THE BEST FISHING BOOKS OF ALL TIME: INSTALLMENT #3

September 2020

Introduction

The Corona virus has afforded time for many of us to fish and to also catch up on reading and reflect. While on the water when I catch a fish using a technique or fly I read about years ago, I 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 60).

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.  I hope you enjoy perusing my choices, and would welcome hearing of any additions you may have. 

The first installment in the series focused on those I consider the Best Literature.  This installment covers three categories from the list below:  Funny Bone Ticklers, The Zen of Fishing, and How-To/Technical Expertise

Installment 1 Link: https://hooknfly.com/2020/08/01/the-best-fishing-books-of-all-time/

Installment 2 Link: https://hooknfly.com/2020/08/09/the-best-fishing-books-of-all-time-installment-2/https

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

The Storytellers

Anthologies

Oddities

Funny Bone Ticklers

Zen of Fishing

How To/Technical Expertise

Science and Entomology of Fishing

Travel/Guidebooks

Saltwater

Science and Entomology of Fishing

History of Fishing

Fish That Shaped World History

The “To Read” List

FUNNY BONE TICKLERS

Maybe because we take our sport so seriously, there are very few books involving fishing that really tickle our funny bones.  That’s not to say we don’t smile and laugh when we recognize ourselves in the stories from witty books like Trout Magic, and Trout Bum.   But I’m talking about the kind of books that will have you laughing out loud when you’re on an airplane.  But here are several exceptions:

Double Whammy and Skinny Dip –Carl Hiassen

Carl Hiassen is an award-winning journalist from Florida and accomplished salt-water fly fisherman who holds several IGFA records.  One of his first books, Double Whammy (1987), is a murder mystery that revolves around skullduggery in professional bass tournaments.  It features a host of memorable characters and a byzantine plot that is guaranteed to have you guffawing throughout.  In 2004 he followed up with Skinny Dip, another crime novel that has been included in several lists of the best comedic books of all time!  This one involves a crooked biologist in cahoots with agribusiness interests who are polluting the Everglades who throws his wife overboard from a cruise to keep his secrets.  This one really is a gut-buster.  Oddly, it was banned from prisons by the Texas Department of Corrections.  Another of Hiassen’s books, Strip Tease, was turned into a movie starring Demi Moore.

True Love And The Woolly Bugger—Dave Ames

Written by an outfitter, guide, and self-described itinerant fishing bum who averaged 150 days of fly fishing a year, this book was praised by Tom McGuane as a “thoroughly amusing, manic, and perversely informative book about fishing in several of its most mutant forms.  This is another read that non-anglers will enjoy as much as the angling tribe.   It is chock full of interesting characters like a Bahamian fishing guide who searches for gourmet food for his clients and a tattooed, motorcycle-driving, fly-fishing babe who teaches the hero about life and love.  Need I say more?

So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish (Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Book 4)—Douglas Adams

A United Press International review called this “A madcap adventure . . . Adams’s writing teeters on the fringe of inspired lunacy.”  For you youngsters, the first volume of Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy was a cult sci-fi hit back when published in 1979.  It and successor volumes have been translated into 30 languages.  The broad theme of the Hitchhiker series involves the tale of last surviving human, Arthur Dent, following the demolition of the Earth an alien highway construction crew.    In this fourth volume, Dent is back on Earth trying to figure out whether his misadventures are just a dream.  However, when he finds a gift-wrapped fishbowl with a cryptic inscription along with the mysterious disappearance of Earth’s dolphins he deduces something is amiss.  Cosmic bedlam ensures.  The Boston Globe summed up the book well:  “The most ridiculously exaggerated situation comedy known to created beings . . . Adams is irresistible.”  Now admittedly, the link to angling is tad tenuous, but I guarantee you will enjoy this bizarre  fishing trip.

THE ZEN OF FISHING

Definition of Zen: A state of calm attentiveness in which one’s actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort.

Perhaps that is the Zen of fishing—you become one with the water and fish, lost in the rhythm of the task before you.  Volumes have been written about why we fish…and many come to the conclusion that it’s not at all about catching fish, but everything that goes into the act as well as the environment that fish often inhabit.  For me, it is understanding the world of the fish so when I am on the stream I fish with intuition grounded in that knowledge.  A select few angling books could qualify here, for example, the insightful vignettes of John Gierach.  There are actually several with the title “The Zen of Fishing,” that didn’t make the cut.  Here is my short list.

The Longest Silence—Tom McGuane

First published in Sports Illustrated in 1969, this article about permit fishing has many devotees like me.  I will let the words of the opening paragraph speak for themselves:

“What is emphatic in angling is made so by the long silences—the unproductive periods.  For the ardent fisherman, progress is towards the kinds of fishing that are never productive in the sense of the blood riots of the hunting and fishing periodicals.  Their illusions of continuous action evoke for him, finally a condition of utter, mortuary boredom.  Such angler will always be inclined to find the gunnysack artists of the heavy kill rather cretinoid, their stringerloads of gaping fish appalling.”

Goodbye To A River—John Graves

As I age, this paean to an angler’s favorite river as he canoes down it one last time before a series of big dams forever submerges its wild nature under the sheen of still waters becomes more and more personal. Too often in my 70-plus years I have witnessed one after another of my home waters transmogrified sadly into something I no longer recognize. In the case of the Arkansas River near my cabin in the Colorado mountains, it’s not a dam but death by a thousand cuts by rafters, placer miners, float fisherman, wildfires, developers, and more lately paddleboarders. When he penned this wistful book in the 1950s full of zen-like reflections, Graves launched his career as a well-known writer. In it he weaves accounts of a three-week trip down the Brazos River in North Central Texas with fascinating stories of the history and settlement of the area and his experiences on it as a kid. Goodbye To A River became so successful that it helped stop most of the 13 dams planned for the river. One of the earliest voices against big dam foolishness of that era, the book became a landmark in conservation and has been compared to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Graves followed it with award-winning books including Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land, published in 1974, and From a Limestone Ledge (1980).

The Zen Of Fish:  The Story Of Sushi—Trevor Carson

How can a book with a title like this not make a list of publications that capture the Zen of fishing?

Published in 2007, this is definitely the complete work on sushi, from its history, through a sushi chef’s education, to how it is prepared.  As one reviewer noted:  “To the uninitiated, few things can be more intimidating than a sushi bar. Corson has created what could be the definitive work on the topic, enabling customers to comfortably and confidently stride into a sushi restaurant and order omakase without trepidation.”  No longer need we proletariat anglers be so intimidated when entering a sushi restaurant having an understanding of the Zen of fish.

Honorable Mention:  I stumbled across a blog on line with an article about the Zen of fishing that is a good read.  https://www.mrporter.com/en-us/journal/lifestyle/zen-and-the-art-of-fly-fishing-1082130

HOW TO/TECHNICAL EXPERTISE

The trend in angling books to the technical and how-to started in the 1950s and exploded in the 1960s-80s period.  It was very good in some ways, establishing a more scientific, thoughtful approach to angling, but in my opinion soon became overdone and started to take the fun out of the fishing experience.  However, I find the “how-to” books that follow are still valuable references. 

Streamside Guide To Naturals And Their Imitations—Art Flick

Published in 1947, this was the first blue-collar guide to fly fishing which heretofore had been the domain of private clubs and the wealthy.  Packed full of good tips, the book also broke ground with color photography and being small and portable so it could be carried on the water.  Just as importantly, it is fun to read as well–being, as one reviewer put it, “interspersed with quaint homilies and entertaining anecdotes.”  Fortunately before he passed away recently, Flick updated his book with a new edition that is just as valuable, particularly to novice fly anglers.

Fishing Different Types of Water—I learned a lot from these books when venturing out on challenging alpine lakes and small waters.

Fly Fishing The Mountain Lakes—Gary LaFontaine

Gary LaFontaine, who passed away in 2003, wrote several landmarks books such as Caddisflies.  But for my money, l learned more valuable tips and techniques from his guide to fishing alpine lakes.  Any angler who has hiked miles to a remote mountain water only to be skunked by finicky trout knows how different, difficult, and unique mountain lake fishing can be.  It is definitely a highly specialized pursuit, but this book helps unravel the mysteries.  Like Caddisflies, LaFontaine goes into astounding detail based in nearly fanatical efforts such as carrying four fly rod outfits, scuba gear,  and a float tube miles to thoroughly research his topic.  He was one of the first anglers to use a pack goat to haul his heavy loads up to tree line!  The book deals with topics from when to go to what to use.  The good news is that it is also very readable, chock full of stories and anecdotes that capture LaFontaine’s humor and warmth.

Small Stream Fly Fishing

As our major rivers in Colorado and elsewhere, like the South Platte and Arkansas, become more and more crowded, more and more anglers like me are retreating to small streams and creeks seeking solitude as well as fish.  One book I wished I had had two decades ago when I began exploring smaller, more remote waters is David Hughes’ Trout From Small Streams, published in 2014.  Hughes discusses everything from the right tackle and flies to casting and different approaches for meadow, freestone, and mountain creeks.  Another good choice is Tom Rosenbauer’s The Orvis Guide to Small Stream Fly Fishing.  It’s illustrated in greater measure than Hughes’ book and in a coffee-table style format that is easy on the eyes. 

Casting—Whenever I foolishly agree to take friends fly fishing who are total beginners, I am always immediately reminded there a many moving parts to the art of catching a trout with a fly rod.  Perhaps the most challenging is casting.  I have entertained notions of strangling my dear pupils as they ignore every bit of sage advice and guidance I have given them and end up snagging me, every bush in sight, and themselves as fish rise all around us.  Fortunately, the grand dame of fly fishing has provided us with a how-to book that is not only perfect for beginners but also us old codgers who need to brush up on specialty casts in special situations like brush-infested small creeks.

Fly-Casting Techniques—Joan Wulff

First published in 1987 and since followed up with New Fly-Casting Techniques in 2012, this book stands alone as the best guide to casting ever.  In the original edition, Wulff delved into the physical aspects of casting as well as clear, simple explanations of the key elements of a successful cast.  The result was a revolutionary book that made fly casting understandable.  When coupled with her instructional video, Dynamics of Fly Casting, both beginners and old coots like me can learn the basics as wells as advanced techniques.

What Fish Actually Want—The avalanche of technical fly fishing books in the 1960s-90s, such as Selective Trout, by Swisher and Richards and Mayflies, a 366-page tome by Knopp and Cormier, introduced a more scientific approach to trout fishing. They also practically guaranteed a degree in entomology to any angler willing to actually read them through to the end. I bought every one I could get my hands on. No doubt they were valuable and helped put fly fishing on a sounder technical basis. They also led to a rush to tie flies to match the hatch that were more often more realistic than the natural! Eventually I and some of my brethren wearied of the movement that threatened, at least for us, to take the fun out of fly fishing and make it a job. Fortunately, I discovered several authors who shared my perspective and led a revolt against the overly technical trend that had gripped my beloved sport, also helping many of us lesser mortals to shed our guilt and angst at not having PhDs in fly fishing, bugs, and the like.

What The Trout Said About The Design Of Trout Flies And Other Mysteries—Datus Proper

“Innocence is a wild trout.  But we humans, being complicated, have to pursue innocence in complex ways.”  That quote captures the gestalt of Datus Proper’s book.  As one reviewer observed, his message is essentially to have us forget all the fancy stuff and listen to what the trout said.  Proper, an American Foreign Service officer, undertook exhaustive observation of trout in their habitat, their stomach contents, and other aspects of their feeding habits.  His basic conclusion is that for most waters, flies that are general imitations of the food trout are consuming are just as if not more effective that exact copies and that color is rarely as important as overall design.  This comports with my own experience except on still waters or slow-moving meadow or spring creeks where the trout have plenty of time to examine their quarry.  His book helped me breathe a huge sigh of relief and off-load a half-dozen fly boxes from my fly vest—leaving only another half dozen just in case.  Proper died in 2003, drowning in a Montana trout stream near his home while fishing after his retirement.  Not a bad way to go.

In The Ring Of The Rise—Vincent Marinaro

The same year What The Trout Said was published (1976), another landmark angling tome appeared that rocked the fly-fishing world.  Marinaro took a startling for the time approach to exploring feeding patterns and behavior of trout—he actually utilized high-speed color photography to capture unexpected and surprising responses of trout to food.  His conclusion was similar to that of Datus Proper:  Because the floating fly is the form least accurately perceived by the trout, presentation is far more important that imitation.  As esteemed angler Leonard Wright, Jr., observed, this book helped pull trout fishing literature off the “exact imitation” merry-go-round.  The first chapter of the book, “The Anatomy of the Rise,” with its incredible analysis of a variety of rise forms through color photographs, is worth the purchase price alone.

Through The Fish’s Eye—An Angler’s Guide To Gamefish Behavior—Mark Sosin and John Clark

Published three years before Proper’s and Marinaro’s landmarks, this book broke new ground by pairing a well-known angler and a fisheries biologist as authors.  It was the first to combine insights from ichthyology and fish biology to explain why fish bite and why the don’t.  Because Sosin was a renowned salt-water angler, there is more emphasis on saltl-water fishing than the other two.  On a personal note, John Clark, a brilliant practical hands-on fisheries biologist and certified character, was a colleague of mine in the 1970s at the Conservation Foundation (which later was merged into the World Wildlife Fund).  When we first met in 1975 he was tremendously impressed that I knew his name from this fishing book which was in my library rather than through his scientific and conservation accolades.

Award For The Most Practical And Useful How-To Fishing Book

The winner is, hands-down, Lefty’s Little Fly-Fishing Tips:  200 Innovative Ideas To Help You Catch Fish by Lefty Kreh.  I first met the iconic Lefty in the 1990s at a fly fishing show in Denver.  He delivered one the best practical and most entertaining sessions I have ever sat in on where I learned, for example, to sharpen your fly hook early and often.  I’ve come to find that I miss more strikes because of a dull hook than practically any other reason. Now that hook hone hangs at the ready on my fly vest.  Lefty expanded his practical tips in this book based on his over five decades of fishing to include topics such as how to rescue a fly that is stuck in a log and how to cast easily in tight quarters.  Get a copy today!

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