When anglers can’t fish, like when they’re sitting on a plane heading to the Keys to fish, they can at least read about fishing. And so, here are the best fishing books and stories to get you from one fishing hole to the next.
BY HERMAN MELVILLE
Yes, I’m serious. This is the greatest fishing story ever told. I know, whales are mammals, but stick with me here. Melville spent years on a whaling ship, toiling alongside men from around the world. Both are reflected in elaborate detail describing the whaling profession and the men professing it. The narrator, Ishmael, puts up with Captain Ahab—the fish-crazed captain who will stop at nothing until he catches that one fish. Sound like a fishing buddy you might know? I know the book is long, but if you buy a cheap copy and literally cut it into 100 page chunks, it makes it more manageable. It may take you a lifetime to read it, but try it anyway. Better save up for that first edition. They range up to $85,000. I wouldn’t suggest slicing that one up.
2. The River Why
BY DAVID JAMES DUNCAN
I admit that I fish with a spoon and spinning reel. And I like it! I’ve tried my hand at a six-weight, and would rather let a random dog lick peanut butter out of my mouth than spend any more time in the willows trying to untangle a $5 fly. But that’s not to say I don’t mind reading stories about fly-fishing, especially the ones by David James Duncan. The River Why follows Gus Orviston as he leaves home and comes of age on Oregon’s rivers. Duncan is able to weave in some politics, environmentalism and a whole lot fishing into a novel that should find its way to your vest when the fish aren’t biting. It was even made into a movie in 2010 starring no one you’ve ever heard of. First editions can be found for $1 and worth every penny.
3. A River Runs Through It
BY NORMAN MACLEAN
As a disclaimer, I live and play a stone’s throw from Montana’s Blackfoot River where Maclean set his classic tale. Maclean starting writing fiction near the end of a very full life, which is likely why so many love his novella that isn’t so much about fishing as it is about life—fishing just happens to make a nice backdrop. It’s a tale of family, written like poetry. For instance, Maclean writes, “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” In his younger years during WWI, Maclean worked in logging camps and for the Forest Service just south of Missoula, Montana. He then had a life of academia in the East and Midwest until he died in Chicago in 1990. A first edition will run around $200. An original dust-jacket will triple the price tag.
4. Old Man and the Sea
BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY
A product of Hemingway’s Cuba years, the Old Man and the Sea is Papa’s Moby Dick. Though still a classic, this story replaces a marlin for a whale, and a young apprentice for Ishmael. Even so, it is still a great fishing story and quite a bit shorter than Moby Dick. Sanitago is an ancient fisherman whose had a streak of bad luck. The village loses confidence in his abilities as a fisherman, and he finally braves the currents of the Gulf Stream. Here, he lands a marlin of epic size, struggles to land it and bring it home. “You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman,” Hemingway writes. “You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?” It’s quotes like this one that make Hemingway loved by fisherman and hunters alike. It’s possible to find a first edition on eBay for less than $100.
5. The Longest Silence
BY THOMAS MCGUANE
At times, McGuane’s life reads like a fiction novel. Hollywood affairs, wrecks in the Porsche, a number of failed marriages, successful screenplays with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando—and that’s not even why I’m writing about him. All the while, McGuane seemed to find time to wet a line. In 33 essays, McGuane takes us around the world pursuing fish and life. In a classic selection from the book’s namesake essay, he writes: “What is emphatic in angling is made so by the long silences—the unproductive periods. For the ardent fisherman, progress is towards the kinds of fishing that are never productive in the sense of the blood riots of the hunting-and-fishing periodicals. Their illusions of continuous action evoke for him, finally, a condition of utter, mortuary boredom.” First editions are cheap and easy to come by. Best to travel to Livingston, Montana, and fish the West Boulder River, hoping McGuane himself might walk by in his waders.
6. Trout Bum
BY JOHN GIERACH
A bum without any sort of qualifier like ‘ski’ or ‘fish’ is just a bum. One cannot just be a bum and be socially acceptable. No, to be a respected bum, one must have a past-time, a hobby. Enter the trout bum. I’ve known a few. They smell a bit off and tend to drink too much, but they pay their rent on time, in cash, and fork over a deposit for their black Lab typically named Selway or Bridger. Trout Bum is a collection of essays about all things trout. It’s a speedy read, written in flowing language that makes it a fine option to throw in the glove box for road trips. John Gierach has an uncanny ability to write down exactly what fisherman are thinking, even if they’ve never said it out loud. “The hatch is the Blue-winged Olive so common in the West,” he writes. “It’s a perfect emergence from the fly-fisher’s point of view: heavy enough to move all but the very largest of the trout but not so heavy that your pitiful imitation is lost in such a crowd of bugs that the surface of the stream seems fuzzy.”
7. Pale Morning Done
BY JEFF HULL
While most books on fishing are a collection of essays, this debut novel by Montana writer, Jeff Hull, gives us, dare I say it, a plot, characters and a story line. Not many of us have the luxury of inheriting our family’s ranch, but Hull’s protagonist, Marshall, does just that and with it, inherits a slough (get it?) of problems. David James Duncan, who is also on this list, had this to say about the novel: “Jeff Hull has taken a pack of noncommitting males and females, slackers, trustifarians, hustlers and bullies, armed them with boats and flyrods, unleashed them on my favorite waters, committed the cardinal sin of naming the waters, and turned this betrayal into one of the great fly fishing novels of our time.” I think the only edition is a first edition. You can pick one up for the price of a coffee.
8. Habit of Rivers
BY TED LEESON
Ask yourself, “Why do I fish?” Unless it pays the bills or feeds your belly every night, is there some other reason? Come up blank? Then let Ted Leeson help you explore your inner trout. But be warned. If you’re looking for an entertaining distraction with plot, characters and maybe even some resolution, you might want to look elsewhere. This here is a thinker. It’s a book about being out on rivers and what it means to be there. First editions are $10 and if you hang around the English Department at Oregon State University, you may even get him to sign it.