The Age of Heroes

Thaddeus Norris

Thaddeus Norris was the most beloved American angler of the nineteenth century.

MY FIRST FISHING HERO was my uncle, Richard Murphy, who died in 1990. He was a lifelong cane-pole bait fisherman and a known master on his home lake in Ohio for upwards of three-quarters of a century. Funny thing is, aside from certain inadvertent lessons he gave me in the effective use of profanity, I would be hard-pressed to describe even one specific thing he taught me. I must have learned things, but mostly I just enjoyed fishing with someone so knowledgeable and fun.

Many of us have been lucky enough to stumble into a situation where we get to know some especially gifted angler. Every town has a few, and whether they’re the upright souls who conduct fly-tying classes at the local school, or the poachers whose license numbers are taped to the dashboard of every law enforcement officer in the county, they occupy a special place in our sport’s culture. They represent some rare, admirable pinnacle of skill and experience. They embody wisdom — or at least a backwoods savvy that many of us would secretly prefer anyway.

We enjoy the awe they inspire. It feels good to know a genius. Twenty years ago, when I met Lee Wulff, I found it hard to listen to what he was saying because my brain kept shouting at me, “You’re actually standing here in Lee Wulff’s house having a conversation with Lee Wulff!”

But having heroes isn’t a simple enterprise, even for fishermen. The cultural anthropologists tell us that all human cultures require heroes and create them for powerful and complicated reasons. They also tell us that our heroes usually end up being somewhat mythic.

But this is no surprise to us, is it? In our more lucid moments, we already know that fishing is a kind of High Quest thinly disguised as a sport, and the trout is just another kind of Holy Grail. And in our hearts we knew all along that nobody could really be as good at catching fish as we like to believe our heroes are.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t always needed them. Before about 1800 or so, most of these notables were like my Uncle Dick — only locally famous. In 1659, Londoner Thomas Barker wrote in his charming Barker’s Delight or The Art of Angling, that “If you would have a rod to beare and to fit neatly, you must go to John Hobs who liveth at the sign of the George behind the Mews by Charing Crosse.” It’s a sure thing that seventeenth-century London’s little tackle shops, as quaint as they might seem to us now, would have hosted the same gatherings of angling fanatics who find their way to modern tackle shops. These guys would have listened to Mr. Hobs the same way I listened to Lee Wulff — just as they would have hung on every word when Capt. Henry Jackson, whom Charles Cotton described in 1676 as “by many degrees the best fly-maker I yet met with,” discussed the finer points of fly tying.

Say “Uncle”

But there are heroes, and there are celebrities. The blurry distinction between the two groups first began to matter to American fly fishers in 1829, when The American Turf Register and Sporting magazine appeared, the first American periodical devoted entirely to sport. In 1831, it was joined by the far more successful Spirit of the Times, edited by William Trotter Porter, the great forgotten hero of American fishing writing, truly the father of American sporting journalism. In the Spirit, the American Turf Register (which he later owned), and other publications, Porter constantly celebrated leading anglers (especially his pals), thus creating our first generation of national angling celebrities.

Porter had a huge reach. By 1856, he claimed that his Porter’s Spirit of the Timeswas “backed by a circulation of 40,000 copies,” a number that, if true, would be enviable even among many specialty magazines today. Even then, American anglers were eager to enjoy the exploits of their heroes.

William Trotter Porter

William Trotter Porter, editor of "Spirit of the Times" magazine, is considered by many to be the father of American Sporting Journalism.

That has never changed. The country’s most beloved angler of the nineteenth century, Thaddeus Norris, published his immenseAmerican Angler’s Book in 1864 and remained one of the sport’s foremost heroes long after his death only thirteen years later. He was such a likeable, appealing character that he was and still is referred to affectionately as “Uncle Thad.”

Indeed, this special quality of “uncleness” was for a long time probably the most powerful element in angling celebrity, and for good reason. Back then most people learned to fish from a relative, so naturally they would look for similar qualities in their fishing heroes. Norris’s twentieth-century equivalents were Ray Bergman and Joe Brooks, both of whom enjoyed long tenures as fishing editor of Outdoor Life, and both of whom were easygoing, down-to-earth writers of a practical bent. No doubt they served as adopted long-distance uncles to generations of trout fishers.

A New Pantheon

Then, about the time Joe Brooks’s death in 1972, things seemed to change, abruptly and dramatically. Fly fishing grew tremendously in popularity. It became fashionable, and Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Hollywood all took notice. There were more and more fly-fishing schools. There was an explosion of local and national fly­fishing organizations. There was an aggressively innovative high-tech tackle industry and many upscale fly-fishing resorts. And, eventually, of course, there was The Movie.

All this attention, whatever else it may have meant, had a big effect on the sport’s heroes. The traditional “uncles” suddenly found themselves sharing the admiration of anglers with a growing crowd of professors, philosophers, and poets. The word ‘star’ came into use. As unlikely as it might have seemed to the old-timers, suddenly there were fly-fishing celebrities everywhere.

The significance of this change first dawned on me back then at a Federation of Fly Fishers conclave in West Yellowstone, Montana. Along with all the other hero-worshippers, I was listening in as people took their turns asking Dave Whitlock questions. After a while, a well-dressed older woman reached the front of the line. Ever the cordial gentleman, Dave greeted her cheerfully. She told him that she didn’t really have a question — she just wanted to compliment him on his hair. Fly fishing, I suddenly realized, had entered a different realm. Whatever it had been like before, it wasn’t like that anymore.

It was only a few years later that Catskill fishing writer Art Lee began publicly referring to himself as a “professional fly fisherman,” which apparently shocked people who preferred to think of fly fishing as the domain of gifted amateurs supported by a benign and entirely altruistic industry. But Art was just acknowledging what had always been true, that fly fishing is about money, too. Back in 1843, William Trotter Porter himself exemplified fly fishing’s intriguing interplay between sport, commerce, and fame when John Conroy, perhaps the leading American tackle maker of the day, introduced the “Porter’s General Rod,” probably the first American fishing tackle to carry a celebrity name endorsement.

Not everyone has approved of this escalation of fly fishing’s celebrity culture, of course. In the 1970s, Arnold Gingrich, himself a happy and unrepentant hero-worshipper, loved to refer to fly fishing’s “pantheon” of experts as if they were nearly gods. But Robert Traver, the author of the very popular Trout Madness (1960) and Trout Magic (1974), referred disparagingly to Arnold’s idols as the “Learned Society of Elder Swamis.” Just because someone is an expert doesn’t necessarily make him a hero.

Today it seems that the great boom in fly fishing over the past 30 years or so has self-corrected some of its own early excesses. Our need for heroes didn’t disappear, but it kind of recalibrated itself to cope with the sudden overabundance of candidates. With so many legitimate experts out there, we didn’t necessarily have to idolize all of them.

Most of us still are fundamentally local in our fishing. We dream of the big trips, but we fish mostly near home, and it’s there that we are best qualified to identify the extraordinary anglers among us. We still enjoy reading, hearing about, and even meeting the renowned experts and celebrities. But for the purposes of our day-to­day fishing, they’re rather remote compared with the local guy who catches more fish than the rest of us, or who tells the best stories, or who in some other way achieves the quiet heroics that fly fishing has always had at its heart anyway.