Mounds View High School graduate Jack Ohman vaulted into the world of political satire at an early age.
By 17, he was drawing editorial cartoons at the Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Minnesota. Two years later, he was the youngest political cartoonist ever to be nationally syndicated. ABC News’ “Nightline” latched onto him in 1984 for regular art contributions.
And somehow he managed to conquer fly fishing by age 27 — or so he thought. He went to write his first book on the subject and quickly learned how little he knew.
“I was 60 pages in and I was totally out of gas,’’ Ohman said.
Thirty years later, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is all the wiser. He’s gone from working as a teen volunteer inside the Minnesota DFL Party to lampooning President Donald Trump from a national stage that Ohman decorated in 2016 with a Pulitzer Prize. His work is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group and his latest home is in Sacramento, Calif.
Similar for trout. He has written four fly fishing humor books, and the best-seller in the group, “Fear of Fly Fishing,’’ will be reintroduced Sept. 1 as a cult classic. He reflected on his passion for fishing, the arc of his experience in the water and his chops as a humorist during a recent phone interview from the West Coast.
“My first strike on a fly rod felt a little like an electric joy buzzer,’’ Ohman said. “It was like doing a Ouija board and having them answer back.’’
The 57-year-old grew up fishing for bluegills in Lake Johanna, slinging Texas rigs for bass on Mille Lacs and drifting for walleyes in his father’s 12-foot “car-topper,’’ a vintage boat he still keeps. High school friends coaxed him to the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls, Wis., and he evolved into a fly fishing junkie of the highest order.
He has fished extensively and obsessively in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and California while following a newspaper career from the Columbus Dispatch to the Detroit Free Press to the Oregonian in Portland and, now, the Sacramento Bee.
Ohman paused in order to finish “Fear of Fly Fishing,’’ a book he subtitled: “Do Trout Exist? And Other Facts of Reel Life.’’
He took inspiration from established authors in the field, none more influential than Colorado resident John Gierach, whom Simon & Schuster describes as “the acknowledged master of fishing writers.’’ Ohman got to know Gierach in passing and drew a cartoon for him that was later published in the British edition of “Trout Bum.’’
In 1990, two years after “Fear of Fly Fishing’’ came out, Ohman met his longtime fishing friends. They were a group of guys now in their 80s who adopted him and taught him nuances that took him deeper into casting, presentation, currents and shadows, water temperature and the study of bugs.
“I have a good detail mind,’’ said Ohman, whose late father was a plant pathologist and a chief research scientist in the U.S. Forest Service. “I got into studying how the insect cycle system works. To get this sport, you have to get insects.’’
The Deschutes River in central Oregon was where Ohman met his lasting group of fishing pals. Together, they started traveling to northern Idaho’s Clearwater drainage to fool cutthroat trout. “We fished a lot of it,’’ he said. “The fishing up there was very good.’’
In that time, he ventured into a crazy level of detail. He had a collection of 4,000 flies. “I started getting obsessed with it,’’ he said.
Entrenched as the editorial cartoonist at the Oregonian, Ohman returned to writing humorously about fly fishing in 2008 by publishing “An Inconvenient Trout.’’ West Coast fisheries scientist Jay Nicholas, a renowned fly fisher, had encouraged the sequel as much as anyone, said Ohman, who describes the book as better observed and better illustrated than his debut.
He had enough material left over to put out “Angler Management’’ in 2009. “My best,’’ he said. The essays weren’t “ruminations from Longfellow’’ but an homage to “guys like Gierach,’’ he said. His fourth fishing book is a catalog of useless fly fishing gadgets called “Get the Net!”
Ohman’s books appreciate the madness of fly fishing when the activity is more than just a sport.
“To non-fly fishermen, fly fishing is something that old guys in stinky clothes and weird hats do,’’ he wrote. “Truth is I was raised in a Rapala and spinning rod environment, where fishing was merely a hobby, not a way of life.”
For those obsessed with catching trout, “jobs are performed so fly fishing can be supported … everything plotted around fly fishing,’’ he wrote.
His essays are spooled with slapstick and hyperbole. Others have written about hallowed places to fly fish before they die. In “Angler Management,’’ Ohman conjures ways to die while fly fishing:
• “Small trout goes down your throat when you set the hook too hard.”
• “Your wife gets Visa bill from fly shop. Run.”
• “Give guide 5 percent tip.”
He also ponders why it’s funny to see a fellow trout angler fall into the water. Such failures are ridiculed, he wrote, because “fly fishing is a ballet sport, one where grace and fluidity and control are the hallmarks of the pursuit.”
His own worst fall was in a fast current that fully filled his chest waders and carried him to a hole so deep it “could probably hold a destroyer.’’ All he could think about was holding on to a new Sage rod thinking, “This rod cost three bills.’’
He makes fun of blood bait anglers and fly fishers alike.
Catching a trout on “the swing,’’ for instance, is a term fly anglers deploy to obscure the reality that they hooked a fish entirely by accident. But outsiders who ridicule fly casters for wearing excessive gear overlook “the Normandy Invasion logistics required to go bass fishing.’’
Minnesota references in Ohman’s books are not uncommon. He wrote once that the state has a way of telling trout anglers each fall that it’s time to hang up their waders. “Once the snow starts flying, God is telling you to get out the ice fishing shack, watch the Vikings and kill deer with a rifle.’’
Ohman joined the Sacramento Bee in 2012, leaving Oregon to take the job previously held by a dear friend, the late editorial cartoonist Rex Babin. “We were mind-meld buddies,’’ Ohman said. Babin was 49 years old when he died.
Star Tribune cartoonist Steve Sack is another good friend. Ohman wrote one of the forewords to “The First and Only Book of Sack” when it was published last year. Both men cut their teeth at the U of M, and Sack won a Pulitzer three years before Ohman.
“Steve was a huge influence and mentor to me,’’ Ohman said. “He is by far the most beloved cartoonist of his peers in the nation.”
Ohman speaks highly of the fly fishing opportunities in California. He belongs to a fishing club there and has spent time on the American and Owens rivers, among others. But the Golden State also is the place where Ohman succumbed to fishing burnout. This year, he hasn’t been to a single stream.
“I fished to the point where it was too much … not fun,’’ he said. “Now I’m not fishing enough.’’
In the short term, Ohman won’t have much extra time to regain his balance. Besides rekindling “Fear of Fly Fishing,’’ he has taken up golf (“fly fishing’s evil twin’’) and would like to write a book about Robert F. Kennedy’s failed 1968 presidential primary in Oregon.
Meanwhile, political cartoonists are feasting on news from the Trump White House and Ohman’s work is in national play.