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Fly Fishing Jazz: To Honor the Late, Great, Etta James

by Kirk Deeter
Fly Fishing Brown Trout“Old Man Brown.” Brian Murphy

ETTA JAMES PASSED AWAY last week, and while many of you might not recognize her discography, I’ll bet my best 8-weight that most of you will relate to her indelible voice, and the delightfully sultry, sexy lyrics from the signature tune that she’ll forever be remembered for: “At Last.”

“At Last” was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the film “Musical Wives” in 1941, but it took 19 more years for Etta to find and record this song in a way that created full effect. Was it really “jazz” at that time, or merely an intrusion on “pop?” Doesn’t matter now. It was, and still is, an artifact of emotion, and hence, a classic by any measure.

What I know is that this tune, especially the version sung by Etta James, still triggers deep, meaningful emotions in many of us, regardless of our ages. It might take you back to prom night, or your honeymoon evening, or other places intimate and sacred.

And yet, as such, I also know many anglers who relate “At Last” to that specific time and moment when it all comes together, just so, on the water.

The early morning when the striper blitz finally happens, in earnest, off of Montauk. The moment when the gray drakes fall from the sky in Michigan… it’s as if, at the point when all hope was lost, and you were convinced that there was nothing larger than 10-inchers in the river, the clouds and sun (and jazz) line up in such a way that the “surprise” fish—14-to 20-inchers finally decide to eat on top. In Colorado, after months of slugging it out with the “dummy” bobber-ball rig, trying to dredge fish up on the nymph, there’s that day when the Green Drakes show up in full, and the river boils with action.

The Alaska guide, waiting and watching, as weekly shuffles of client sports pour through the lodge, hopes for the chance to be in the right place at the right time. It’s usually a tenuous, painful wait. But then… “At Last.” It busts wide-open.

You know, so much of fly fishing, at least as much as the sport relates to migratory or season-dependent fish, is about anticipation and planning, more than it is about how far you can cast, or what bug you have tied on, or any of that.

And sometimes, no matter what you do to prepare, no matter how far you’ve trained that cast, and no matter how sexy those bugs you tied up over the winter are, it’s still ultimately about finding yourself in the right place at the right time.

“At Last.”

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

To the extent more of us figure that out, that’s good for fly fishing.

God bless, and God rest, Etta, “At Last.”

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Kirk Deeter is the editor of TROUT, the national publication of Trout Unlimited, and a frequent contributor to MidCurrent.
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  • Jim Williams

    I very much agree the parallel between those times when everything seem right when fishing with the fly and great jazz. Beauty transcends. The eye, the ear and the soul connects as one. At Last, sung by Etta James captures this for me as well.

    Jim Williams
    Springfield, Oregon

  • Kmgsage

    Awesome column. Good stuff, Kirk. I saw Etta live throughout her career, from her really “big” persona to her tribute at Telluride as the grande dame of blues.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent work. Excellent.

  • Mtd885

    Back in the 70’s I was lucky enough to be back there on the drumset on a couple of occasions when Etta came up to sing. She had a tremendous presence and was very gracious to us guys in the back of the band.

  • sam

    She’ll be missed. God bless her.

  • Kirk

    Thanks fr the comments. Amazing to have seen Etta… But to actually played with her… Wow. It is good to hear she was gracious to the band. I deeply appreciate you all chiming in. KD

  • Lew

    Pure resonace Deeter Man!