for all of his costs associated with the expedition and the creation of the work of art. The Fisher will be doing most of the planning of the expedition and the Fisher is expected to try to keep the expenses at a minimum." The Fisher must agree to volunteer for community service if the Artist shows up and he or she finks out. If the Artist fails to show up, the Fisher will still receive a free limited edition copy of the final artwork that all Fishers are promised.
I spent time in the library reading about fish and places to fish and more time writing letters and balancing data to figure out what to fish for and where and when to do it. I spent hours on the phone trying to locate fishing partners. Generally, my fishing partners were people who had the knowledge to fish for a targeted species. Some were chosen because they're interesting, others because they're my friends. (My attorney, by the way, did indeed sign the first contract, but he wound up breaking it, and wasn't there when I launched the project with a lake trout in Minnesota.)
In selecting the targeted species, I took into consideration the state fish, the person available to fish with me, his or her particular fish interest and what fish were waiting to be caught. Here's an example of the fish-finding process:
On November 2, 1990, I was sitting in front of my computer, trying to decide how carp fit into the picture. The field had been narrowed to three states: Massachusetts, Missouri and Illinois. The phone rang, and I answered, "Fishing America--A Work of Art."
"Is Larry Carp there?"
"You mean Larry Stark?"
"No, I mean Larry Carp."
"You have the wrong number, but before you hang up, tell me, where would you fish for carp, in Massachusetts, Missouri or Illinois?"
I would have had a quick solution to my problem if only she had answered my question before hanging up. I had to solve the problem some other way, so I called a friend in Massachusetts, who suggested we fish for striped bass there. I called a friend-of-a-brother-in-law-of-a-friend in Missouri, and he said he'd rather fish for smallmouth bass in Missouri. He suggested a guy who fishes for carp in Illinois, and that's how my problem got solved.
It might seem like an easy task to fish all 50 states. One scenario that was suggested to me was to leave Minnesota and fish every state going east to Maine, then work my way down to Florida and across to the West Coast. After flying from Los Angeles to Hawaii and back, I'd drive up the coast to Washington, fly round trip from Seattle to Alaska and then fish my way back to Minnesota. This would cover all 35 perimeter states, and after a rest of a day or two, a smaller loop would get the last 15 states.
Another method would be the same trip with more zigs and zags to get everything in one trip. Still another possibility would be to fish the western states on one trip and the eastern states on another.
It doesn't work that way. All fish species are unique, with individual traits and habits. Some fish are easier to catch in the fall, some make better pickings in the spring and there are winter and summer fish, too. As an example, let's take New England. In Vermont, landlocked salmon are best fished during the ice-out in late April or early May. In New Hampshire, pickerel are fun to catch through the ice and the best time to ice fish is when there's ice. The blueback char, a fish found only in Maine, has to be fished in late September because even though October is best, the season closes October 1. In Massachusetts, striped bass are best fished in early June, when they're running the rivers. So there you have it--four trips to New England to fish four states.
A question I've heard a lot over the last few years is, "Is this fishing project art?" I think it is, and my argument to support this view is that art is defined by the artists who create it. Given a conventional definition of art, the people who work within this closed set are more artisans than artists. Those who work outside this set are the best artists. My attorney thinks it's a neat idea, but not art. He thinks art isn't defined by artists but by a combination of society and history. He says that if society doesn't accept an idea as a work of art over a period of time, then it isn't art.
I say I've done it, called it art and will be dead long before the final verdict is in.
Larry Stark grew up in St. Joseph, Michigan, and enrolled in U-M's art school after a brief career as an accountant. His photographs and prints have been exhibited and collected throughout the country. He and his wife, Barbara Benson Stark, live in St. Paul, Minnesota, and have five children.