It is unusual for an undergraduate to appear on the cover of the Yale Alumni Magazine, but that is the case with the April 1996 issue. The undergraduate is a 20-year-old junior named James Prosek, and he is being hailed, with a touch of hyperbole, as "the Audubon of the fishing world." Prosek is the author/artist of an entrancing book, Trout: An Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 160 pages, $27.50). The book is a remarkable achievement, not only because of the author's youth but also because more than 70 watercolors make it the first book to portray all the species and subspecies of trout, as well as some extinct ones, found in North America.
How did such a young person come to produce so unusual a book? Two influences were at work on Prosek from an early age: bird paintings and fishing. When he was five, James was captivated by the paintings of artists John James Audubon and Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and he began sketching birds. "My fascination with the idea of capturing a living, ecstatically colorful creature within the pages of a book," Prosek writes, "was born out of my love for both Audubon and Fuertes."
At age nine Prosek started sneaking into closed reservoirs to fish for bass, and when he was 10 he was almost caught by a local game warden named Joseph Haines. Four years later Haines did catch him, but he made James his protégé and took him trout fishing. "My own son had moved to Colorado, I had extra time, and I figured I could spend it with James," Haines explains. "I showed him how to fish legally, and it really brought the light to James."
The inspiration for the book came after his father, Louis Prosek, a retired astronomy teacher and an avid birder, showed his 13-year-old son a magazine article about the rare blueback trout, a subspecies of char purportedly found only in eight lakes and ponds in Maine. Unable to find any book on trout similar to Audubon's work on birds, James started on his own book a short time later. He kept an angling diary, and whenever he could get away from Joel Barlow High School, in Redding, Conn., (where he was the valedictorian of his graduating class in 1993) and, later, from Yale, he traveled thousands of miles in search of trout. He went to Colorado, where he backpacked into the high country with Haines's son, Joey, and to Alaska. Instead of keeping most of the fish he caught, Prosek photographed them in color and quickly released them because the brightness and color of kept trout soon fade.
One of Prosek's most cherished memories is of catching a blueback trout in Maine after three days of trying; the fish struck a black ghost streamer about 35 feet deep on a sinking fly line. Haines recalls, "James couldn't wait to show me the color photograph. He said, 'Mr. Haines, here's what a blueback looks like!' He's a special individual."
Two subspecies of trout—the silver, which was known only in a pond in Dublin, N.H., and the yellowfin cutthroat, known only in Colorado—have long been extinct, and Prosek based his watercolor portraits on detailed descriptions by ichthyologists who lived before color photography.
An English major with "an unofficial minor" in architecture, Prosek is doing a paper on monosyllabic sentences in Shakespeare for Sterling Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom, the influential author and editor of more than 565 books, including the paean to dead white European males, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. But now that Trout: An Illustrated History has itself been acclaimed as a standard reference, Prosek is off to conquer new fields. Thanks to a $1,500 travel grant from Yale, he will spend the summer in England doing research for his senior essay on—who else?—Izaak Walton.