Talented musician stays on key on the water, too

One of the best fly fishermen I know also happens to be one of the best musicians I know. The latter category isn't very large, because I don't personally know many highly talented musicians. But I do know a lot of great fly anglers, and Skip James is among them.

I met Skip some years ago through a mutual friend, Tony Andersen, who died a while back. I first fished with Tony in the mid-1980s in the Florida Keys, casting for tarpon. About 15 years later, Tony and I were in Colorado, at a mountain cabin he owned, a small place aswirl with fishing rods, waders and boots that bespoke his bachelor status.

Also in Colorado at the time were Dick Hanousek, a St. Paul businessman, Fran Coyne, a good friend of Tony's, Bud Grant and Skip. We had gathered at Tony's invitation to joust against a cadre of Colorado anglers in a one-evening, winner-take-all fly-fishing contest, the intent of which was less to compete than to have fun.

This was the first time Bud, Dick or I had met Skip, who is the keyboardist for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra - a good calling card, if you can get it.

At first we thought that Tony, in inviting Skip, was attempting to infuse a smidgeon of refinement into our gathering. But Skip, we could fast see, was a first-rate angler, and one who often cast to trout with bamboo rods.

Also, he was not unfamiliar with the Latin names of bugs that rose and fell from Colorado's waters in July, a trump card Bud, Dick and I figured we could roll out in the event our Colorado rivals slandered us as rubes.


One morning recently, before driving to the Kinnickinnic River for a bit of catch-and-release trout fishing beneath leaden skies, Skip sat at his computer, an electric keyboard to his right.

He was copying the coronet part of Igor Stravinsky's "Story of a Soldier." Written to be played on a coronet in the key of A, the music, in Skip's hands, was being shifted to B-flat, a favor, he said, to Gary Bordner, the SPCO's trumpet player who, Skip added, is an experienced wingshooter who often travels to North Dakota in autumn to hunt over his dogs.

Skip had not called me to offer his opinion about the dedicated funding bills being considered at the Capitol. The proposals' primary intent is to intensify conservation in Minnesota.

Most controversial is funding included for arts and culture, and for parks.

In fact, I had called Skip, interested as I was to field his viewpoint about the status of Midwest rivers and lakes, the former of which he fishes so often in summer, he says, that his boots "never dry out."

I was interested as well in determining whether he, as a an artist and an outdoorsman, thought that only fish and wildlife habitat should be addressed in the bills, or whether arts, culture and parks have a rightful place as well.

"I grew up in South Orange, New Jersey," he told me, explaining how he became a professional musician. "By the time I was 3 years old, so the story goes, when we came home from church on Sundays, I would attempt to play on the piano hymns we had heard earlier that morning."

By age 11, he was a church organist and choir director. He composed the school song for his junior high, was a conductor in high school and later graduated from the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, majoring in music and religion.

Since then, he has never not been a church organist, and oftentimes church choir and liturgy director.

None of this occurred without a fishing rod in hand.

"When I was about 8 years old, our postman, who was a family friend, felt sorry for me because I hadn't been exposed to hunting and fishing," Skip said. "So he taught me to hunt and fish. And he bought me a .22 before my dad even knew he had done it. He had a place in northern New Jersey with a trout stream, and that's where we fished. In those years, I consumed everything I could find_read every book I could_about fishing, and also about music."

Skip, a renowned harpsichordist, came to St. Paul in 1969 to play for the chamber orchestra.

Previously, he made stops at Cornell University, the University of Hawaii and Stanford University, where he was assistant opera director, intending to complete a doctorate in conducting.

Instead, when a friend told him about the job opening in St. Paul, he angled his Volkswagen Beetle back to the Midwest.

He's been here since.

"I remember when I arrived, we were practicing in River Falls (Wis.), and I drove over the Kinnickinnic River, thinking, `It looks like a trout stream. But I don't think they have trout here.' "

He was wrong, of course. One reason, in fact, he's stayed so long with the chamber orchestra is the quality of life afforded him here as both an artist and an outdoorsman.

On the Kinni the other day, the sky hung too low, with the clouds too dark, and the wind too brisk, to attract other anglers. Skip was alone on his stretch of water, casting upstream, then down, working a soft hackle into eddies and current breaks.

He would later tell me: "I think there are a lot of people who like to say musicians and artists are one kind of people, and outdoors people are another type, and that the two don't have similar goals.

"I don't think so. I think everyone who lives here is aware of the quality of life we have in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And the only thing that is going to keep life desirable here, and fun, is reliable, stable funding."

Art in its many forms, Skip said he believes, is fundamental to human existence, whether at the Guthrie or Ordway, or in a grade-school play. Fundamental as well, he said, is the right to a clean environment.

"I read where, beginning in August, it might be illegal to smoke in public places," he said. "Why isn't it also the case that, beginning in August, it's illegal to pollute rivers, and that thereafter everyone has a reasonable chance of enjoying a well-kept state park 20 years from now_or to have the experience of being exposed to, and participate in, the arts?

"These are community assets, and the community has to have ownership in them if they are to survive. And ownership can't occur unless people are exposed to these things. Where I grew up on the East Coast, there's no place to fish trout anymore. Streams that aren't polluted are owned by a few rich people. Who's the government going to ask to help sustain these resources? There's no one. No one feels they have ownership, because they haven't been involved."

Bleak as Skip's March morning on the Kinni was, he threw tight loops over flowing water. The previous days had been rainy, but the stream gathered itself cleanly as it bent through pastures colored brown by the winter.

Soon, Skip's line went tight, and a small brown trout inhaled a fly he had tied only a short while earlier.

Some years ago, at Tony's mountain cabin, there were brown trout, too. These were bigger fish, and the ones Skip caught one evening helped our Minnesota squad prevail over our evildoer Colorado opponents.

After that mountain skirmish, someone might have suggested a round of tanglefoot. In the event our opponents needed reminding just who had come to town, someone also might have suggested a chorus of the Minnesota Rouser.