Mandatory classic fishing books for any serious angler
Complete with heat and potential for thunderstorms, a long summer weekend arrives in six days with the Fourth of July holiday. Yes, of course you’ll spend every waking moment in the great out-of-doors.
Or maybe you won’t. Maybe, like me, you’re laid up with a health ailment and have time for some summer reading. (In my case, it’s a broken clavicle and follow-up surgery that’s kept me from fly-casting or busting clays this June.) Maybe family or work commitments prevent you from hitting the woods and waters of the region this mid-summer holiday. Or maybe during summer vacations, you simply like to take advantage of the extra daylight and read some classic literature well into the evening.
Whatever the case, allow me to offer six great fishing books that anglers, and maybe even non-anglers, should read. They’re all relatively short, and you easily could knock several out during the forthcoming four-day weekend.
None are fishing technique books. There are a million of those, plus the pages of Outdoor News offer ample content for those looking to work on their angling prowess. No, these are books mostly about the natural history of fish, with a couple of selections focusing on moods and lifestyles that sport angling bestows upon those of us who’ve tackled it.
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
Until I read “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” I had no idea that Columbus didn’t discover the New World – Basque cod fishermen did. Mark Kurlansky’s 1998 biography of this amazing, tasty, and once plentiful saltwater species is more than 20 years old, but its warnings of overfishing and the consequences of lousy conservation practices resonates today. It’s a fascinating mix of biology and world history.
Read this one and you’ll never look at that chunk of North Atlantic cod in the Costco seafood section quite the same. And maybe you’ll bestow some new respect upon Minnesota’s own member of the cod family – the burbot or eelpout.
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Anyone who’s ever read a fly-fishing story in a non-fly-fishing publication has seen the phrase “haunted by the waters” ad nauseam. Understanding the author’s grief-stricken meaning in that frequently misappropriated phrase is one reason you should read “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.” It’s a popular semi-autobiographical collection of three stories by American author Norman Maclean a University of Chicago professor who passed in 1990.
It’s hard to picture this book and not think of “the movie” that motivated thousands of people to start fly-casting 27 years ago. As book-to-screen translations go, Robert Redford’s 1992 adaptation was pretty damn good, smoldering Brad Pitt and all, but any outdoorsman worth his salt still should read the book.
During a trip to Boston last summer, my family walked around Harvard for a couple of hours. (Aside, great quote from my wife: “I like St. Olaf’s campus better.”) We dropped into the campus book store where I bought my oldest son a used copy of Maclean’s legendary tome. It’d been decades since I’d read this memoir from 1976, and the family dynamics felt completely different to me today as the father of several nearly grown sons.
This ultimately is a book about family. In the late 1980s, I focused more on the fishing narrative and viewed it through the lens of young Norman while considering my relationship with my brother. Re-reading it recently, I thought of my own sons and felt tremendous empathy for the parents of Norman and Paul. Bottom line, if you’ve never read “A River Runs Through It,” do so. If you have, but it’s been a few decades, read it again.
Fishing For Buffalo
This book probably sold fewer copies than some of the others in this blog, but it’s a couple hundred pages of fishing awesomeness demanding that anglers show some respect for so-called roughfish, including bigmouth buffalo, hence the title.
Shawn Perich once told me he considered “Fishing For Buffalo” the best book on fishing, and he might be right. There’s some technique here, but this is mostly natural history of species like mooneye, gar, suckers, and even the invasive common carp. (Co-author Tom Dickson probably would call common carp naturalized, but I still think the only good North America carp is a dead one.)
Now the editor of the Montana Outdoors, the Montana Game and Fish Department’s magazine, Dickson formerly worked for the Minnesota DNR. (Coincidentally, I see the May-June 2019 cover photo of the magazine features a paddlefish, so Dickson’s roughfish biases still are hanging on!)
There’s some fun tongue-in-cheek humor in the book, too, like Dickson admiring his line class dogfish (bowfin) record or the Lindner-esque shots of co-author Rob Buffler exuberantly hoisting massive stringers of sheepshead (freshwater drum) or carp.
If you’ve ever wanted to learn anything about all roughfish swimming American waters, or just enjoy good writing, read “Fishing For Buffalo.”
The Founding Fish
Speaking of history, John McPhee explains how American shad influenced the early days of colonial America in his 2003 book, “The Founding Fish.” It’s been years since I cracked this one, but I recall it as an excellent read from a highly respected author.
Not to be confused with other species of shad, the American shad is found along the East Coast, so this Midwestern son has never fished for them. Nonetheless, they’re a fascinating part of America’s history. An anadromous fish, the shad spends most of its life in the Atlantic Ocean, but swims up freshwater rivers from the St. Lawrence to central Florida to spawn. The species has been described as “the fish that fed the nation’s founders.”
While fishing for the species himself, McPhee recounts the shad’s role in the lives of people like George Washington and Henry David Thoreau.
Many communities along the East Coast still host annual Shad Festivals. This book will make you want to visit one and eat a bunch of American shad while you’re there.
When I started working at Outdoor News in 1997, I didn’t have much serious cold-water fishing experience. Field Editor Shawn Perich found that damn irritating and borderline blasphemous that an outdoors writer (even a 26-year-old one) hadn’t read anything but Judge John Voelker.
Also known by his pen name Robert Traver, Voelker passed in 1991 and was a noted lawyer, author and fly fisherman from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He wrote nearly a dozen books, many about fishing, but he’s best known as the author of the 1958 best-selling novel, “Anatomy of a Murder,” which became an Academy Award-nominated film starring the late, great Jimmy Stewart.
Shortly after I came on board at Outdoor News, Perich sent me a copy of “Trout Madness,” which Voelker wrote in 1960 under the Travers pen name. It contains 21 stories from Voelker’s experience fishing rivers and streams near Ishpeming, Mich., and it’s great fun. Though you’ll pick up a few fishing tips along the way, this is mostly a book of funny anecdotes from mid-20th century trout fishing. His frustration and borderline disgust with new-fangled spinning reels is particularly humorous, and I chuckled frequently as he shared advice on how to keep a six-pack cold for his frequent imbibing breaks.
He also has a great quote about golf that I’ll poorly paraphrase here: I’m glad golf exists because it keeps masses of idiots away from the trout streams.
Among serious trout fishermen and people who revere classic American outdoors writing, John Voelker/Robert Travers commands absolute respect. If you want to begin to understand the glory days of either of those topics, read “Trout Madness.” You’ll enjoy yourself on the way.
An Entirely Synthetic Fish
Some more natural history here, this time from Anders Halverson, who wrote “An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World,” while a research associate at the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West.
In a vigorously documented 188 pages (I count 21 pages of notes and 33 pages of bibliography), Halverson explains how rainbow trout went from a cute little West Slope anadromous fish in the rivers and streams of northern California to the most geographically stocked fish species on the planet. From Lake Superior to Argentina, Germany to Australia, rainbow trout now exist in dozens of countries and every continent save Antarctica.
Chronicling from the 1800s through the 20th century, Anders explains the near-military level of operations that hatcheries and fish departments, state and federal, implemented to spread this species around the United States (then beyond) to provide recreation for the young nation.
From the book’s liner notes: “Suppose that, more than a century ago, U.S. government officials became concerned that democracy itself was at risk because men seemed to be less virile. And to reverse this trend they decided to populate rivers, lakes, and streams with ‘an entirely synthetic’ fish – quarry that would allow Americans to rediscover their abilities to capture and kill animals. And suppose that, up to the present, these creatures were still being produced and distributed on a massive scale, sometimes even being trained like gladiators and pumped full of the same supplements as professional athletes so they would provide a better fight.
“Such is the story of the rainbow trout.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this book from 2010, and I think it’s required for anyone who loves fishing. Reading it helped me understand that there’s a story and history behind almost every sportfish we catch. It’s not an accident when we catch a rainbow trout, just like it’s no an accident when we catch a muskie, steelhead (wink, wink), smallmouth bass in many places, and even the venerable walleye.
So there you go, six books on fishing to keep you busy next weekend. Happy Fourth of July to all.