By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist
Many fly fishers inherently believe they are superior to conventional anglers. As much as I’d like to think I don’t judge an angler by the tackle he or she uses, I still laugh every time I read the upper corner of “The Drake” magazine: “Five Bucks; $10 for bait fisherman.”
Despite our air of self-importance, finding a well-read fly fisher can be as challenging as finding a salmon fly in February.
I believe appreciating the literature surrounding our sport is as important as being able to get it done on the stream.
To call a book a classic, someone once said, is to ensure no one will read it. To call a trout stream a classic is to assure the throngs will flock to it, guidebooks in hand. So what happens when a fly fishing book is called a classic? Who can say for sure, but here are a few worth reading.
“A River Runs Through It,” by Norman Maclean, University of Chicago Press, 1979
At or near the top every fishing critic’s book list is this irreplaceable collection of three novellas nominated for the Pulitzer Prize when first published in 1979. Maclean, a Montana-bred University of Chicago Shakespeare professor, wrote the book in his 60s after years of prodding by his children to write down the stories he always told them. The careful reader will note that it isn’t until the last quarter of the book that one of the characters actually lands a trout. When Maclean’s world of rivers and families is finally distilled into the seminal climactic moment, “I am haunted by waters,” most readers – anglers and non-anglers alike – are left reflecting on more than the final scene. It reminds of us the myriad of reasons we fish.
“The Longest Silence,” by Thomas McGuane, Vintage Books, 1999
Thomas McGuane writes as well about fishing as any writer I’ve read, and “The Longest Silence” is a collection of his nonfiction writings on fishing. His infinitely descript, sometimes hilarious, sometimes erudite prose takes the reader from the small Michigan streams of McGuane’s youth to the flats of the Florida Keys; from British Columbia’s steelhead rivers to Russia’s Atlantic salmon waters. One of those rare writers whose eye for detail is on par with his ability to render those details indelibly to the reader, McGuane’s fishing prose is perhaps the gold standard.
“The River Why,” by David James Duncan, Sierra Club Books, 1983 (now a Bantam Book)
If Western anglers consider Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” is considered the Bible, David James Duncan’s “The River Why” is their Apocrypha. Irreverent, whimsical, philosophical and downright hilarious, the book follows Gus Orviston from the waters of his mother’s womb to the hidden waters of the Pacific Northwest, where he finds, among other things, love, brief-but-thorough enlightenment, hatred of how-to angling guides, hangovers and magnificent fish. Full of literary references as obvious as a midge, “The River Why” ’s eclectic blend of Shakespeare and blues singer Taj Mahal, of Izaak Walton and Rumi, has solidified a readership that runs the gamut – from academic, latin-spewing match-the-hatchers to bro-bras tossing back PBRs during fly-fishing film tours.
“Trout Bum” or “Sex, Death and Fly Fishing,” by John Gierach, Fireside Books, 1985 and 1990, respectively
To suggest just one book by poet-turned-freelance writer John Gierach would be like suggesting an angler carry just one pattern in his fly box. Gierach writes for the still-inspired curmudgeons among us, who love to sit around discussing the intricacies of camp coffee or split-cane rods as much as they enjoy finding a perfect match to the emerging stage of a pale morning dun. His journeys across the West with fishing partner A.K. Best articulated an entire generation’s desire to cut ties, find a decent campsite along a river, and fish until the problems – be they marital, financial or existential – disappear.
These last two books are must-reads for any angler. I’ve saved the quaint synopsis because the breadth of information in these two cannot be properly summarized. Read them. You’ll catch more fish, guaranteed.
“The Dry Fly: New Angles,” by Gary La Fontaine, The Lyons Press, reissued 2002
“Presentation,” by Gary Borger, Tomorrow River Press, 1995
Parts of this column have appeared previously in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing (Lyons Press). Pat Straub is the author of five other books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher and Montana On The Fly. He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.