BEST FISHING BOOKS OF ALL TIME: INSTALLMENT #5

October 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 genre 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. 

This installment covers three categories from the list below:  History of Fishing, Fish That Shaped World History, and The “To Read” List:

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/?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/2020/10/14/the-best-fishing-books-of-all-time-installment-4/

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

History of Fishing

Fish That Shaped World History

The “To Read” List

History of Fishing

Fishing is widely recognized as the sport with the longest and richest history.  Indeed, Dame Juliana Berners wrote her Treatise On Fishing With An Angle in the late 1400s followed 150 years later by the iconic The Compleat Angler.  Take that baseball, football, soccer, basketball, and even tennis!  I find that fishing, like most endeavors, becomes even more enjoyable and satisfying if I understand the history behind it.

The Compleat Angler–Izaak Walton/Charles Cotton

The Compleat Angler is not only the classic, best-known book in fishing literature, but also one of the landmark exposition on the virtues of nature.  Published in 1653, the book provides detailed instruction on catching and eating all sorts of fish from the lowly chub to salmon while urging the reader to enjoy the countryside and natural world.  As writer Tom McGuane wrote, “The Compleat Angler is not about how to fish but about how to be.”  The 1676 version added chapters by Walton’s fishing chum Charles Cotton offering fly fishing “Instructions how to angle for trout or grayling in a clear stream.”

American Fly Fishing:  A History—Paul Schullery

Paul Schullery, the former director of the American Museum of Fly-Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, has written a magnificent book about the evolution of fly fishing in America from Colonial times to the present.  It is fascinating read not only about the how techniques and tools to catch trout have advanced over the years but also the evolving values of the fly fishing tribe.  Being from Colorado, I found especially intriguing how the sport changed as fly anglers discovered and explored waters in the West.

The History of Fly-Fishing in Fifty Flies—Ian Whitelaw  

 This book takes an fascinating approach to the history of fly fishing by focusing on the evolution of fly patterns over hundreds of years.  In addition to being a looking glass into the development of the sport, fly tying is an art in and of itself.  As a bonus, this coffee table quality book is perfect for just browsing through its elegant paintings of historical flies.

Fish That Shaped World History

Fish have helped shape the history of mankind, first for food and now for sport as well. These are some of the best narratives.

Cod:  A Biography of the Fish That Changed The World—Mark Walker Kurlansky

Not strictly a book on sport fishing for cod, nevertheless this is an important story of man’s abuse of nature.  The cod is a fish that for centuries fed the world and helped the human race explore the planet. Kurlansky documents the influence it had from the Vikings to Basque whalers to British fishermen.  We learn how New Englanders’ huge appetite for cod chowder and the English hankering for fish and chips all contributed to the fishes decline.  As one reviewer noted, with the development of “modern” fish-catching technology cod never had a chance.  With the world’s oceans under siege from overfishing and climate change, this book is a timely reminder and call to action.

Shad:  The Founding Fish—John McPhee

John McPhee is one of my favorite writers, having penned notable books on several of my pet subjects including nature, tennis, and fishing.  In The Founding Fish, McPhee immerses the reader in the fascinating history of shad and its important role in American history.  But he also fishes for the elusive critter, recounting humorous tales of his piscatorial outings over the years.  They remind me of my days on the Rappahannock River when I lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia, trying to figure out how to catch the tricky creatures with flies, shad darts,  spinners or anything else that would pique their interest.  As is usual, McPhee covers the subject in great depth, even including recipes for cooking shad. 

An Entirely Synthetic Fish:  How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America And Overran The World—Anders Halverson

This book tells two parallel and equally fascinating tales.   The first follows the spread by man of rainbow trout out of California and throughout the world—45 countries and every continent except Antarctica—and its implications.  We also learn how rainbow trout genes have been manipulated by hatcheries to enhance certain “desirable” characteristics such as “angling susceptibility,” and “tolerance of crowds” and eliminate “undesirable” traits like “tendency to migrate.”  More worrisome is how this spread contributed to the demise of native fish such as cutthroats. 

At the same time it tells the absorbing and often detestable history of fish hatcheries.  Hatcheries rose to prominence in the 1800s as heavy industry and pollution swept through the eastern United States.  They were seen by many at the time as the salvation of sport fishing as toxic wastes and overfishing decimated salmon, brook trout, and other species .  Over time many anglers, especially fly fishers, realized the threat to wild trout and native species.  These concerns led to the formation of Trout Unlimited in the 1950s to oppose stocking rainbows over healthy wild trout populations.  Michigan and Montana went so far as to stop completely the stocking of hatchery trout in streams.  Unfortunately others like Colorado resisted and followed up with huge mistakes such as in the 1990s stocking hatchery rainbows infected with whirling disease over wild trout which decimated trout fisheries throughout the state.  With notes, bibliography, and index running almost 70 pages, the book is well-documented to say the least, reflecting the author’s academic background. 

The “To Read” List

Always more good books and tales to read. These have been recommended by friends or are on other “best books” lists. Let me know what you think of them.

River Music—James Babb

One of the best nature writers around, in this book Babb weaves nature with his fishing expeditions.  The book has been included in several “best” fishing book lists.

Fishing For Buffalo—Robb Buffler and Tom Dickson

One of my early memories of fishing with my Dad for catfish and bullhead on the Little Arkansas River in Kansas was the day I hooked into a big carp.  He ran upstream and down and finally broke my line.  I had never experienced such a powerful fish.  Fast forward a few years and I was sight fishing for monster carp in the shallows at a local reservoir with my fly rod and garden hackle.  I managed to hook and land a couple.   My Dad wanted nothing to do with them so they were released.  Today of course, carp are legitimate targets for fly anglers, with the South Platte through Denver producing some big specimens.   So it was good to see that there is actually a book on the subject of fishing for rough fish.  It’s on my Christmas book list!

Fifty Women Who Fish—Steve Kantner

It’s wonderful to see so many more women getting hooked on fly fishing compared to earlier generations.  This book introduces us to fifty who are deeply involved in the sport, many through guiding.  I’m hoping my little munchkin four-year old granddaughter will join their ranks someday.  She’s already caught her first trout on garden hackle!

Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain’s Journey—Linda Greenlaw

Not strictly an angling book, the author of Hungry Ocean chronicles her experiences as swordfish captain on a boat that was a sister ship to the ill-fated Andrea Gale of The Perfect Storm fame.   A New York Times national bestseller.

 Cutthroat and Campfire Tales:  The Fly-fishing Heritage  Of The West—John Monnett

I recently stumbled on this book, published in 1988, that recounts stories of nineteenth and early twentieth century fishing expeditions.  Monnett demonstrates how the native cutthroat population was soon depleted and gave rise to early stocking efforts and eventually to conservation. 

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