Jack Hemingway: He lived the life his father dreamed of

Story by Mark Hume

I wasn’t in the mood for an interview and neither was Jack Hemingway. So instead, we fished together, through a run on the Thompson River, and talked about steelhead and the river’s big trout and the grouse shooting he loved to do in British Columbia’s Bulkley Valley.

I encountered Hemingway, who died in December at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Well Cornell Medical Center, on the Thompson River a few years ago. He had stopped at the river while he was on his way to northern British Columbia, in his yearly search for steelhead, and game birds, and had hit what is known as a wild one. The steelhead in the Thompson are reputed to be the biggest, hardest fighting in the world – but among them is a race of absolutely brilliant fish that go berserk when they are hooked.

Hemingway got one of those his first morning out, he told me, and since then had kept coming back, even though the Thompson had such weak runs that if you got a fish every two or three days, you were doing well. He fished hard. Waded deep. Stayed out all day.
I know my fish is out there, he said when we met again, at the Steelhead Inn, in Spences Bridge. And I’ve just got to put in enough miles to find it.
After dinner he asked jovially: Where will you be fishing tomorrow?
When I told him, he said: Good. I’ll fish somewhere else.

He wasn’t being unfriendly, just shaving the odds as best he could. He wanted a big steelhead and didn’t want to compete with anyone if he could have untouched water. Hemingway did get a fish that trip. He got a couple. Not because of his family name (the fish knew nothing of that) and not because of his money. But because he was a good fisherman ‚ skilled, and bloody minded. I read his 1986 book after I met him, because I liked what I’d seen on the Thompson. And after I put down his 1986 memoir, The Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman: My Life With and Without Papa, I was left with two thoughts. First, that he was a very good writer. And second, that he’d lived the life his father only dreamed of.

Ernest Hemingway’s literature needs no discussion here. It’s great stuff. But any hardcore outdoorsman has to be put off by all the bluster and the posturing of the man himself. Jack Hemingway was something else. He parachuted behind enemy lines in World War II ‚ and took a fly rod with him. He used it, too, interrupting his fishing once, to hide while German troops passed on a road above the river. He would later survive six months in a prisoner of war camp and would emerge from the war a decorated veteran. Of course, he could have used his family name to evade dangerous service. Instead, he went where he was needed, without complaint. He had a famous father and famous children: actress Mariel Hemingway, actress-model Margaux, who died of a drug overdose in 1996. And yet he was happy with is relative obscurity. He left behind and an older daughter too, Muffet, who, like him, was not famous. Wouldn’t surprise me if she could fish like him.

On the riverbank Jack Hemingway was a jovial companion. He was open and warm and talked with great affection about his family. In his book you come to understand that his father was a great writer ‚Äì but not much of a dad. On the Thompson, Jack Hemingway said his goal was to enjoy life to its fullest ‚Äì not to get famous or rich; not to compete with his father in writing. He probably could have if he’d wanted to. Instead he became a great fly fisherman, learned that you could catch Bulkley steelhead when the sun hit the water in the morning, then go grouse hunting in the afternoon and get back to the river when the fish moved in again, just at dark. And he said he tried to be the best father he could.

Not a bad legacy.

Jack Hemingway on the Thompson River

He died at age 76, from complications that arose from heart surgery. As much as you can tell from having spent an afternoon on the river with someone, I’d say he had a damn good heart. We’ll miss him streamside.