So far this winter has seen me sick twice and fishing not even once. Being sick does provide ample time for reading, and, me being an avid reader, I’ve managed to read several books in the last couple weeks. I’ve been on a “classic” angling kick, and I’ve picked up books by Robert Traver and Sparse Grey Hackle. These books are true gems, and I highly recommend them. A minor obstacle presents itself immediately when you find that most of these books are no longer in print. Minor because there is, luckily, a thriving used book market easily accessible via the internet. I buy most of my second-hand books through Amazon Marketplace, and, although it lacks that peculiar excitement of digging through the musty collections at used book shops, it is quick and efficient, especially for those suffering from an unfortunate shortage of local used book shops. Often you are actually supporting used book shops who have placed their collections for sale on the net to supplement their “brick and mortar” business.
The three books I’ve read recently are Trout Madness and Trout Magic by Robert Traver and Fishless Days, Angling Nights by Sparse Grey Hackle. All of these books are throwbacks to a bygone era of fly fishing. Among these pages you will find Model A Fords named Buckshot, split bamboo rods in use because that’s all there was, silk lines, Catskill dries, and a prose infused with a wit and humility sadly absent from that of most modern fly fishing writers. Most refreshing is a preference for the intangible aspects of the sport over mere technical procedures. Reading these books, you will most definitely learn a bit about fishing, but learning to fish is secondary to the experience of fishing, of simply being in the outdoors, and of good times with friends. These books express the spirit of why I enjoy fly fishing.
Robert Traver is the pen name of John Voelker, a lawyer and writer from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After the success of his novel Anatomy of a Murder, Traver was able to pursue fishing practically full time. The inside cover of the book says he fished nearly every day of the season. And what did he fish for? Native brook trout were his favorite quarry (despite what you might find on the covers of his books), although he does mention rainbows and browns occasionally. The native game fish of TVangler’s locale, the largemouth bass, ranked rather low on Traver’s scale, but we’ll forgive him this one heresy. One look at a native brookie brings understanding if not acceptance of Traver’s view.
The UP of Michigan is such a part of Traver’s writing that it’s almost a character in itself. Almost certainly each story will feature one or more of the following: an eccentric character of Finnish descent, a swampy north woods beaver pond or a pile of big native brookies probably caught by someone other than Traver. Traver loved his chosen locale, and seemed little tempted to seek other waters, unless it happened to be a rumored beaver pond just across the county line. He believed the UP was an outdoorsman’s paradise, and a taste of that paradise tingles the senses while reading Traver’s wonderful stories. His talent for turning a clever phrase is profoundly admirable. I can’t even begin to list all my favorite Traver essays. I will leave it to you to discover the pleasure of reading them on your own, and will spare you and Traver the disgrace of paraphrasing them here. Make sure to pick up both Trout Madness and Trout Magic and add them to your angling collection.
Sparse Grey Hackle, pen name of Alfred W. Miller, seems the consummate Catskill fly fisherman. His stories take place in New York State. He appears as quite a comical character, but, just when you’re ready for the next elaborate joke, he hits you with something deeply moving. An excellent example of the former is “Who is Sparse Grey Hackle?” which had me laughing out loud while my colleagues had supposed me to be working (well, maybe they knew I wasn’t working). A fine taste of the latter can be had in”A Drink of Water” or “Certain Boys.” You’ll even find near scholarly work in “The Quest for Theodore Gordon.” This book contains some of the finest outdoor writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading. If you read Fly Rod & Reel regularly, you’ll recognize the excellent essay “The Perfect Angler” which was recently reprinted in that magazine.
Another thing you’ll quickly notice is how neither author gets too serious about legally killing a fish now and then. To them, one of the goals is to catch a fresh supper. It seems to me that’s how fishing still should be.
I encourage you to pick up these old classics between mad fly tying sessions or even madder winter fly fishing trips. We shouldn’t let them be forgotten. I’m not finished with my own classic kick. The next author on my list is Roderick Haig-Brown. Plus I still have that classically-styled rod to build. I’m leaning toward a low modulus graphite (still can’t afford cane) as opposed to a fiberglass blank, mainly because I can more easily fit its diameter with a classic nickel silver reel seat by Bellinger. I’ve found some very pretty (for graphite at least) translucent brown blanks that I think will look classically cool with brown or burgundy silk wraps trimmed in copper. Top it off with a jasper agate stripper (stop laughing, Matt) and silk line, and I’ll be well on my way to starting some sort of modern/classic crossover revolution. Or maybe I’ll just look like another crazy fisherman, which is just as well with me. Take care and good reading,