A few months back I wrote a piece that examined our current fly fishing media landscape by comparing it to past epochs. Afterwards a few folks wanted to know if I might recommend a few books for them to check out. But the more I thought about the question, the more I realized how daunting the task was. There are a lot of fly culture books out there. Fly anglers make up a small minority of people who chase fish with a rod, but they make up the vast majority of all books written about fish.
I decided that rather than offer up the heavy hitters—the Macleans, Duncans, Gierachs and McGuanes—I’d focus on books that might need a bit more marketing help, stuff I found somewhat by accident on dusty library shelves and in used book stores. In short, this is a very idiosyncratic list, so if you’ve got your own lesser known book recommendations, we’d love to hear about it in the comments section.
A Modern Dry Fly Code: Vince Marinaro
By most accounts Vince Marinaro was a moody, temperamental man, but I find his prose remarkably companionable due to it’s seriousness of purpose and clarity of expression. The word “code” in the title would seem to work in two ways: as a key for unraveling a mystery but also as a kind of moral system that had at its center a commitment to the dry fly. Modern anglers raised in an era that extolls fishing bumhood and vagabondery might be surprised to look at the back of this book and see its author rocking French cuffs and cufflinks. Marinaro’s book represents the era of the great, all-encompassing angling theories. Not surprisingly, one of the few writers working in that mode today, my friend Matt Supinski, was a protege of Marinaro’s, one who plied the master with top-tier smoked Atlantic Salmon in exchange for eternal riparian wisdom. And got it.
On The Spine of Time: Harry Middleton
So much of trout fishing writing takes place “out West” or “up North.” Only Middleton provides a sustained look at Appalachia trout fishing in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. And it’s an ecstatic look. This book, like all of Middleton’s work, is really just one one person’s attempt to center himself in language, in the mountains, and in cold water, all at the same time. Those looking for fast, easy reading will not find it here. The intense interiority of Middleton’s perceptions, thinking and writing, makes him a pleasant antidote to the instant gratification of social media culture.
Caddisflies: Gary LaFontaine
As you can see I’m including a number of technical books on this list. But I don’t think “technical” is the right description for this category; at least, it’s not the only one. Whether it’s Marinaro on terrestrials or LaFontaine on tricoptera, the pleasure of the best technical writing is in the sheer joy of discovery being made by their authors, who come off not unlike those high-fiving monks who invented beer and champagne. For those to young to know, LaFontaine was the gentleman who first discovered how Antron and other trilobal synthetic fibers in could be used to represent a variety of visual cues in the aquatic insect world. His vision and curiosity about materials was one big stepping stone to where fly tying is today. LaFontaine died early of ALS, but before he did he left a trove of fascinating trout patterns. Caddisflies is his most representative work.
Fly Fishing: Sir Edward Grey
Old world elegance and aristocratic refinement meet piscatorial obsession in this turn-of-the-century British book. Yeah, that doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? The real reason to read Grey is to better appreciate the changing cultural attitudes that inform our sport. In Grey’s day, for instance, one went fishing not to recharge one’s batteries but to engage the world with wide eyes and open nerves—something we could perhaps learn from. I especially love one particular phrase he uses as a sub-heading—”the crisis of the rise”—which I’m sure Marinaro smacked his lips over. So intense is Grey’s connection to fish that it’s hard to imagine that he was a high ranking international diplomat and dealt with some of the top world leaders of his time, but he did.
Book of the Black Bass: Dr. James Henshall
Most of the books on this list suggest that everything interesting on the fly fishing literary scene was happening with trout and coldwater species. But Henshall affirms that this was very much not the case. A doctor who practiced in Southeastern Wisconsin, Henshall was so committed to bass fishing that he even prototyped the world’s first bass rods, foreshadowing future eras when tackle would be designed not only for specific species, but specific applications even within those species. It was also Henshall who first described the smallmouth bass as “inch for inch and pound for pound the gamest fish that swims,” a worthy appellation that lives on to this day. A cool book through and through.
Mainly About Fishing: Sir Arthur Ransome
First and foremost a children’s book author of high adventure, Ransome was also a war correspondent during the first part of the 20th century. As such he brings a knack for drama, anecdote and scene to the fly fishing table. But the thing I love most about Ransome is that, though he was no stranger to the fly rod, he has the gumption to wax rhapsodic about bobber fishing with bait—try doing that in today’s niche-fied, ultra-partisan angling world. Ransome’s love and enthusiasm for both high-brow and low-brow angling techniques tries to remind us that bait and fly anglers are not so different from each other, deep down.
Notes on Fishing: Sergei Aksakov
An engrossing, anthropological perspective on fish and fishing written by an early 19th century Russian writer. Aksakov takes a species-by-species approach to fish, and this book is full of fascinating tidbits about how the people of Eurasia fished throughout the ages (this is definitely not an exclusively fly fishy book). If you want to read evocative passages about spearing pike at night, Aksakov puts you at the front of the boat with a spear in your hand, a wood fire glowing below you, as your partner poles you along in the dark.
The Fly: Andrew Herd
A historically detailed account of two thousand years of fly fishing history is what you get from this meticulously researched book. Herd has a wry but highly readable voice that creates that sense of the author speaking directly to you; he also a razor sharp sense of humor. There’s a lot of information in this one, so keep it close to you during the winter months and read it in chunks. Then amaze your friends and impress romantic partners with your knowledge of 18th century pike flies (ok, maybe don’t do that).
Ok, so this book is actually brand spanking new, but I just had to put it on the list because it’s at once so unique and so important. Published this year by the University of Chicago Press (the very press that brought you A River Runs Through It), Backcasts provides a cross-cultural, trans-historic look at the conservation practices, people and obstacles that inform modern cold water conservancy. Edited by Sam Snyder, Brian Borgel and Elizabeth Tobey, this anthology is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the history and participate in the future of the attitudes and policies that shape our watersheds. Get it while it’s hot right here.