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August 26, 2004

The Catch (And Release)

It wouldn't be fair to say that Bill VandeKopple's thoughts are turning to fishing as salmon season nears in West Michigan.

Truth be told the Calvin College English professor rarely goes for too long without his mind turning to thoughts of streams, rivers and lakes and the treasures hidden beneath the surface. Yet Calvin starts in a couple of weeks and then the long-time professor will need to turn his attention to textbooks, assignments and syllabi.

Still when salmon season does return to this area in a week or two, the odds are pretty good VandeKopple might sneak out for a bit some afternoon to wet a line and pursue the puzzle of catching a fish.

And somewhere down the road this fall's excursion may find its way to pen and paper, the way fishing stories of the past have in his new book called simply The Catch.

Published locally by Eerdmans, The Catch is subtitled families, fishing and faith. And just a little time with VandeKopple makes it clear that all three Fs are important to him. The order of importance is, perhaps, still being worked out. Or perhaps it depends on what river he's on that day and whether the fish are biting or not!

The Catch spins together 20 stories - most of them modest in length, ranging from four pages to 27 pages - with fishing ostensibly at their center. Many of them involve VandeKopple's three boys - now all strapping, young men ranging in height from 6'2" to 6'6" - and their adventures in fishing with their father. Some of them backtrack further, to when VandeKopple himself was a boy and first fished; those often draw in VandeKopple's father and other relatives. But all of the stories say something, often implicitly, about life and faith and what's important.

VandeKopple says fishing and writing have similar appeals for him.

"They're both kind of a puzzle he says. "In fishing obviously you're trying to figure out where the fish are, what to use to catch them, what they're hitting on. But when you write you're puzzling out things too; the arc of the story, how it begins and where it ends and why. That can be really hard sometimes. But in both cases - in fishing and in writing - it's very satisfying when it all comes together. There's no thrill for me like the thrill of a strike. But finishing a story is pretty good too."

The Catch, while it deals with faith, is not a straight devotional says VandeKopple, noting that the first chapter in the book is entitled "Sex Ed: My Early Years." In that tale a young VandeKopple learns an important life lesson from his father - a tool-and-die maker - during a salmon fishing trip.

Rather, says VandeKopple, the book uses fishing as a focal point for musings about such topics as marriage, fatherhood, growing up, getting old, being scared, the heartache of a hurting son, keeping Sunday sacred and a host of other puzzles.

Those deep subjects are a natural outgrowth of his time spent in and on the water VandeKopple says.

"One of the things I like about fishing," he says, "is the chance to be reflective, to be in a place that is silent and to concentrate on fishing, but also have time to think."

Interestingly, like any good fish story, The Catch is not completely non-fiction. Although it is based on real people and real fishing holes, in such Michigan locales as the Grand River, the Flat River, Hess Lake, Myers Lake and the Grand Haven pier, VandeKopple has fictionalized many of the stories.

"My parents," he says with a laugh, "are very happy about that and point out to everyone who buys the book that it's not all true."

Regardless of the degree of fiction or non-fiction what is plain is that life's lessons learned at the end of a rod and reel have benefitted VandeKopple over the years. And now, thanks to The Catch, his reflections are being shared - the literary equivalent of the kind of fishing VandeKopple likes best: catch and release.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-526-6475 (v)
616-526-7069 (f)