Thursday, January 1, 2015

Recommended Reading: Fly-Fishing and Trout

I'm preparing to teach a course on ecology and nature writing this summer in Alaska.  One of the keys to becoming a good writer is to read good writing, so I've been asking for book recommendations that might help me prepare for my course.  

The focus of the course will be the char species of Alaska.  These species, all members of the genus salvelinus, are commonly thought of as trout.  Brook trout and lake trout are both char, as are Dolly Vardens and arctic char.

These are beautiful fish.  I think many anglers love them simply because they are so beautiful to look at. When I pull one from the water I am immediately torn between wanting to hold this precious thing closely and the urge to release it immediately, before my coarse hands pollute its loveliness.  The name "char" might come from Celtic roots, like the Gaelic cear, meaning "blood."  They are more multi-hued than rainbow trout.  The red on their sides and fins catches the eye and holds the gaze.

Over the years I spent researching and writing my own book on brook trout, I did a lot of reading.  Some books call me back again and again, like Henry Bugbee's The Inward Morning and Steinbeck's Log From The Sea of Cortez.  Neither one is chiefly about fly-fishing or about trout, but they're both written in a way that makes me re-think how I view the world.  And they do both talk a good deal about fish, and fishing.

Mayfly on my reel.  Summer 2014, Maine.
Of course there are the classics of fly-fishing, too.  Still, as I've asked for suggestions, I've been surprised by how many books there are that I haven't read or haven't even heard of.  Just how many books about fish and fishing do we need?  Are there really so many stories to tell?

If the point of writing books about fish is to give techniques, or data, then we don't need many at all.  But stories about fish and fishing are rarely about the taking of fish.  More often they are about the states of mind that open up as we prepare to enter the water, or as we stand there in the river.  Fishing is to such states of consciousness what kneeling is to prayer; the posture is perhaps not essential, but it is a bodily gesture that does something to prepare us to be open to a certain kind of experience. I won't belabor this point.  Read my book if you really want me to go on about fishing and philosophy.  For now, let me present some of my recommendations, plus the recommendations I've received:

On Nature
I teach environmental philosophy and ecology, so I begin with some orienting books.
  • Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning. Don't try to read this book quickly, and if you're not prepared to do the hard work of thinking, move on and read something else.  But if you're willing to read slowly and thoughtfully, this book can change your life.  Bugbee was a philosophy professor and an angler.
  • Henry David Thoreau, A Week On The Concord and Merrimack Rivers; The Maine Woods. Thoreau was an occasional angler, and an observer of anglers.  
  • Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and the title essay in The River Of The Mother Of God, about unknown places.  Leopold only writes a little about fish and fishing, but those occasional sentences about angling tend to be shot through with insight.
  • John Muir, Nature Writings.  
  • John Steinbeck, Log From The Sea of Cortez.  An apology for curiosity, in narrative form.  One of my favorite books.
  • Paul Errington, The Red Gods Call. Not brilliant writing, but a fascinating set of memoirs from a professor of biology who put himself through college as a trapper, and about how the Big Sioux River in South Dakota was his first real schoolroom. He talks a good deal about hunting and fishing and what he learned through encounters with animals.
  • Kathleen Dean Moore, The Pine Island Paradox.  Moore is an environmental philosopher who writes winsomely ans insightfully about what nature has meant to her family.  

Some Favorites
  • Nick Lyons.  Nick very kindly wrote the foreword to my book, and when I first got in touch with him about this I discovered he and I had lived only a few miles from each other in the Catskill Mountains for years.  Sadly, by the time I discovered this I'd already moved away, and he was packing up to move to a new home, too.  We both love the miles of small trout streams of those mountains, though.  Nick has been a prolific writer and he has promoted a lot of great writing through his lifelong work as a publisher as well. Nick has a new book, Fishing Stories, just published in 2014.
  • Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through I
  • Ernest Hemingway, especially "Big Two-Hearted River" and the other Nick Adams stories
  • James Prosek. Several books, including Trout: An Illustrated History; Early Love And Brook Trout; and Joe And Me: An Education In Fishing And Friendship 
  • Ted Leeson, The Habit Of Rivers 
  • Kurt Fausch’s new book, For The Love Of Rivers: A Scientist’s Journey. Brilliant writing by one of the world's leading trout biologists.  
  • Craig Nova, Brook Trout and the Writing Life. I also like his novels, and will recommend The Constant Heart.
  • Christopher Camuto, who writes frequently for Trout Unlimited's journal, Trout.
  • Ian Frazier, The Fish's Eye.
  • Douglas Thompson, The Quest For The Golden Trout

These have been recommended time and again.  I'm not sure many people ever actually read the first two, though they become prized volumes in the libraries of anglers around the world.
  • Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler 
  • Dame Juliana Berners, The Boke Of St Albans, later editions of which contain A Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, possibly authored by someone else. 
  • Nick Karas, Brook Trout (a nice collection of short works about brook trout, including some of my favorite stories)
  • Lee Wulff 
  • Lefty Kreh 

Most Recommended 
  • John Gierach.  Gierach has written a lot about angling, so it's not surprising that so many people mention him to me.  Many of those mentions are positive, but some anglers mention his name with disgust.  I haven't read much of his work, so I can't yet say why.
  • David James Duncan, The River Why.  This is a fun novel set in the Northwest, but it reminds me of the New Haven River in Vermont: there are some long dry stretches one has to plod through, but repeatedly one comes to depths that make the flatter, shallower parts worthwhile.
  • Thomas McGuane, The Longest Silence.  
  • Bill McMillan 
  • Roderick Haig-Brown  

  • Mike Valla, The Founding Flies 
  • Michael Patrick O’Farrell, A Passion For Trout: The Flies And The Methods 

One reason why there is so much writing about fishing is that fishers tend to be students of particular places.  Yes, some people fish by indiscriminately approaching water and drowning hooked worms therein, but experience tends to cure most young anglers of that method.  Fishing puts us into contact with what we cannot see (or cannot see well) under the water; experienced anglers learn to read the signs above the water and the place itself.  We return to the same place as we return to beloved passages in books or to favorite songs, to know them better through repetition.
  • Peter Reilly, Lakes and Rivers of Ireland 
  • Derek Grzelewski, The Trout Diaries: A Year of Fly-fishing In New Zealand and The Trout Bohemia: Fly-Fishing Travels In New Zealand 
  • Eeva-Kaarina Aronen, Die Lachsfischerin. A novel set in Finland, about fly-fishing and fly-tying in the 18th century. The title translates as “The Salmon Fisherwoman” 
  • Ian Colin James, Fumbling With A Fly Rod (Scotland)
  • Zane Grey, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado: New Zealand 
  • Leslie Leyland Fields, Surviving the Island of Grace; and Hooked! Fields and her family are commercial fishers in Alaska, and her writing comes recommended to me from a number of sources.

Other Frequent Recommendations
If I talk to a group of anglers about books for long enough, one or more of these will eventually be mentioned.  Stylistically and in terms of content, they're quite different, but they all seem to speak to important moods and thoughts of anglers.
  • Sheridan Anderson, The Curtis Creek Manifesto
  • Harry Middleton, The Earth Is Enough: Growing Up In A World Of Fly-fishing, Trout, And Old Men (Memoir) 
  • Paul Schullery, Royal Coachman: The Lore And Legends of Fly-fishing
  • Gordon MacQuarrie 
  • Patrick McManus  

Other Recommendations
Most of these I don't know at all, so I'm not recommending them, just mentioning them.  Of course, if you have more recommendations (or corrections), please feel free to add them to the comments section, below.
  • Vince Marinaro, The Game of Nods 
  • Rich Tosches, Zipping My Fly 
  • Robert Lee, Guiding Elliott 
  • Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (novel) 
  • Paul Quinnett, Pavlov’s Trout 
  • Dana S. Lamb Where The Pools Are Bright And Deep; Bright Salmon and Brown Trout
  • John Shewey, Mastering The Spring Creeks 
  • Ernest Schweibert, Death of a Riverkeeper; A River For Christmas 
  • Richard Louv, Fly-fishing for Sharks: An Angler’s Journey Across America 
  • John Voelker’s short story “Murder” 
  • Dave Ames, A Good Life Wasted, Or 20 Years As A Fishing Guide 
  • Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues, especially the chapter “Rainbow Trout” 
  • Randy Nelson, Poachers, Polluters, and Politics: A Fishery Officer’s Career 
  • Anders Halverson, An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America And Overran The World  
  • Thomas McGuane, A Life In Fishing 
  • Bob White 
  • Robert Ruark 
  • Tom Meade 
  • Hank Patterson 

I'll conclude with a few other recommendations.  First, when I've asked for recommendations about texts, a handful of people tell me "Tenkara."  This isn't a text, but a kind of rod, and a method of fly-fishing.  And yet people continue to say that word to me when I ask for texts.  Why is that?  I have a few guesses: there isn't a lot written about tenkara, but people who practice it have come to love its simplicity and grace.  I'm not a tenkara fisher (yet) but I'm eager to learn.  I have a feeling that tenkara, like so many spiritual practices or like some martial arts, is something that makes people feel they way great writing makes us feel: in it we transcend the immediacy of our environment.

Along those lines, one commenter on Facebook said this to me about my students: "Give them [a] fly rod and a stream and let them write [their] own story."   There is wisdom here.  It is one thing to read about waters, and quite another to enter the waters on one's own feet.  Even so, I think it's important and wise to learn from those who've gone before us, too. 


If you're interested in seeing some of my other book recommendations, have a look at this, this, and this.