THE BEST FISHING BOOKS OF ALL TIME

August 2020

Introduction

The Corona virus has afforded many of us the time to fish and also catch up on reading and do some reflecting on life. When I’m on the water and catch a fish using a technique or fly I read about years ago, I sometimes find myself reminiscing about the best books on fishing I have had the pleasure of reading. Some taught me a new technique like using a dry/dropper while others were fiction and just pure reading pleasure. If you search online, you will find numerous of lists of the Top 10, 25, and even 50 angling books. Of course these lists change from decade-to-decade as new works are published, older books fade out fashion, or interests change. For example, the 1970s and 80s saw a plethora of tomes like Swisher and Richards Selective Trout that embraced a more scientific approach to fishing. Once you were done reading some of these, you were nearly qualified as an entomologist. Far fewer of that ilk have been published in the last decade. The list I offer here is entirely personal, and given my advanced age, I hope it introduces some of the best of past, especially pre-2000 publications, to the up and coming, energetic angling young bloods of today (AKA anyone under 40).

The format I have chosen is somewhat different than most other “best” lists. I find it hard to compare a serious literary work of someone like Tom McGuane’s The Longest Silence with a funny-bone tickling raucous tale such as Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen or a technical tome on caddis flies by Gary LaFontaine. So I have divided my list into a baker’s dozen categories with a few select books in each. I end with a category of books I have yet to read but are “musts.” I will be posting the list in a series of five installments. This first installment focuses on the category “Best Literature.” I hope you enjoy perusing my choices, and would welcome hearing of any additions you may have.

Installment 2 Link: https://hooknfly.com/2020/08/09/the-best-fishing-books-of-all-time-installment-2/?fbclid=IwAR3uBFsuuSQqAaiHnie6LT3Jhu-PyCm_18sjjmIQeSmognnyJ-8lVyny-34

Installment 3 Link: https://hooknfly.com/2020/09/11/the-best-fishing-books-of-all-time-installment-3/

Installment 4 Link: https://hooknfly.com/?p=7807

Installment 5 Link: https://hooknfly.com/2020/10/22/best-fishing-books-of-all-time-installment-5/

The Categories:

Best Literature (Discussed in detail below)

  • The Longest Silence (Tom McGuane)
  • A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean)
  • The River Why (David James Duncan)
  • The Nick Adams Story (Ernest Hemingway)
  • My Moby Dick (William Humphrey)

The Story Tellers

  • Trout Madness (Robert Traver)
  • Trout Bum (John Gierach)

Anthologies

  • Fisherman’s Bounty/Full Creel (Nick Lyons)
  • Silent Season (Russell Chatham
  • Into The Backing (Lamar Underwood)

Oddities

  • Trout Fishing In America (Richard Brautigan)
  • Blues (John Hersey)
  • The Feather Thief (Kirk Wallace Johnson)

Funny Bone Ticklers

  • Double Whammy and Skinny Dip (Carl Hiassen)
  • True Love And The Woolly Bugger (Dave Ames)
  • So Long And Thanks For All The Fish:  Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Book 4 (Douglas Adams)

The Zen Of Fishing

  • The Longest Silence (Tom McGuane)
  • Goodbye To A River (John Graves)
  • The Zen of Fish:  The Story of Sushi (Trevor Carson)

How To/Technical Expertise

  • Streamside Guide To Naturals And Their Imitations (Art Flick)
  • Fly Fishing The Mountain Lakes (Gary LaFontaine)
  • Trout From Small Streams  (Dave Hughes)
  • The Orvis Guide To Small Stream Fly Fishing (Tom Rosenbauer)
  • Fly Casting Techniques  (Joan Wulff)
  • What The Trout Said (Datus Proper)
  • In The Ring Of The Rise  (Vincent Marinaro)
  • Through The Fishes Eye  (Mark Sosin and John Clark)
  • Lefty’s Little Fly-Fishing Tips  (Lefty Kreh)

Science And Entomology Of Fishing

  • Matching The Hatch  (Ernest Schwiebert)
  • Selective Trout  (Doug Swisher and Carl Richards)
  • Stoneflies  (Carl Richards, Doug Swisher, and Fred Arbona, Jr._
  • Caddisflies  (Gary LaFontaine)
  • The Complete Book Of Western Hatches (Rick Hafele and Dave Hughes)
  • Guide To Aquatic Trout Foods  (Dave Whitlock)
  • Mayflies  (Malcolm Knopp and Robert Courmier
  • Hatch Guide For Western Streams/Lakes  (Jim Schollmeyer)
  • The Bug Book  (Paul Weamer)

Travel/Guidebooks

  • Fly-Fishing the 41st  (James Prosek)
  • 52 Rivers:  A Woman’s Fly-Fishing Journey  (Shelly Walchak)
  • The Hunt For Giant Trout  (Landon Mayer)
  • 49 Trout Streams Of Southern Colorado  (Mark Williams and W. Chad McPhail)
  • Fly Fishing The Gunnison Country  (Doug Dillingham)
  • Central Colorado Alpine Lakes Hiking and Fishing Guide  (Tom Parkes)

Saltwater

  • Saltwater Fly Fishing  (Joe Brooks)
  • Salt-Water Fly Fishing (George X. Sands)
  • Fly Fishing In Salt Water  (Lefty Krey)
  • Complete Book Of Saltwater Fishing  (Milt Rosko)
  • Blues  (John Hersey)
  • Ninety Two In The Shade  (Tom McGuane)

History Of Fishing

  • The Compleat Angler  (Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton)
  • American Fly Fishing:  A History  (Paul Schullery)
  • The History Of Fly-Fishing In Fifty Flies  (Ian Whitelaw)

Fish That Shaped The World

  • Cod:  A Biography Of The Fish That Changed The World  (Mark Walker Kurlansky)
  • Shad:  The Founding Fish  (John McPhee)
  • An Entirely Synthetic Fish:  How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America And Overran The World  (Anders Halverson)

The “To Read” List

  • River Music  (James Babb)
  • Fishing For Buffalo  (Robb Bufler and Tom Dickson)
  • Fifty Women Who Fish  (Steve Kantner)
  • Hungry Ocean:  A Swordboat Captain’s Journey  (Linda Greenlaw)
  • Cutthroat And Campfire Tales:  The Fly-Fishing Heritage Of The West  (John Monnett

Best Literature

I distinguish this category from others by several measures.  First, does the book and writing appeal to non-anglers?  If it does, that definitely says something.  Second, what do other accomplished authors who have written acclaimed books have to say about it?  The authors on my list below are real craftsmen with words.  And finally, was it interesting enough to be made into a movie? 

1.  The Longest Silence:  A Life In Fishing—Thomas McGuane

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The Longest Silence is a series of keenly observed essays about the lessons and insights McGuane gleaned from a lifetime spent fishing. James Harrison, a peripatetic poet, novelist, and essayist who himself wrote about fishing and whose novel Legends of the Fall was made into a movie, calls it the best book on angling of all time. I must agree. In his essays, McGuane takes us around the world fishing for tarpon to trout and introduces us to some memorable characters along the way. McGuane, who lives in Montana and continues to write and fish, wrote several other notable books on the outdoors and fishing including his debut novel, The Sporting Club, a dark comedy about the intergenerational conflict between young whippersnapper Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation. Sound familiar Millenials and GenXers? Another good read, Ninety Two In The Shade, a tale of a young fishing guide running into trouble in the Florida Keys was made into a movie starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates.

2.  A River Runs Through It—Norman Maclean

Norman MacLean was an English professor at University of Chicago while I was studying there to become a lawyer.  He never wrote a book until he retired, but when he did in 1976, Maclean produced a lyrical, heartbreaking semi-biographical story that became a blockbuster.  One line in A River Runs Through It describes how many of us anglers feel about our sport: “I am haunted by waters.”  In 1992 Robert Redford directed an excellent movie that was true to the book starring Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt.   As an aside, Maclean’s son John penned a riveting book, Fire On The Mountain, about a wildfire that took the lives of 14 firefighters near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

3.  The River Why—David James Duncan

How can any angler resist a book that mixes fly fishing, family, and baseball?  However, this is a book that has probably been read by more non-anglers than any other on this list.  The main character Gus is a child fishing prodigy who after he graduates from school sets out to fish his brains out according to a rigourous schedule on the mythical Tamanawis River.  After he finds the body of a dead angler, Gus starts his real journey in life, finding love along the way.  The author Duncan wrote several other acclaimed novels, and The River Why was turned into a movie starring Zach Gifford, Dallas Roberts, and William Hunt that unfortunately did not live up to the book.

4.  Big Two-Hearted River—Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway won a Nobel Prize for his story Old Man And The Sea, so I risk sacrilege by saying for my money his Big Two-Hearted River, the concluding installment in his semi-autobiographical series The Nick Adams Stories, is a better one, especially for anglers.  This tale is about a young man, Nick Adams, just back from World War I and suffering from shell shock, who takes off on a fishing trip to clear his head.  Hemingway’s writing in Big Two-Hearted River is his usual spare, pure style.  As a young law school student in Chicago and aspiring fly fisherman, I loved that title, read the book, and set out to fish the Big Two-Hearted River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Fortunately, before I set out I learned that like many in the fishing fraternity, Hemingway was damned if he was going to give away the name and location of a favorite fishing spot.  It was actually the Fox River which I fished one summer between classes, a canoe trip that featured clouds of man-eating mosquitos, few fish, and ended in near disaster when our canoe flipped and we lost our paddles 10 miles from civilization in a dense forest.  Fortunately soon after we started to walk out I spotted one paddle in a sweeper, and we were able to retrieve it and float to safety.

5.  My Moby Dick—William Humphrey

Of all the books on this list, this spare short one is probably the least known and rarely mentioned in the same breath as any of the others.  But as one reviewer wrote, “one of the finest fishing stories ever published, My Moby Dick is a small masterpiece about a whale of a fish.”  In a nutshell, Humphrey spends an entire summer chasing with his fly rod a huge one-eyed trout that he serendipitously stumbles on in a small creek near his vacation home.  Along the way, through his elegant, erudite writing, English professor Humphrey shows us what real literature and writing are like even in telling a fish story.  Humphrey came to writing My Moby Dick after penning acclaimed non-angling books such as Home From The Hill and The Ordways.  Thank our lucky stars he was also an aspiring angler and shared this hilarious tale with us.  It is chock full of wry, smart observations about fly fishing and anglers who pursue trout. Here is but one example:

I had never known a fly fisherman. Since my ignominious failure to make myself one and my retrogression to worms, I had not wanted to know one. …But even if I had known one, known him well, I would not have trusted myself to seek his help now. Indeed, I would have shunned him altogether. He would have surely notice my state of excitement. His curiosity would have been piqued. My eagerness, my impatience to learn and to put my knowledge to work, would have given me away. A wild look, that of one who has gazed on wonders, haunted my eyes in those days. Fly fisherment are a suspicious crew, and their suspicions run on one thing. My secret would have been guessed, and I would have been shadowed to its soure in Shadow Brook.”

Honorable Mention:

A couple of other books that could be on this list are Howell Raines’, Fly Fishing Through The Mid-Life Crisis and Harry Middleton’, The Earth Is Enough: Growing Up In A World of Flyfishing,Trout, and Old Men.  Raines had a storied career with the New York Times before he penned this book after a nasty divorce, producing a beautiful meditation on the “disciplined, beautiful, and unessential activity” we call fly fishing.  Middleton’s book is a memoir of his growing up in the Ozarks and chasing trout with the two old codgers who raise him.  In the process he learns not only the art of fly fishing but also about the beauty and value of nature in life.

The next installment of Best Books will cover Storytellers, Anthologies, and Oddities.

13 thoughts on “THE BEST FISHING BOOKS OF ALL TIME

  1. What a great idea. I’ve read two of the four in the Best Literature category. Looks like I’ve got a couple of good reads to look forward to once I put my rod up for the season.

    John Gierach has to be on a couple of these lists. Stories, Funnybones, How Tos. The problem is which book? He’s written so many and they are all great. Most fall into the Stories catagory but I laugh out loud when reading especially when I see myself in his words.
    Thanks for the blog I enjoy every installment.

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      1. I love your choices on your literature list as I’ve read them and couldn’t agree more. There are some oldies that could be added like Gingrich’s WellTempered Angler, or The Joys of Trout, Clarke’s The Song of the Reel, or Baker’s The Sweet of the Year, Cole’s The Fishing Came First, or Haig Brown’s A River Never Sleeps or Return To The River, Traver’s Trout Magic all could be good additions. But I think you’ve done a nice job here. I’m a keen collector and I think we could have some great conversations on all your categories. I love this stuff!

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      2. Hi Don–Thanks for the kind words. I have read Gingrich and Haig-Brown and agree they are excellent. It’s a real challenge deciding what to put on the list. You’ll see that Trout Magic is in my next installment under the category Storyteller that will be out next week. Look forward to your comments and additions on the second group. Thanks again! Chris

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