Book Review: “A Concise History of Fly Fishing”

"A Concise History of Fly Fishing"BEFORE THE LYONS PRESSED published Glenn Law’s A Concise History of Fly Fishing in 2003, there were only three titles that attempted to address fly fishing history in any scale and they were all fairly recent: The Fly by Andrew Herd (2001), a tome covering traditional English fly fishing innovations, F.M. Halford and The Dry-Fly Revolution (2002) by Tony Hayter, and Paul Schullery’s brilliant American Fly Fishing (1987). Both Herd’s and Hayter’s books are from U.K. publishing houses and encourage an Anglo-centric perspective — appropriate for the scope of their books, which ends, for the most part, with the mid-twentieth century. But they leave anglers in the Western Hemisphere who love literature and invention that is uniquely American without a way to place themselves in the timeline of fly fishing. After all, it is daunting to try and set the significance of what happened in North America in the last two centuries in the context of Berners and Walton, Halford and Skues. Fortunately we did have an excellent resource — Schullery’s American Fly Fishing — and for a long time that has been enough.

So I can only think of Glenn Law as intrepid. As Lefty Kreh notes in the introduction, he had reason to be “apprehensive about offering a history of the sport.” The fact that Law pulled it off at all is noteworthy, but the fact that he did it in 163 pages and established the relative significance of what North American trout, warm water and saltwater fly fishers added to the sport is impressive.

A Concise History of Fly Fishing reaches a little further back than most writing on the subject (stoneflies in an Egyptian tomb dated to 1400 B.C.) and quite a bit further forward, to the surrealism of Richard Brautigan. But Law doesn’t get carried away at any point. He writes compactly, usually elegantly. His prose is very tight, sometimes requiring a little extra breath before the next paragraph, but you know as you read that you are enjoying the work of someone skilled at distilling thought. So the chapters as a collection move along at a nice pace, with weight on the monumental changes in fly fishing, like Halford’s dry fly revolution, and duly laconic references to things that don’t merit the obsessive focus they often get: “Reels are a place to store line.” Even where Law chooses to be brief, though, he rarely misses the significant notes. “Reels were where Americans really took off in innovation,” he says. “The famed and well-recognized Kentucky watch makers produced the first completely American tackle. These reels were multipliers (a reel design in which one turn of the handle produces more than one revolution in the spool), the watch maker’s trade created in a winding device, and like the rods, they weren’t especially limited to fly fishing.”

Above all, Law manages to take what many a non-fly-fisher would see as exclusive and arcane and present it amusingly. His accounts of some of the petty and not so petty contests — Halford vs. Skues, LaBranche vs. The Rise — help define and illustrate the progression of the sport. If the book comes up short anywhere, it’s in the layering in of the influence of saltwater fly fishing. Most modern tackle development and big fish fighting techniques – even for fresh water — come at least in part from saltwater. But saltwater fishing practices usually aren’t taken as seriously — perhaps because they are more recent and more “radical” — and their inventors don’t seem to have the same credibility unless they are also reputable trout fishers. Something for the next book, maybe.

For all its brevity, A Concise History of Fly Fishing is an important piece of angling literature and a good read to boot. It’s the only book that folds together English and American tradition in equal portions and puts it all to the taste test. Luckily for us, Mr. Law has an educated palette.

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