A few weeks back, I sat in my Monday afternoon contemporary American literature class while we discussed the current renaissance of love for the American West in film and literature. The class is small, required for my major, and I’m a junior in college, so everyone knows me as that “guy who writes about fish and killing elk.”
I protest that I only hunt elk; killing one is lucky.
So, the class deferred discussion to me when our professor said, “Give me some examples of your favorite contemporary Western literature.”
Not surprisingly, my professor hadn’t read John Gierach or Ed Engle. She’d heard of David James Duncan, though, so all is not lost I suppose.
“Not A River Runs Through It?” My professor followed up.
“If they hadn’t made the damn movie that crowded my rivers, I’d like it a lot more,” I said with enough of a grin to show that was tongue-in-cheek.
From there, conversation drifted to Cormac McCarthy and Ivan Doig and Louise Erdrich, but my thoughts stuck with Gierach and Engle and Duncan. None of my classmates even knew fly fishing writing exists as a viable genre, let alone its influence on fly fishing’s popularity. If my peers aren’t aware of fishing writing – and the very real contributions it makes to literature as a whole – what hope does it have 20 years from now?
I’m not sure, but I plan on doing something about it. I spent the last of my teen years and the first few of my 20s as a bonafide trout bum. I slept in my grandma’s basement, drove my dad’s 97 Chevy from Oregon to Colorado and everywhere in between, and chased trout. Now, I’m just a year and a half removed from a degree in English Education and I plan to teach the nuances of language and letters to high school kids in Alaska.
As I’ve pieced my curriculum and lesson plans together, I’ve made a list of the books I want my future students to read in place of the usual dry, dull junk that makes most high schoolers hate reading altogether.
I’ll pull plenty of English lessons from these titles, but they serve a bigger purpose than being a textbook. These books are the tangible, lasting, heritage of our sport – and they’re decidedly more powerful than the last fishy Instagram picture you liked.
Take a moment to browse through this list and my explanation of why every angler should read it.
Trout From The Hills by Ian Niall – I’ve yet to find a fishing book with more lyrically poetic, beautiful prose than Trout From The Hills. Niall’s book is about fly fishing lakes, with a focus on the high country ponds of Wales. It’s a fascinating combination of stories and instruction, and Niall’s tips are as valid now as they were when he wrote the book in 1961.
The River Why By David James Duncan – If A River Runs Through It is fly fishing’s version of The Godfather, then The River Why is our Godfather Part II. It’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, since MacLean wrote a novella and Duncan wrote a proper novel, but Duncan’s story resonates more with me than MacLean’s. It’s fiction, but so well-done that The River Why becomes a story of your very own.
The View From Rat Lake by John Gierach – Pick any of John Gierach’s books and you’re in for a treat. He’s the unquestioned father of modern fishing writing, and definitely one of the best authors the sport has seen. I fished with John during a mediocre blue-winged olive hatch on Utah’s Green River for a week, and he’s much the same in a drift boat as he is on the page.
I picked The View From Rat Lake for this list because its opening essay is likely John’s best. The rest of the book follows suit, and if I had to pick a standard of fly fishing writing by which I measured all else, it’d be “The Big Empty River,” the first essay in this book.
A Modern Dry-Fly Code by Vincent C. Marinaro – If nothing else, Marinaro’s book makes me want to fish the trout streams of Pennsylvania, though it hurts my heart to imagine how much of the landscape has vanished since Marinaro published this book in 1970. This book isn’t long, but it’s dense. Marinaro methodically explains basic-to-advanced dry fly fishing techniques in a way that’s digestible, if not immediately palatable.
The Longest Silence by Tom McGuane – Where all the other authors on this list are mostly trout guys, McGuane gives diversity in his writing. He also went to Yale, wrote screenplays, and novels. But The Longest Silence is McGuane’s best outdoors-related work. McGuane manages to be reflective and not pretentious, something a lot of fishing writers struggle with. And, he’s the best writer on this list, though David James Duncan is a close second.
Caddisflies by Gary LaFontaine – Imagine, if you can, browsing a fly shop’s offerings, only to find no caddis. Hendrickson’s and Adamses in their place, most likely, and not an elk-hair wing in sight. That’s what fly shops were like before LaFontaine wrote this book. It’s an exhaustive study of perhaps the most prominent aquatic insect in trout rivers across the world. If you want to learn as much as you can about the bugs that feed our fish, start your studies with Caddisflies.
This isn’t just the English major in me – these books are important, and not just because they’re old. Think, for a moment, where our world would be if we’d just thrown away Shakespeare’s sonnets? Love or hate him, his writing has undeniably shaped culture for hundreds of years. Fly fishing is a subculture, and without our own collection of infallible classics, can we really survive at all?
Instead of forcing Shakespeare, Woolf, Steinbeck, Dickens, O’Connor, and James down their throats, I’ll push MacLean, Niall, Gierach, McManus, and LaFontaine on my students. Hopefully, one kid reads a story and thinks the same thing I did when I first picked up a dog-eared copy of Trout Bum.
Hell, if John can make a living writing about fish, why can’t I?
Editor's note: As time has passed since we first shared this in April of 2019, our readers have continued to expand Spencer's list of must-read fly fishing books with suggestions of their own. Be sure to take the time to pore over the reader comments below, which contain a bevy of additional ideas of fly fishing books and authors to delve into.