In His Latest Book, Palisadian John Dietsch Asks “What Are We Really Fishing For?”
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Catch a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for the rest of his life.
In more ways than one, that saying has special significance for John Dietsch, who was put in charge of the fly fishing scenes for the Oscar-winning film “A River Runs Through It” when he was only 29 years old.
For someone as busy as he, that may not seem like that long ago … yet it took him another 29 years to feel ready to tell his own stories about family, fly fishing and the loss of his brothers.
An award-winning author, producer, director, life coach and consultant on hundreds of film and TV shows focusing on the outdoors, travel and fly fishing, Dietsch has written a new book called “Graced by Waters: Personal Essays on Fly Fishing and the Transformative Power of Nature,” an inspirational and humorous collection of essays in which he asks the question “what are we really fishing for?” and uncovers his own truth under the rocks of a childhood river.
“I got sober in 2011, and I think that was the impetus for writing the book,” said Dietsch, whose first book, “Shadowcasting,” which he wrote in 2000, won the Colorado Book Award. “It took me eight years to write all the stories and to find a publisher. I didn’t have the luxury of writing every day and did a bunch of other projects during that time span, but the truth is that I have never rewritten my work like I rewrote these stories.”
He shared that some of them required more than 20 drafts.
“Maybe I’m not supposed to admit that, but I think that time commitment is a result of my really wanting the book to be a form of art or literature,” Dietsch said. “There is a great quote in Norman Maclean’s novella ‘A River Runs Through It’ that goes something like ‘All good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.’
“I have spent most of my life writing for television as a craft, always under deadline and at the disposal of a network executive or client, so I needed to write something meaningful and from the heart. And, in my opinion that takes considerably more time than writing something commercial.”
Dietsch is no stranger to the Palisades. He lived here with his parents when he was in high school at what is now Harvard-Westlake before going to boarding school back east, where he graduated.
He and his wife Molly have lived in El Medio Bluffs for the last 25 years, and their two children both graduated from Palisades Charter High School (their son Johnny was a pitcher on the baseball team and their daughter Sally played tennis).
“In many ways, the book has been part of my recovery process, so there are many levels to ‘Graced by Waters,’ and since it’s a collection of short stories, it’s really challenging to describe my motivation for writing it in a single sentence,” Dietsch admitted. “I think I wanted to investigate passion and that hairline fracture between obsession and addiction. So throughout the book I describe myself as either an active ‘fishaholic’ or a ‘fishaholic in recovery’—a sort of angler’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
He explained that some people have called the book a parable of sorts, with fishing being more about finding something within ourselves as much as it’s about actually catching a fish.
“Most of the stories in the book are about the spiritual connection that I think we all can relate to when we’re in the most pristine parts of nature, including the awesome beaches and hiking trails we have here in the Palisades,” he added. “For example, there’s a great story in the book about taking my dad on a hike up to Goat Peak above town, so my stories are not just about fishing.”
Writing the book proved therapeutic for Dietsch: “I also saw a connection between healing and the river and I wanted to share how the river has healed my soul, especially in connection to the death of both of my brothers and my propensity to overthink things.”
Dietsch explained that he saw a connection between waters and feeling, that he wanted to explore that from both a personal and scientific point of view.
“Of course, I never imagined there would be a pandemic and that my book would come out right when the virus started causing what’s now being called ‘Pandemic Grief,’” he shared. “My hope has always been that if I were to share my own grief in some way, I’d be allowing others to share their own.”
To Dietsch, that’s an important idea, especially today.
“That concept of becoming vulnerable and feeling comfortable sharing our grief with others who we can trust, especially in light of the fact that we’ve lost so much considering what’s going on with the loss of many freedoms we’ve become accustomed to, not to mention the loss of loved ones,” he explained. “My feeling is that without having an outlet to express our feelings around loss that they can manifest in negative ways, including addiction or acting out in ways hurtful to others.”
He explained that “Graced by Waters” is meant to address grief and how people’s immersion in the outdoors—especially oceans and rivers—are important ways to find wellness and balance, something that he said scientific studies are indicating more and more.
“In fact, when I first started writing the book, there were virtually no studies on this connection,” he said, “however today there are thousands and they all seem to indicate that all of us need to be out in nature, where there’s nothing artificial on the horizon, for something like two to three hours a week for optimum mental health. So I believe this is an important message for these times.”
The 224-page paperback, which can be purchased online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or through the distributor, Simon & Schuster, also includes humor and fun, describing the author’s many adventures fishing across the world and working with movie icons like Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, and collaborating with various advertising agencies, production companies and networks to depict fly fishing as best he can.
Dietsch hosted a show on Outdoor Channel and NBC Sports titled “Adventure Guides: Fly Fishing Edition.” He also guided men with terminal cancer through an organization called “Reel Recovery.”
While producing his television series for six years from 2006 to 2012, whenever he returned from a shoot, Dietsch recognized his desire to be a guide like the ones he had been profiling in each show around the world. Coming back to Los Angeles each time was hard for Dietsch because he longed to be on the river fly fishing, so back in 2011 he started guiding in Aspen, Colorado, where he had guided part-time for 10 years starting in 1984. It has become his home away from home, and he still guides there from late June through October as he, his wife and his kids commute back and forth.
“My favorite place to fish is New Zealand,” he revealed. “I’ve been there three times—all work-related. However, my work is really my play.”
Dietsch described New Zealand as the “ultimate place” to sight fish for large trout in the “most beautiful, pristine and clear” water he has ever seen.
“Of course, I’ve fished all over the world, especially when I was hosting my TV series,” he added. “I’ve fished in Chile, Alaska, Hawaii, Jamaica, Honduras, Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Costa Rica, British Columbia, Ireland, Belize, and Turks and Caicos. I haven’t counted but I’ve probably fished in more than half of the lower 48 states as well, but I don’t travel as much as I used to.”
Although he has enjoyed circling the globe, Dietsch always looks forward to coming home.
“As much as I loved to fish all over the world, that kind of travel all the time took its toll, so it’s been a treat staying here in the Palisades, learning to stand-up paddle surf and getting to know the beaches for fly fishing nearby,” he said. “I need to be in the water at least a couple times a week—something I address in the book. I just about lost my marbles when they closed the beaches in April.”
Dietsch said that his favorite stretches of beach for fly fishing in the summer are within biking distance. He does some guiding and hosting along the beaches of Southern California, and has really enjoyed pursuing species like yellowfin croaker, corbina, halibut, perch, calico bass and bonito with a fly rod.
“I don’t fish just for trout, and as I spend more time here in the Palisades, I’m becoming more and more accustomed to fishing the beaches here with a fly rod,” he explained. “It may not be as productive as bait fishing but the art and science of fly fishing can be applied to just about any kind of angling.”
A practicing Catholic, Diestch belongs to a men’s group at Corpus Christi Church, and perhaps the greatest lesson learned from the river also strengthens his spirituality. He shared that he believes the ubiquitous “one that got away” phrase offers insight that we can find gratitude in not getting what we want.
“The most important thing I’ve learned from fishing is how to have faith in the future by living more in the gift of the present,” Dietsch said. “To that end, next spring I’ll be rolling out fly fishing retreats, including ones for those who’ve experienced the loss of a loved one due to COVID.”
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