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Battle of the Bards: Ted Leeson vs. Harry Middleton

by Dave Karczynski
Brown Trout

Brant He. Fageraas photo

Since this week finds all of us walled in between two holidays (and some of us between cliffs of snow), the time feels ripe for the next Battle of the Bards.  Today we pit Southern mystic Harry Middleton against Midwest-born Ted Leeson.  Both are contemporaries of each other (though Middleton passed away at the premature age of 38).  Both are highly literary writers with penchants for esoteric language.  And both write towards the centers, the cores of things.  It’s the ultimate object of penetration, however, that differs between the two:  one plumbs a personal, primordial center, the other a collective, societal core.

We start with an excerpt of Middleton’s The Earth is Enough.

Slipping into the creek after dusk, casting for the big browns, I crossed into another world, dark, sublime, both frightening and glorious. Each moss-covered rock seemed a primordial step backward, back, back until sometimes I was there utterly alone in the darkness and it suddenly as ancient time, the creek a Devonian bog, and I had no voice, no recognizable shape. I was just something different and alive, rising up out of the coal-black water. Starlight Creek at night seemed altogether different, a stream of brooding, limitless, inexplicable contingencies. On such nights even my mind drifted as a black stream full of the mystery of fish, flowing on and on without end.

My practicing paid off and in the blink of an eye I became with every feeble cast as expert at hooking trees. Even when I did manage to get the fly line forward, it inevitably landed ten feet in front of me in a wadded mess that looked something like tossed spaghetti, clump of frustration and dismay. In the evenings, I worked on knots, knots with names like nail knot blood knot, surgeon’s knot, which suggested to me that perhaps they’d been handed down from some more vulgar vocation such as that of a hangman. Fortunately, since I received no instruction, was under the tutelage of no master, I never really knew just how unsightly my efforts were, otherwise I would have certainly, out of respect for the grace and tradition of fly fishing, have stepped aside, laid down my rod forever. Indeed, there are many who still think such a decision would restore much of angling’s former irreproachable reputation.

The most notable thing here is the sturm und drang cadences of Middleton’s prose.  His sentence structure changes wildly throughout each paragraph, here stretching, vying and straining, there skidding, skipping and sliding.  This rhythmic restlessness speaks to a greater tension in Middleton’s worldview.  It’s a world characterized by difference and conflict—things are not what they are supposed to be.  We ourselves are not even who we are.  He has a shape in this strange, new world—it’s just not “recognizable.”  Middleton’s method of inquiry is indeed highly speculative, inquisitive, groping and wandering.  In his resistance to certainty of meaning, he resembles a cat playing with a piece of string.  The cat comes so close to apprehending its object–only to kick it back out again.  To capture meaning with certainty is the end of exploration, the end of the fun.  Middleton believes in the rhetoric of stalking more than he does reward of clean comprehension—the kill shot.

Now let’s compare this to a passage from Leeson’s Jerusalem Creek.

The driftless area, like the English chalk streams and indeed like a great many spring-creek landscapes, has a kind of gentleness about it. A pastoral place of small farms nestled in hollows between wooded hills, the countryside is settled but not settled out of existence, a compromise of sorts between the civilized and the wild that gives the land an intimate, domestic quality. I have no doubt that the first fly fisherman, sitting before the hearth, fashioned the first flies from the materials of this same domesticity–from ram’s wool and cock feathers, horsehair and beeswax. The tying of flies and fishing them and the landscape itself all share the same mesmerizing quality of looking into a fire. A trout fly recalls the land in the way of all handmade things, and a fishing vest is nothing if not a small household that we carry with us into the field.

The irreducible fact of fishing, of course, is water, and around water there hovers always the possibility if mishaps, sometimes serious ones. The big trout rivers of the West, slippery, swift and powerful, do injure people and, more rarely kill someone, though most often the river is only incidental to something else–strong drink or a weak heart. Remote as the danger may be, particularly if you refuse to court it, it is nonetheless real on rivers of any size. No such risks lurk on the small spring creeks of the Midwest, however; they post no threat to life or limb. They inflict no harm but, like flyfishing itself, merely visit a thousand humiliations upon your head. All important things in life possess the capacity to humble you, and there is little wonder that a spring-creek fisherman learns to address the water from his knees.

Leeson is a much different writer, one not so much interesting in charting a shifting inner cosmos as he is in identifying roles and locations of things and ideas in a shared world order.  Whereas Middleton is the proverbial mad scientist instinctually plying dark matter, Leeson is the logical empiricist demonstrating how things in the visible world work and why. He “has not doubt” about his connections and convictions. Leeson is confident of his knowledge of the system and how things work within it.  Just look at how much he uses that word of ultimate certainty: “is.”  Middleton, as we’ve observed, is less comfortable with the certainty of things: an object, idea or perception in Middleton’s world is more likely to “seem” something than “be” something.

The two also differ in the type of material they give themselves access to, the referential bricks of their prose.  Middleton’s mind makes use of what’s lying immediately before him–water, darkness, starlight–putting them together in whatever way they will fit.   But Leeson’s mind is more acrobatically associative, able to draw connections across time and space and cultures.  It’s the precision of his movements, the clarity of his language, the measured character of his cadences that make this work.  “A fishing vest is a small household,” he writes.  And it’s convincing: Who would have thought our wild enterprise could be understood so domestically?

There they stand: the mystic and the maven, the primevalist and the professor.  Who would you, left to choose, share a beat of river with?  Why?

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Dave Karczynski is the author of From Lure to Fly: Fly Fishing for Spinning and Baitcast Anglers, an Orvis Series book published by Lyons Press. He is also the co-author of Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Tactics, Tips and Techniques, published through Stackpole Press. A regular contributor to Outdoor Life, The Drake, and many other magazines, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan.
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  • Hayden Mellsop

    Both writers leave me in awe. I have read some Leeson, but this is my first encounter with Middleton. I tend to view my journey through life, and fly fishing, as more of a fumbling progress, unsure of where it will lead me and what I will learn along the way, so I would have to say that if the question is “Who would you share a beat with?”. I would have to choose Middleton.

    • Glen Bobnick

      What I don’t know, or what might be are far more interesting than knowledge of what is. My best bud would be the guy with the heart of an adventurer and a sense of wonder. Hail Harry.

      • Hayden Mellsop

        Agreed. Never lose that sense of wonder.

  • Craig

    While I’m a fan of both Leeson and Middleton, I have reread “The Earth is Enough” and “On the Spine” at least once a year since they were published. My vote to Harry.

  • BBBB

    Middleton, hands down!

  • Lenny Millen

    Maybe Dave Karczynski…well done.

  • Brian Wheaton.

    Leeson draws exceptional “Word Pictures” that allows me to see what he sees.

  • Cameron Scott

    Leeson’s “The Habit of Rivers” does him way more justice in this comparison than “Jerusalem Creek” and is closer to being written from the gut instead of the head. For me it is a draw between “The Habit of Rivers” and “The Earth Is Enough.” I don’t think you could have picked two writers with more contrasting styles and lives. Although if Middleton was still alive, maybe he would have ended up being a professor in an MFA program (and I can’t believe he never ended up a fishing guide). It seems like I fish with Harry Middleton’s every day. I’d jump at the chance to fish with Ted.

  • Jack Wallingford

    Leeson is a writer’s writer. Middleton is a journalist who writes well enough to pull the reader into his world. Leeson is an expert at certain areas of flyfishing. Middelton is not an expert, but a deep enquirer. I think they are both great to read, but Leeson is the writer, Middleton is a sort of Walt Whitman of the river, enjoying the experience and speaking about it to everyman.

    Leeson writes about flyfishing in a poetic way, but he knows the rivers, the equipment, the flies and the pursuit. That is not to make him an expert caught up in his skill and knowledge, but a master at his craft. I think about him the same way with his writing. He knows when to use a semicolon, and he can turn a phrase.

    Middleton struggled with deadlines and matching the hatch. I am grateful for his blunders, as they are the stuff of flyfishing for me, but Middleton also had a gentle soul. I would not see him cursing the flyrod because he could not make a bow and arrow cast on a brookie. He was however, a man with depression and mental illness, hence his early demise.

    As far as fishing with either of them, the opportunity would be fantastic. I think either man would make a wonderful partner for the day.