“Literary Treasures” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Bill Tapply fishes one of his beloved Montana spring creeks.
Photo via williamgtapply.com

[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below. Many of the books in Bill’s list here are out of print, but it is well worth your time to run down copies, which can usually be found online. I’ve included links to the Amazon pages for each book. ]

“The literature of angling falls into two genres: the instructional and the devotional,” wrote William Humphrey in his satirical little novel My Moby Dick. “The former is written by fishermen who write, the latter by writers who fish.”

In the novel, Humphrey’s narrator, Bill, fails to find a fishing book that is both literate and instructive. Bill concludes that fishermen cannot write and writers cannot fish. It is a harsh commentary on the literature of angling.

No human activity other than sex and murder has spawned more books than fishing. Many of them seem to bear out the truth of Humphrey’s observation. Luckily for those of us who love both fishing and reading, he exaggerated.

* * *

The last thing I throw into my carry-on bag when I’m off for a week of fishing is a book. It goes in last because I want it on top when I go rummaging for it. Also because the right book for a fishing trip is as important and difficult to choose as an emerger pattern for a spring-creek sulfur hatch.

I have stacks of unread fishing books, and if one of them should happen to written by John Gierach, Nick Lyons, Will Ryan, James Babb, Cliff Hauptman, or a few other writers whom I trust, I’ll bring it on a trip, confident that I won’t be disappointed. Usually, however, I devour those guys’ books as soon as I get them, so they’re rarely in my unread stack.

I never pack a book I haven’t already read. Like the trout I love to fish for, I’m selective. Any old book won’t do for that important half-hour before I turn out the light at night or when I find myself riding out a storm in a cabin on a remote lake or in some grungy motel room. Spending time with a book I’ve never read is like inviting a woman I’ve never met to spend a week in a canoe with me. It might turn out well, but the odds are against it.

The fishing books that make it into my duffel bag are those that have already become my friends. I know I can count on them not to bore or irritate me.

Here, in no particular order, are the angling books that I keep packing with me for trips. I don’t claim that these are the best books. I don’t know what best means. But I do know entertaining writing and challenging thinking when I meet them. These are books that I have read many times with undiminished pleasure and interest, and I’m not done with them yet:

The Philosophical Fisherman by Harold F. Blaisdell (1969). It’s dedicated “To all those sensible people who think fishing is ridiculous.” That’s a clue. I read this book for the first time when Blaisdell gave it to me the year it was published. Now it’s tattered and dogeared, and its pages are spattered with the question marks and exclamation points I’ve penciled on them over the years. It’s one of those books that never fails to get my imagination whirling. It raises hard questions–about why fish strike or don’t strike, and, most perplexing, why we anglers think and behave the way we do. No matter how many times Blaisdell poses these questions, I find I still don’t have pat answers.

A Modern Dry Fly Code by Vincent C. Marinaro (1950). The word revolutionary is overused, but in the case of this book, it’s on target. Code is about the discoveries that led to a revolution in dry-fly fishing for trout. Specifically, Marinaro figured out that trout eat midges and terrestrial insects and other “minutiae” and how the angler, knowing this, might catch these difficult fish. Marinaro spent his life on the banks of the LeTort, the Pennsylvania limestone stream that he and Charlie Fox made famous. The LeTort was Marinaro’s laboratory. He studied the stream’s fussy trout–what they ate, what they refused to eat, how they behaved–and he wrote about what he observed. Everything we know today about fooling selective trout on slow-moving water with wispy tippets and tiny flies began here. Now, half a century later, nothing in this book is outdated. Best of all, for that half hour before the light goes out, it reads like a well-crafted story, with all the puzzles and clues and red herrings and dead ends and suspicious characters of a page-turning mystery.

What the Trout Said by Datus Proper (1982). This is another legitimately revolutionary book about trout flies–especially dry flies. “Angling books traditionally emphasize fly patterns,” says Proper. “That is one reason why this one does the opposite and focuses on fly designs.” The power of Proper’s logic forces you to shift your entire understanding–the way Copernicus made us see the solar system and our place in it in a radically new way. Besides a wealth of eye-opening eavesdropping into what trout have to say about flies and insects, there’s a lot of history and entomology and technical stuff here. But Datus Proper is such an engaging narrator that the book reads like a conversation.

American Fly Fishing: A History by Paul Schullery (1987). Schullery says, “Calling fishing a hobby is like calling brain surgery a job.” He is a writer who can fish and a fisherman who can write. He understands the passion. He’s also a damn good historian. This book is full of lore that only Paul Schullery, who served as the executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing and has been honored both as an historian and as a writer, could have written. It’s a book of anecdotes and personalities and delicious tidbits of information–narrative history at its most compelling.

Spring Creek by Nick Lyons (1992). Once upon a time, Nick Lyons found himself with a solid month to do nothing but fish in a heavenly Montana spring creek. It was full of big, selective trout, and the man who owned it chased away all trespassers. So Nick had it to himself. “I soon realized,” he wrote, “that Spring Creek was the most interesting river I had ever fished or could imagine; and I learned that it was loaded with secrets that would take exceptional skill to learn.” This book is about the creek and its fish and insects and the secrets it harbored. But it’s mainly about the fisherman himself. Nick makes mistakes, he tries and errs, and slowly and painfully, he learns. Nick Lyons, above all, reminds us of ourselves. Okay, any Nick Lyons book is good company, but Spring Creek is my favorite.

The Dognose Chronicles by Cliff Hauptman (1997). I’ve read Dognose several times, and I can honestly say that I haven’t learned a damn thing from it. For all I know, it’s full of arcane lore and valuable angling tips, but I’ve always been too busy smiling and shaking my head at the clever puns and poems, admiring the dead-on narrative voice, and cringing at the biting satire to notice. Hauptman nails pretension wherever he finds it–fly fishermen, outdoor writers, magazine editors, literary pretenders, philosophers, guides, women, men, God … no one escapes. I know he gets me good. Dognose is a laugh-out-loud book that seems to get funnier every time I read it.

My Moby Dick by William Humphrey (1978). With apologies to Ernest Hemingway, and despite my quarrel with Humphrey’s generalization about fishing literature, this one is the best fishing novels ever written. Herman Melville’s might have qualified, except for the fact that a whale is a mammal. But if the white whale had been a trout … a very large trout living in a very small stream … and if a man became possessed with the idea of catching that trout–then you’d have Humphrey’s story. My Moby Dick is at once a wry parody and a sharp commentary on the angling obsession. Every time I read it I find something new to ponder. That’s the kind of book that keeps coming on trips with me.

* * *

Humphrey, of course, was wrong. The literature of fly fishing is rich with good books, and his is one of them. But there are few great ones. Not many books on any subject can be read over and over with undiminished pleasure every time. On the subject of fishing, I’ve found just these seven. They are my trip books. Knowing I have a companionable old friend with me gives me something to look forward to besides the fishing. That is my definition of a great fishing book.

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply:

They’re available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc. 

5 thoughts on ““Literary Treasures” by William G. Tapply”

  1. Pingback: Tippets: Tying a Clinch Knot, Literary Treasures, Support Wild Fish in Washington | MidCurrent
  2. For me it would be either Thomas McGuane’s “The Longest Silence”, “Full Creel” by Nick Lyons, or anything by John Gierach. With Gierach’s “All Fisherman Are Liars” and “Fools Paradise among my favorites.

  3. I highly recommend abebooks.com for out-of-print books. I plugged in the info for My Moby Dick and found multiple copies.

  4. “Men’s Lives” by Peter Matthiessen, and “Striper” by John Cole. The reader yearns for a means to tune into the on-deck conversation when these two authors partnered in a commercial fishing venture on Long Island.

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