Book Review: “Storied Waters: 35 Fabled Fly-Fishing Destinations and the Writers & Artists Who Made Them Famous”

September 13, 2021 By: Robert DeMott

A Worthy Fish-Lit Pilgrimage

“…fishing and reading go together.” —Brian Murphy, The Angler’s Companion: The Lore of Fishing (1978)

I am a sucker for visiting geographic places upon which books and paintings are based, and I’ve made a quirky hobby of gauging representational relationships—often more complex and fraught than they first appear—between physical venues and their textual counterparts. I’ve pursued this oddball literary tourism coast-to-coast for decades, from snooping around Concord, Massachusetts with a copy of Walden in hand (I wrote my PhD dissertation on Henry David Thoreau), to wading a section of the Niobrara River in northwest Nebraska where parts of Jim Harrison’s novel Dalva are set, to exploring Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains of Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and the rock canyons and outcrops of Arches National Park in Utah where Ed Abbey set Desert Solitaire, to strolling the ranch outside Salinas, California, the scene of John Steinbeck’s coming-of-age novella, The Red Pony. And not to give fly fishing short shrift—it is one of the other chief fascinations in my life—I have logged many deliriously happy hours on Odell Creek near Ennis, Montana, the site of Nick Lyons’ masterpiece Spring Creek. To fish that water—or any storied water for that matter—is to imbibe its unique atmosphere and to inhabit, even briefly, a special angling and artistic venue.

I’ve made a hundred such stops across the United States, jotting impressions in my notebooks, and snapping countless photos along the way that I later showed forty-five years’ worth of American literature students to assist them in linking the setting of a literary work to its physical counterpart. I guess it’s the village explainer in me. I have never been disappointed with my findings, never became tired of viewing what author X or artist Y saw at a given geographical place that started their juices flowing. What is water—flowing, still, or tidal—but a blank sheet on which to inscribe our aspirations? Sometimes being in the right place at the right time, whether it is on steam with a fly rod in hand or afterwards at a desk with a pen in hand, connects us to history, tradition, and landscape in ways we cannot always imagine or predict. I like to think those moments—even when they aren’t punctuated by trophy-sized fish and grip-and-grin photographs—provide an honorable, necessary way of looking at the world.

In that vein, David Van Wie has written a nifty, entertaining book every literarily inclined fly angler with a dose of wanderlust in his or her soul will want to read. Van Wie is a veteran New England environmentalist, a noted outdoor writer and regular columnist for The Maine Sportsman, a skilled photographer, and the chronicler of the lively and colorful blog, Watch Your Backcast. His well-received earlier book, The Confluence: A Collection of Essays, Art and Tall-Tales about Fly-fishing and Friendship (2016), was co-written with several life-long sporting pals and fellow Dartmouth College grads (who also make appearances in “Storied Waters”). The Confluence, a lyrical paean to outdoor brotherhood, gathered accounts of the buddies’ get-away experiences on an annual trek to Dartmouth’s Second College Grant in northern New Hampshire where the Dead Diamond and Swift Diamond rivers meet and offer fraternal angling possibilities.

“Storied Waters” takes us away, too, but into a broader arena. It is part autobiography, part road narrative, part literary anthology, part angling geography, and part instructional guide. Plus it is bounteously illustrated with color photographs and twenty focused “Where & How” side-bar sections that offer angling advice and streamcraft tips, and otherwise contextualize and illuminate Van Wie’s 5700-mile Eastern angling periplum. “I fished on thirty-eight out of forty-three days in eight different states, hitting one fabled fly-fishing destination per day, on average,” he writes. “When I wasn’t fishing, I was usually taking photos, writing, driving, eating, or sleeping. I took only one day totally ‘off’ to hang out and swim with my daughter…” (p. 204).

During his whirlwind journey Van Wie posted stories, photos, and video to his blog site, and those entries served as a foundational rehearsal for this highlight tour book, which comes across as an extended series of jaunty day-by-day journal entries that plot the author’s sometimes hurried passage from state to state. His 2017 journey with rod, camera, and pen started on Friday, May 14, while fishing for inspiration at Massachusetts’ Walden Pond in Thoreau’s footsteps and ended six weeks later on Thursday, June 22nd on Maine’s Kennebec River, site of writings by Dud Dean (aka Arthur Macdougall, a fly fishing minister), and the formidable East Branch of the Penobscot memorialized in Thoreau’s The Maine Woods.

Beginning and ending with Thoreau brings Van Wie’s ambitious odyssey of fishing hallowed waters “full circle.” In between, he traveled a tightly scheduled path to the Catskills and Adirondacks, Pennsylvania’s Fisherman’s Paradise, Poconos, and Cumberland Valley, to upper and lower Michigan and Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, and back to northern New England, including a chapter devoted to revisiting New Hampshire’s Dartmouth Grant and reprising The Confluence experience with his sporting pals whom he dubbed “the Boys of the Grant” (p. 160). All the sites along the way are fabled fish-lit locations. For those who have not visited or wet a line in these vaunted places of angling lore (and might not until the COVID-19 pandemic is erased and we all feel safe enough again), reading “Storied Waters” is just about the next best thing to being there. In these dangerous times, when any trip out the door puts life at risk, a textual visit is better than no visit at all.

As a bonus, “Storied Waters” has special relevance for readers of American Fly Fisher because it includes a pair of chapters devoted to the Manchester, Vermont, region, which is home to the Battenkill, the American Museum of Fly Fishing (journal editor Kathleen Achor has a cameo), Orvis, and several creative artists who are associated with the area and who plied its local waters: iconic populist painter Norman Rockwell, contemporary fly fishing guru Tom Rosenbauer, and writers of three wonderful books that have never been praised highly enough–– John Atherton’s The Fly and the Fish, John Merwin’s The Battenkill, and Margot Page’s Little Rivers.

Van Wie rightly understands that fly fishing “is by tradition, a literary sport” and that “there is no clear line between literature and fly fishing” (p. vi). His realization turned out to be a propulsive belief. His road trip started with an invitation from Grace Voelker Wood to fish Uncles, that is, Frenchman’s Pond, in Michigan, which is her father John Voelker’s (aka Robert Traver) “fabled” Upper Peninsula angling hideaway, whose location remains a “closely guarded secret.” (“Storied Waters” is prefaced by Traver’s much-quoted “Testament of a Fisherman”). The invitation was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that Van Wie could not pass up. He made the most of it.

But rather than driving to northern Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from Maine and then heading straight back home, Van Wie decided to fish his way out to Uncles and back; then, having settled on that plan, he started counting a roll-call of “other fabled locations in fly-fishing literature,” including the Battenkill, Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Letort, Spruce, Ausable (New York), Au Sable (Michigan), Fox, Flambeau, Rapid, Kennebago, and so on. During his tour, Van Wie takes us to places fished by the likes of heavy hitters John Burroughs, Ernest Hemingway, Winslow Homer, Theodore Gordon, Aldo Leopold, Lee and Joan Wulff, Art Flick, Vince Marinaro, President Jimmy Carter, and Corey Ford. Once he had agreed upon the sites, there was plenty of reading and research to do: “My stack of books to read grew to the ceiling like Jack’s beanstalk” (p. viii).

The results of his self-designed tutorial in angling literature are apparent in “Storied Waters”, which comprises a running commentary on that “stack” of must-read books. Two chapters midway in the book are symbolic of larger themes, and recount Van Wie’s rich experience at Uncles, which in many ways became the spiritual highpoint of his journey. A “Fantasy Fulfilled,” he calls it. At Frenchman’s Pond fly fishing and Robert Traver’s literature mesh together: “I felt like I had walked onto the pages of Trout Magic” (p. 104).

Indeed, inhabiting vaunted angling sites and their corresponding texts is a refrain throughout “Storied Waters”, for Van Wie “felt a connection with the spirits of many writers at various times” (p. 182). On the Beaverkill, he exulted at following in the footsteps of Corey Ford, one of his favorite outdoor writing heroes. Later, he identifies with fishing Wisconsin’s Flambeau River in the wake of his other hero, Aldo Leopold, as well as the Namekagon River in the wake of the lesser known Gordon MacQuarrie, whose story “Now, in June,” Van Wie admired. Still later, at Grindstone Falls in northern Maine’s Mount Khatadin region, spurred by reading Edmund Ware Smith’s “Along Thoreau’s Canoe Trail,” he is carried away by “a full-scale apparition” of Thoreau’s ghost, which “suddenly appeared in the seat beside me” (p. 183). It is a near-mystical moment (not unusual in fly fishing literature) that sums up the author’s angling-lit pilgrimage and briefly transcends the diurnal, quotidian aspects of his trip.

But besides paying homage to famous writers, one aspect of “Storied Waters” that stands out is Van Wie’s decision to include authors who, like Maine’s Louise Dickinson Rich (We Took to the Woods), Vermont’s Howard Frank Mosher (God’s Kingdom) and W. D. Wetherell (Vermont River), and Michigan’s Josh Greenberg (Rivers of Sand), might not be as well known as their classic counterparts, but deserve our continuing attention and respect nonetheless. The same can be said of his choice of water. Outside of appearing in Jim Harrison’s novel True North and Voelker’s story, “The Old Fox,” Michigan’s Yellow Dog River was never on my radar, but is now thanks to Van Wie’s mention (though I can imagine local adherents of the Yellow Dog probably won’t be pleased by that news).

“Storied Waters” isn’t all literary syllabus, however. The chronicle is enlivened by Van Wie’s serial accounts of trip and travel details that round out his tale with texture and color. It is peppered with frequent sidelights on local history, legend, and lore, and grateful shout-outs to various fly shop owners, guides, and generous and helpful people of every stripe and background he met along the way who aided and abetted his odyssey and furthered his angling abilities. Indeed, one of the most pleasurable aspects of “Storied Waters” is that everyone the author met along his path seems to have become his friend. “I befriended delightful people who went out of their way to welcome me to their towns, their favorite fishing holes, and sometimes into their homes” (p. 203). His enthusiasm and earnestness is infectious, and proves fly fishing is a link to human engagement, social interaction, and environmental awareness that cannot be underestimated. In the process, Van Wie became an ambassador for the sport and art that we all love.

Some people might consider a dream trip to be an adventure somewhere far away in a foreign destination—Russia, New Zealand, Mongolia, the Seychelles—an exotic place where outsized fish on a fly offer a one-of-a-kind thrill. Van Wie never caught a trout larger than 18” on his journey, but he caught enough decent fish and other prizes to make his a dream trip, too. “Storied Waters” is written in an accessible conversational style, without high-faluting condescension, elitism, or one-upsmanship. As a narrator, Van Wie is us, a wide-eyed, eager, curious fly fishing Everyman who is refreshingly honest, especially in appraising his own fishing prowess and on-stream fortune. Despite having experienced good fishing and 200 or so trout, bass, landlock salmon, and one tiny bluegill eventually brought to hand during his trip, he is unflinching in recording the times he was skunked, and is never given to inflating the size of his successes, reminding us, after all, that not all fisherman are congenital liars.

But given his quick pace, Van Wie doesn’t always have time on his appointed destinations to delve as deeply as possible into the angling and literary intricacies of given locations, which results occasionally in a panoramic overview rather than a deep dive into landscapes. I was disappointed to see no mention of three superb lyrical fly fishing texts—Ted Leeson’s Jerusalem Creek, Jerry Dennis’s The River Home, and Craig Nova’s Brook Trout and the Writing Life–– that would have fit nicely in his treatment of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, respectively.

But these are small quibbles. Even having registered them does not take away from the fact that in tracing a geography of Eastern/Midwestern angling-book landscapes, the river that “runs through it” (to cite Norman Maclean), can be a physical body of water, but it also can be the stream of language that comprises every fish story we have ever read or told ourselves. Tallying up who fished where and for what and then wrote about it strikes me as completely admirable work, “a fundamental … unavoidable part of fly fishing” (p. vi). It is also a way of highlighting narrative as the main product––the chief catch––of our real and virtual angling adventures.

Now I hope there will be a Western counterpart of Van Wie’s entertaining and necessary project.

David A. Van Wie, Storied Waters: 35 Fabled Fly-Fishing Destinations and the Writers and Artists who Made Them Famous. Guilford, CT: Stackpole Books, 2019. 216 pp. $29.95

Review originally published in “The American Fly Fisher: Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing” (Summer 2021)