For quite some years now, the classic books of fly fishing have been skating on thin ice. Very thin ice. Recently it appears—at least from where I stand—that the ice has finally given way. With luck a couple of classic titles may flounder for awhile, but the bulk of them seem to be plunging unceremoniously to depths from which only the most intrepid of future anglers might dredge them. Yes, the classics are pretty much gone. I’m taking it hard.
Try finding a classic fly fishing book on the shelf of a fly shop or bookstore today. It’s damn near impossible. Explanations for their absence run to: “They don’t sell.” “No one is interested.” “No one has time to read anymore.” “Old information.” “It’s all on the Internet.” Finding even a single fly shop employee or guide that has read a classic pretty much requires advanced detective skills. If any of those employees and guides are younger than thirty-five, it’s all the more unlikely. But it’s not only the folks that work in the fishing business. Anglers of all ages and stripes have been eschewing the classics for some time.
I can think of several reasons why we shouldn’t. As in any genre of writing, the classics of fly fishing represent the best of what has been thought and said about the subject. The ideas contained in them have proven value; they are good enough to believe in. The essential truths contained in the classics are the very ones by which we profitably fish today—whether we know it or not. It’s that simple. No disrespect towards current authors, but those who penned the classics were more knowledgeable, more thoughtful, more articulate. They showed us the way, and did it beautifully.
Along with the technical insights the classics furnish us, they offer something else of at least equal value, at least to my way of thinking. They provide the philosophical foundations by which we define our engagement with the sport. That is to say, in addition to showing us how to catch fish, they also present systems of values and beliefs by which we can fish. Values and beliefs that have proven meaningful enough over the long term to serve as templates for entire angling careers (mine included).
Here are three suggestions, with a brief excerpt from each:
Nymph Fishing for Chalkstream Trout, by G.E.M. Skues (1939).
Here’s Skues, laying out the very concept of nymph fishing:
In this work then nymph fishing must, please, be understood to mean the art of taking trout or grayling at or under the surface with an artificial pattern credibly representing in colour, dimensions and outline a natural nymph of a type being accepted by trout and grayling on the stream which is being fished, and designed to be taken by the fish as such, and presenting such patterns to the trout in conditions to deceive them into believing them to be natural nymphs brought to them by the current.
A Modern Dry Fly Code, by Vincent Marinaro (1950).
Marinaro, on the theory of imitation:
The fly-fisherman and flytier should remember above all that the artificial is nothing more than what is intended, an imitation. It can never be anything more than that, and if the trout can perceive a viable distinction between artificial and natural, as he probably does, it is a gift of law to which he is entitled. These reasons suggest that the proper approach to discover the requirements of the artificial should stem from considerations of practicality in dressing and in use, the appearance on the water from the trout’s point of view, and a careful review of the living insect itself, terrestrial and waterborne.
Matching the Hatch, by Ernie Schwiebert (1955).
Schwiebert, touching on topics that resonate even today:
Trout fishing at its best is a gentle art, both humbling and satisfying. Many who pursue it never see the subtle side at all, but those who do are never without rich memories and the deep satisfaction that comes with anything well done. … In these days of hard-fished waters, ethics and philosophy play an ever increasing role in our enjoyment, and to Father Walton’s measure of hope and patience let us add the spice called charity.
In short, the classics show us how we got to where we are today. They taught generations of anglers how to fish and how to think about fishing. Why shouldn’t they still? After all, knowledge of fish and fishing tactics is timeless; what worked back in the day still works now, oftentimes better than contemporary practices. In a world that seems to crave “authenticity” and “originality”, it makes little sense that we feed so eagerly today at the troughs of rehashed fishing thought. So if you’ve never read a fly fishing classic, consider doing it now—while a few remain afloat. I think you’ll be glad you did.