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 three or four installments. I hope you enjoy perusing my choices, and would welcome hearing of any additions you may have.
Funny Bone Ticklers
Zen of Fishing
How To/Technical Expertise
Science and Entomology of Fishing
History of Fishing
Fish That Shaped World History
The “To Read” List
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
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.”
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.