Circle of Life: Remembering Arnold Richardson and Norman Maclean

Do you love fly fishing for trout? Did you read Norman Maclean’s
A River Runs Through It or see the movie? Depending on who
you talk to, the book and the movie are either credited with, or
blamed for, increasing the popularity of fly fishing.

If you saw the movie, do you remember the older actor whose
hands shook when he tried to tie knots, who portrayed the fictional
Norman Maclean near the end of his life? His name was Arnold
Richardson, and he passed away recently, one more reminder that our
days along the banks of trout streams are not endless, that we
should all make time to fish more in 2011.

It was back in 1976, the year I graduated from high school, that
Maclean, an English professor who grew up in Montana, published
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Nick Lyons, who
at that time was still writing his famous The Seasonable
Angler column in Fly Fisherman magazine, called the book a
gem, which was high praise from the guy we all believed, so the
book went with me to college. Many years later, in a used book
store, I found an audio cassette for sale, The American Audio
Prose Library presents Norman Maclean Reading A River Runs Through
It (excerpts), and snatched it up. It’s still in great
condition, and gets run through a tape player every once in a

Norman Maclean passed away in August of 1990, in his suburban
Chicago home, at age 87. He grew up in Montana and, even after
moving to Chicago (where he taught English at the University of
Chicago from 1930 to 1973), the draw of Western trout currents
pulled his mind to the typewriter and essentially forced him to
produce this enduring work of literary fiction.

Arnold Richardson responded to a casting call in the Livingston,
Montana newspaper for the part of older Norman Maclean, and got the
part despite the fact that his hands shook when he tried to tie
knots. In the end, the fact that his hands shook makes the ending
of the movie what it is. In the end, these two men will forever be
tied by the draw of Western trout currents, because they are what
brought Richardson to Montana from Maine in retirement, where he
became a trout guide. I understand the draw. The area around
Livingston remains one of my favorite places on earth, my stomping
grounds after college graduation, when I lived, for months at a
time, out of the back of my truck.

And we can all see the forces at work in the final words of A
River Runs Through It:

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through
it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over
rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless
raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are

“I am haunted by waters.”

Now, both men are gone, but thank goodness they left us their
words. Thank goodness Norman Maclean was pestered by this story
enough that he took time to write it down, instead of letting the
words wash along under the rocks all by themselves.

As Doug Stange of In-Fisherman likes to say, old rocks don’t really
have anywhere to go. They will be there long after we are gone, so
it’s a good idea to visit them while you still have strength to
cast, and steady hand to tie your fly onto the tippet.


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