I’m not sure what it is about fly fishing that has made it such fertile ground for reading and writing, but there is something there, just beneath the glassy surface of the water.
Although the participation of fly fishing represents a small part of the larger world of hunting and fishing, books written about the search possess an outsized space in the world of sports literature. Is it that a certain literary type is predisposed to enjoy fly fishing? Or are the locations, fish, and almost meditative movements of the cast simply tailor-made for the written word?
I don’t have the answer. Neither do most fly and rod anglers. Those who enjoy good fishing and good writing are similar in this way. Both are looking for something rare and beautiful, hard to put your finger on but instantly recognizable. Something that will transport you, body and mind and soul, away from everything that ails you. I can’t help with good fishing right now, but I can play the role of guide to good reading – the five books I’ve recommended below are the best I can present to you.
So wade into these waters with me and read on.
On the Tomb of the Unknown Fisherman by John Giearach
John Gierach is the modern king of fly fishing literature. And while “Trout Bum” may be Gierach’s most famous book, if you choose just one of his fourteen published works, it’s this one. Unique compared to his other books, this title documents a single year of John’s fishing life from start to finish. From a late winter trip to Wyoming prairie trout lakes, to a Colorado grayling adventure and more. Gierach ponders everything from the amazing appeal of carp fishing to the legendary Green Drake hatch of the West to the allure of a fishing journal, this is one of life’s best examinations and illustrations fishing that I have seen so far.
Gierach pretty well sums up what separates him from the rest of the fishing crowd when he writes in this book: “My standard fishing memory is made up of the excitement of the moment, the mood of the day, the scenery, the company, the weather, who I am, who I think I am, who I’d like to be, my own sense of poetry and a few bits and pieces of what really happened.”
Read this book and everything else in your library. You won’t regret it.
The Optimist by David Coggins
A more recent entry in the fly-fishing catalog, Coggins’ “The Optimist” details a series of key moments in his fly-fishing life, from early memories (and mistakes) made in places like Wisconsin or Montana, to bucket list trips. to distant places like Patagonia or the Bahamas. Coggins isn’t Gierach’s Trout Tramp as he celebrates and indulges in the finer things in life like expensive wines and New York fashion, a fact that I thought would turn me off his writing. But I found Coggins’ stories relatable, compelling, and oozing with a certain central truth that all good outdoor writing must be. For example, and in conclusion, who can’t relate to this?
“I admit that my desire to fish can be so intense that I don’t like to describe it to non-affiliates. I don’t want other people to know, and maybe I don’t want to admit to myself, how much I think about fishing. There is something a little fishy about this devotion, like a weakness for absinthe, an eccentric habit that needs to be tempered before it becomes a depraved addiction. Too much fishing, and too much absenteeism, can leave you with a covered beard, far from home, excited about the fate of the world. It’s like being part of a disreputable cult known for having dubious views about the creation of the universe. But now I’m a true believer.”
Spring Creek by Nick Lyons
Nick Lyons, another literary legend of the fishing (and publishing) world, created ‘Spring Creek’, one of the most powerful and compelling pieces ever composed on a single small piece of water . Detailing a series of visits to a single small spring stream in Montana, on a ranch owned by a friend, Lyons explores the trials and tribulations of a fisherman, learning a new place and his monstrous but elusive brown trout, all at the same time who falls in love with it all. surrounds him If you want to be transported from the cold prison of some northern winter metropolis to one of the most beautiful fishing scenes you can imagine, grab it and prepare to enter a new world.
Writing many years after publishing this book, now in his eighties, Lyons writes: “The river lives whole and lives in my mind, with vignettes of a particular day, hour or event in my memory as sharp as a diamond . I don’t want to go back. I couldn’t go back. I don’t want to compare. I have no problem keeping it all alive these days when so much of what one was, what one was, fades downstream. I am filled with gratitude for this thing within me, this stream: the long hours I spent there, the lessons learned, the fun, the unparalleled experience of it all. Learning the creek was a metaphor for all the learning I’ve ever done.”
Trout Water by Josh Greenberg
A favorite of mine and much fresher than Lyons or Gierach, John Greenberg’s second release, “Trout Water,” has quickly found a front-row seat on my bookshelf. This title details a single year on Greenberg’s home water, northern Michigan’s famed Au Sable River, as he navigates its sandy, tannin-stained bottom waters and surrounding cedar swamps as owner, guide , fisherman and father of a fly shop.
“Trout Water” especially resonated with me because of Greenberg and my shared stage in life as young parents and all that comes with trying to raise intrepid young anglers. Very well written, well considered and full of fishing fun. This book will quickly become a favorite of many.
“I try to examine life,” Greenberg writes. “But not fishing or hunting, which I love. It’s not an addiction. The examined life is preferred, but it is dangerous to examine love.”
Tom McGuane’s longest silence
No list of fly fishing books could be complete without Thomas McGuane, one of the world’s most formidable literary giants (not just fishing) and a larger-than-life character who surrounded himself with a wild cast of characters like Jim Harrison, Jimmy Buffet, Hunter S. Thompson, Russel Chatham, Guy de la Valdene and more.
McGuane’s “The Longest Silence” is his only non-fiction book focusing on fishing, and is one of the all-time greats. Comprised of a series of essays documenting fishing operations around the world, McGuane brings an eye for detail and a sense of beauty to his writing that rings true and larger than life. From the small rivers of Michigan to Ireland, Key West, Russia and beyond, this book takes you on a bucket list trip of dream fishing destinations while explaining the simple essence of why we fish.
Famously, writes McGuane, “what is most emphatic about fishing is the long silences: the unproductive periods.”
As we sit here now, knee-deep in the long silence of winter, I hope these five books will help shake you out of your frozen stupor and once again fill your imaginations with the sights and sounds of fishing life well lived.