I’m not sure what it is about fly fishing that’s made it such fertile ground for reading and writing, but there’s something there, just beneath the water’s glassy surface.
Despite fly fishing participation representing a small slice of the larger hunting and fishing world, books written about the pursuit own an outsized space in the world of sporting literature. Is it that a certain literary type has the predisposition to enjoy fly fishing? Or are the locales, fish, and almost meditative motions of the cast simply tailor-made for the written word?
I don’t have the answer. Nor do most who search for fish with fly and rod. Those who enjoy good fishing and good writing are alike in that way. Both seeking something rare and beautiful, hard to put a finger on yet immediately recognizable. Something that will transport you, body and mind and soul, away from whatever ails you. I can’t help with good fishing right now, but I can play the role of guide to a good read—the five books I’ve recommended below being the best offering I can lightly set before you.
So step into these waters with me and read on.
John Gierach is the modern king of fly fishing literature. And while “Trout Bum” might be Gierach’s most famous book, if I’m picking just one of his fourteen published works, this is it. Unique compared to his other books, this title documents one single year in John’s fishing life from beginning to end. From a late winter trip to fish prairie trout-stocked lakes in Wyoming, to a high country Colorado adventure for grayling and plenty more in between. Gierach reflects on everything from the surprising allure of carp fishing to the West’s legendary Green Drake hatch to the appeal of a fishing journal, this is one of the best examinations and illustrations of the fishing life I’ve seen to date.
Gierach pretty well sums up what separates him from the rest of the fishing pack when he writes in this book, “my standard recollection of fishing is made up of the emotion 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 tattered shreds of what actually happened.”
Read this book and all the rest of his library. You won’t regret it.
A newer entry into the fly fishing catalog, Coggins’ “The Optimist” details a series of pivotal moments in his fly fishing life, from early memories (and mistakes) made in locations like Wisconsin or Montana, all the way to bucket-list trips to far-flung locales like Patagonia or the Bahamas. A Gierach trout bum Coggins is not, as he celebrates and indulges in the finer things in life like expensive wines and New York fashion—a fact I thought would turn me off from his writing. But I found Coggins’ stories relatable, compelling, and exuding a certain central truth that all good outdoor writing must. For example, and in conclusion, who can’t relate to this?
“I admit my fishing desire can be so intense I don’t like to describe it to the unaffiliated. I don’t want other people to know, and perhaps I don't want to admit to myself, just how much I think about fishing. There's something slightly suspicious about this devotion, like a weakness for absinthe, an eccentric habit that should be tempered before it turns into a depraved addiction. Too much fishing—and too much absinthe for that matter—can leave you with an overgrown beard, far from home, raving about the fate of the world. It’s like I’m part of a disreputable cult known to have suspect views about the creation of the universe. But now I’m a true believer.”
Nick Lyons, another literary legend in the fishing (and publishing) world, created in “Spring Creek,” one of the most powerful and alluring pieces ever composed about a single small piece of water. Detailing a series of visits to a single small spring creek in Montana, on a ranch owned by a friend, Lyons explores a fisherman’s trials and tribulations, learning a new locale and its monstrous but elusive brown trout, while simultaneously falling in love with all that surrounds it. If you want to be transported from the frigid prison of some northern winter metropolis smack dab into one of the most beautiful fishing scenes you could ever imagine, pick this up 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 vivid in my mind, with vignettes of a particular day or hour or event just diamond-sharp in my memory. I don’t want to go back. I could not possibly go back. I don’t want to compare. I have no trouble keeping it all alive, these days when so much of what one was, what once was, is slipping downstream. I’m just full of gratitude to this thing inside me, this creek—the long hours I spent there, the lessons learned, the good fun, the matchless experience of it all. Learning the creek was a metaphor for all the learning I have ever done.”
A new favorite of mine and much fresher to the scene than either Lyons or Gierach, John Greenberg’s second publication, “Trout Water,” has quickly found a front-row seat on my bookshelf. This title details a single year on Greenberg’s home water, the famed Au Sable River of Northern Michigan, as he navigates its tannin-stained, sandy-bottomed waters and the surrounding cedar swamps as a fly shop owner, guide, angler, and father.
“Trout Water” resonated with me especially due to Greenberg and my shared stage in life as young fathers and all that comes with trying to raise intrepid young fishermen. Beautifully written, tenderly considered, and full of good fishing fun. This book will become a fast favorite for many.
“I try to examine life,” Greenberg writes. “But not fishing or hunting, which I love. It is not an addiction. The examined life is preferred, but it’s dangerous to examine love.”
No fly fishing book list could possibly 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 assemblage 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 one solely fishing-focused, non-fiction book, and it stands as one of the all-time greats. Comprised of a series of essays documenting fishing exploits all across the world, McGuane brings an eye to detail and a sense of beauty to his writing that rings as both spot-on-true and larger than life. From the small rivers of Michigan to Ireland, Key West, Russia, and beyond, this book takes you on a life-list journey of fishing dream destinations while simultaneously grounding you in the simple essence of why we fish.
Famously, McGuane writes, “what is most emphatic in angling is made so by 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 from the icy stupor and once again fill your imagination with the sights and sounds of the well-lived fishing life.