Archive for the ‘Fly Fishing Literature’ Category

James Waller Hills, Angling Literature, and Britain’s Election

June 7, 2017

The Medlar Press, based in England, publishes very high quality fly fishing and other field sports related titles. Their authors–some new and some long famous–offer perspectives upon these activities that incorporate attitudes ranging from the spiritual to the practical.  On their Facebook page, Medlar considers the United Kingdom’s general election, taking place tomorrow, in light England’s political climate in 1906. “This was a time,” Medlar writes, “when politicians were fishermen and authors of fishing books.” One of those politicians was John Waller Hills (1867-1938). Medlar publishes one of Hills’ classics, A Summer on the Test (originally published in 1921). Read Medlar’s full post below (their pictures are included).

Tomorrow’s election is likely to be a significant one for Britain, and over 100 years ago, in 1906, there was another such election. This was a time when politicians were fishermen and authors of fishing books: John Waller Hills (author of what is widely regarded as one of the best fly fishing books of all time ‘A Summer on the Test’) stood as a Liberal Unionist for Durham (and became an MP) and Sir Edward Grey (author of another great fishing classic ‘Fly Fishing’), as a Liberal for Berwick-upon-Tweed. In 1906 the Liberal victory (with Henry Campbell-Bannerman at the helm), ended years of Conservative government during which the party had become divided and Chamberlain had advocated protectionism and an end to free trade (which many argued would lead to higher prices). Instead of ‘Brexit’ there was talk of the Tory ‘little loaf’ (i.e. because more expensive) and the Liberal ‘big loaf’. The Conservative leader, Balfour, had resigned in late 1905, thinking that the Liberals would argue amongst themselves and lose the election. He miscalculated – in a landslide win, the Liberals took 400 seats. The new progressive thinking of the Liberal Campbell-Bannermann government resulted in many reforms which we now consider part of the welfare state – minimum wages, old age pensions, national insurance etc.

Are there any fishermen or fishing authors standing for election tomorrow? Chances are, if there were, you’d vote for them, especially if they could write like this:

‘At last there was a movement under my bank: it might be a rat, but let us try my dark olive quill; its size was 0, and my gut 3x. The first cast was swept wide by the wind, but at the second there was a confident rise and a good fish careered downstream. The river was fairly clear of weed, the current ran full and strong, and after a merry fight I netted a fat fish, not two pounds in weight it is true, but well over the pound and a half limit. I walked up, and suddenly, without preparation, unexpected and wonderful as it always is, however often you see it, the real hatch started. Olives were coming down thick, in little bands of half a dozen or so, blown together by the wind, and trout were rising quietly and quickly and continuously, all up the river, three or four of them within reach, and good fish too. There is a quality of magic about these early spring rises. The river looks dead and lifeless, and this impression is heightened by the bare meadows and the leafless trees. The stream runs with a dull lead-like surface, which nothing disturbs and apparently nothing ever will disturb. You expect a rise and it does not come, and then suddenly, when you have given up expecting, trout start moving simultaneously as though the signal had been passed round. At one moment you see fly after fly sailing down untaken, and you think nothing will ever break the unbroken surface: at the next the river is alive with rings of rising fish. It has come to life, and the sturdy vital trout, which a moment ago were hidden so completely that you doubted their existence, have mysteriously reappeared. I crawled to the bank, knelt down and watched. There were five fish within reach, and I looked eagerly to see which was the best. This period of expectation, when fish are well on the feed, is one of unmixed happiness. When action begins, when you have to cast, you may put the trout down, or you may break, or make some other dreadful bungle: but in the stage of exciting anticipation, when you see that great trout are to be caught if you can catch them, any extravagant success is possible and your pleasure is unalloyed.’ – from ‘A Summer on the Test’ by John Waller Hills.


Fly Fishing, en Vogue

June 2, 2017

Vogue Magazine recently featured an article on fly fishing in its “Living” section at The article, authored by Etta Meyer, is titled “Fly Fishing through India’s Final Frontier.” For those of us who know Vogue only as a fashion oriented magazine, it seems odd to see such an article from them. However, the magazine and other periodicals published by Condé Nast provide coverage of many topics far removed from fashion and style. In fact, a glance at reveals article on politics, literature, film and more. The article by Meyer describes a trip the author made to India with her mother and some other women to fly fish for mahseer (Cyprinid fish belonging to the genus Tor).

Many fly fishers think of mahseer as one of the fish targeted by European colonialist fly fishers, in the era of the British Raj or Crown Rule in India. Indeed, the revered British tackle company, Hardy, manufactured numerous tools marketed specifically to those Europeans seeking these fish. A faint hint of the romantic attitude sometimes held by colonialists can be identified in Meyer’s piece. For instance, the reference to a “Final Frontier” in the title of her article–a title most likely assigned by an editor, to be fair–implies an attitude of discovery and conquest. This attitude toward the land traveled by Meyer and her companions is certainly not shared by those who actually live there. On the other hand, Myer highlights the fact that her guides and trip organizer, of The Himalayan Outback, are Indians themselves. She also writes respectfully of the many locals she meets. And, the truth is that a little romance may be an unavoidable result of the wonder that we all feel, when encountering new places and experiencing new things.  All in all, the short, well-written article is worth a read. You can find more of Meyer’s work at her website, ettadynamite.

Hardy advertisement, page 98 of The Mighty Mahseer and Other Fish; or Hints to Beginners on Indian Fishing (Madras: Higginbotham & Co., 1903) by Cecil Lang [Skene-Du]

While I don’t necessarily recommend it, you can find a more stereotypically Vogue take on fly fishing here. By following the link, you can read about a 2009 fishing-themed photo spread by photographer Tom Munro, that was featured Vogue China. The models wear leather fishing waders by Prada, among other things.

Photograph by Tom Munro. “Fishing Day,” Vogue China, October 2009.

Maclean Family Rods featured in Montana Fishing History Exhibit

March 27, 2017

The Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena, MT, currently features a special exhibit titled “Hooked: Fishing in Montana.” The exhibit is located in their hallway gallery and will run until early 2018. Items displayed in the survey of all sorts of fishing practices range from a mid-nineteenth century Nez Perce dugout canoe to fly fishing tackle. Among the latter are numerous items associated with Norman Maclean, author of beloved A River Runs Through It and other Stories (Chicago, 1976). These include a Granger “Champion” bamboo rod fished by Norman, as well as a Leonard rod fished by his father, the Reverend John Maclean. Anyone passionate about the history of what we now call Montana and, of course, anyone passionate about the history of fly fishing, will enjoy the exhibit.

Maclean Family Fly Rods

In general, the MHS Museum is excellent. Fishing aside, the museum is worth a visit for the exhibit of Charlie Russell (1864-1926) artwork, alone. Another exhibit “Neither Empty nor Unknown: Montana at the Time of Lewis and Clark” is also very well done. Notably, the representation of Indigenous peoples, coordinated with tribal representatives, is prominent.

“Indians Discovering Lewis and Clark” C.M. Russell, oil, 1896. Montana Historical Society MacKay Collection. Public Domain

Montana Books

March 13, 2017

Online magazine The Montana Mint published a list of recommended books about Montana recently. The post is titled “The Greatest Books Ever Written About Montana.” The claim implied in this title is quite a stretch, but they do recommend some wonderful books. Some of these I recommend to you, in turn.

Of course, you are already familiar with Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976). Maclean fans might also enjoy Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western World (1980), in which the author is nearly as poetic about the Montana landscape as Maclean. The Montana Mint lists several other Doig titles, as well.

The Big Sky, first edition data (fair use image, from Wikipedia)

Another worthwhile read is A.B. Guthrie, Jr’s The Big Sky (1947). This classic novel is a deeply engaging and sometimes disturbing fictional account of the mountain men, set during the first half of the 1800s. It left quite an impression upon me, as a young man. Its 1949 sequel, The Way West, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

For a Native American perspective upon the sort of Indian/white interactions described by Guthrie, read James Welch’s Fools Crow (1986). Welch was a Gros Ventre/Blackfeet author, who remains a looming figure in Native American literature. In Fools Crow, he tells the story of a fictionalized Piikani Blackfoot man. The story culminates with the 1870 Bear Creek (Marias River) Massacre, during which the US Army murdered approximately 200 Piikanis. Fools Crow does not mesh perfectly with Blackfoot oral histories, but it is a compelling book that certainly conveys Native emotions about such devastating events as that which occurred in 1870.

For the full list of books recommended by The Montana Mint, see their post.



2017 Hemingway Festival

January 28, 2017

The dates and schedule for the 2017 Hemingway Festival have been announced. The event, hosted by the University of Idaho, will take place on March 3 and 4 in Moscow, Idaho. The annual festival celebrates the work of the deeply talented, if sometimes controversial writer, as well as the latest recipient of the PEN/Hemingway Award. This year, the award was given to Ottessa Moshfegh, author of the acclaimed novel, Eileen. Hemingway, of course, needs no introduction to readers and anglers. But for more information about the festival held in his name, I refer you to last year’s post.

Yale acquires Haslinger Breviary

January 17, 2017

Recently, the American Museum of Fly Fishing  offered an update on the Haslinger Breviary, noting that it had been purchased by Yale University. This devotional book, which contains material on fly fishing dating to between 1452 and 1462, was first publicized last year by Magg Bros. Ltd of London. I wrote about it when it was in their possession.

Maggs Bros., Ltd

Maggs Bros., Ltd

The Breviary was later analyzed and discussed in great detail by experts Richard C. Hoffman and Peter Kidd. They published their work in the spring 2016 issue of The American Fly Fisher: Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing (wherein you will find the dates identified above). Hoffman is known in angling literature circles for his amazing book, Fisher’s Craft and Lettered Art: Tracts on Fishing from the End of the Middle Ages, and other writings.

Now that the book is owned by Yale, it will housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which reopened this last fall after renovations. The fact that this singular text has been acquired by a university rather than a private collector, is wonderful news.

The Shape of the Voyage

December 6, 2016


Cover Art by Russell Chatham, from 1989’s The Theory & Practice of Rivers and New Poems (Clark City Press).

Jim Harrison (1937-2016), of whom I have written before, published The Theory and Practice of Rivers (Winn Books) in 1986. He included the poem of the same name in a later collection, as well. Here, I offer an excerpt from that lengthy poem–the first two stanzas. They appeal to me on this wintry December day that provokes the same sort of self-reflection found in Harrison’s poem.

The Theory and Practice of Rivers

The rivers of my life:
moving looms of light,
anchored beneath the log
at night I can see the moon
up through the water
as shattered milk, the nudge
of fishes, belly and back
in turn grating against log
and bottom; and letting go, the current
lifts me up and out
into the dark, gathering motion,
drifting into an eddy
with a sideways swirl,
the sandbar cooler than the air:
to speak it clearly,
how the water goes
is how the earth is shaped.

It is not so much that I got
there from here, which is everyone’s
story: but the shape
of the voyage, how it pushed
outward in every direction
until it stopped:
roots of plants and trees,
certain coral heads,
photos of splintered lightning,
blood vessels,
the shapes of creeks and rivers.



Art, Friendship, and Dan Klein’s Flies

November 15, 2016

Dr. Dan Klein is a legendary Montana fly tier. A story that carries his legend transpired decades ago, but he was well known even before then. The story is recounted by Geoffrey Norman in a March 1982 Esquire article titled “The Sporting Art of Tying Flies.” In the article, Norman mentions numerous fly tiers of fame, but states that, of the flies he owns, he values Dr. Klein’s the most. He continues:

Klein’s hopper is what people in the trade call “imitative,” as opposed to “suggestive.” That is to say, it looks exactly like a grasshopper, right down to the eyes and antennae. The things are eerie, and they catch fish. Klein ties them from unorthodox materials–surgical tubing and things like that–but they are not sneered at by insiders. To the contrary, they are prized, and prized very highly. One of the best rodmakers in the country traded Klein a cane rod, made to Klein’s specifications, for five of those hoppers. If you cold persuade him to take your order, he would charge you a thousand dollars or more for building a rod like that. When they decided to trade, Klein and the rodmaker asked other fly-fishermen to establish the terms. Three celebrated anglers studied the problem and then calculated what was fair. 132.

The rodmaker mentioned by Norman is the late Gary Howells. His bamboo rods remain among the most acclaimed and obviously cost much more now than they did in 1982 (I see several listed for sale online at prices between two and three thousand dollars). The famous trade is recounted in greater detail by Joseph Beelart, Jr., in his 2013 biography of Howells, titled “Howells: The Bamboo Fly Rods & Fly Fishing History of Gary H. Howells” (Whitefish Press).

Klein's Hopper

Klein’s Hopper

Dr. Klein achieved his renown when he lived in Idaho and fished the Henry’s Fork regularly. In 1976, he and his family moved to Helena, Montana. His youngest daughter began second grade that year a bit late. I joined that same class just days earlier, having recently moved with my family from Dillon, Montana. We have been close friends ever since, sharing similar paths in life, personal views, and so on.

Dr. Klein’s daughter blessed me recently with the gift of a hopper tied by her father. The personal connection–a connection I do not have with the other collectible Montana flies I own, such as those tied by the amazing Jack Boehme–makes the fly particularly special. Like Norman, however, and like Howells and many others,  I also view the hopper as a genuine work of art. And I happen to believe we need more art in our lives right now, and the beauty art so often conveys, no matter how small and mundane that art may seem.

Dr. Klein and his flies, in Beelart's book.

Dr. Klein and his flies, as pictured in Beelart’s book.

Advice from Walton

November 14, 2016

Isaac Walton wrote and published The Compleat Angler in an England that bears some resemblance to the contemporary United States. The nation–and other parts of Great Britain–were ripped apart by division between what some might view as populists and somewhat more liberal (religiously, at least) “establishment” parties. In mid-seventeenth century England, this division was manifested in the bloody English Civil Wars.

For all its turmoil, America is not at war internally, but the division is great. Therefore, we might find useful wisdom in Walton’s work (obviously, an obsessed fly fisher such as myself would think so). To that end, I offer the following words from Walton to those who blindly support “ostentatious” leaders (and there are many of them). The spelling, style, and punctuation are Walton’s.

I would rather prove myself to be a Gentleman, by being learned and humble, valiant and inoffensive, virtuous and communicable, than by any fond ostentation of riches; or (wanting
these Vertues my self) boast that these were in my ancestors.

Isaac Walton, The Compleat Angler, or The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, 1st ed. (1653) 13.

Author and Cartoonist H.M. Bateman

September 30, 2016
The Last Trout. From The Tattler. Copyright H.M. Bateman Designs,

The Last Trout. From The Tattler. Copyright H.M. Bateman Designs,

The American Fly Fisher: the Journal of the American Museum of Flyfishing, just published an article by James D. Heckman on author and cartoonist H.M. Bateman. The London-based Bateman (1887-1970) was an avid angler, but he also satirized the upper class, with whom fly fishing was often associated in the 20th century.  Thus, his favorite pastime was also a subject for his cartoons. Heckmans’s biographical sketch and the cartoons accompanying it (such as the one above) are worth a read. You can access it here: And you can learn more about Bateman (and purchase prints) at the website of H.M. Bateman Designs Ltd.

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