Art Flick: Catskill Legend

A Rememberance of His Life and Times

Author: Rober Keckeissen

Published By: Clark City Press, 2014

Pages: 200 pp, hardcover

Price: $45

Go Set a Watchman aside, readers rarely receive insights to how and why a manuscript gets published. Many may imagine that if a work’s good enough, and the subject worthy, somebody, somewhere, will print and bind a book and send it out to the world.

That’s never been true. And in fly-fishing, it’s less likely now. Given the pressure on publishing houses today, few can afford to invest in works that don’t have immediate market appeal. Of the dozen smaller outfits that failed to put profit first in the 1990s and 2000s—these often run by literary patrons dedicated to producing books of consequence—most are now dormant or dead in the water, though many leave legacies of value.

Among the latter was Clark City Press, owned and run by Russ Chatham. While best known as a brilliant landscape artist and one of the word’s premier lithographers, many gray West Coast fishers first met Chatham in The Angler’s Coast or Dark Waters, there to be thrilled by essays about fishing, hunting and feasting in northern California and the Northwest. Brave, wild, wildly entertaining tales—of hunting chinook and steelhead in coastal rivers, peering through Pacific mists and cultivated smoke swirls; of chasing monster striped bass by moonlight, casting to boils beneath the Golden Gate . . . young bucks usually poor as church mice but fish- and friend-rich, eager to laugh, always half-mad with hunger for sensate pleasure.

You can write that stuff? we marveled. Somebody will publish it?

Chatham convinced us. Then, when success struck, he made it happen: Clark City’s imprimatur appeared on books by Steve Bodio, Jim Harrison, Rick Bass, Dan Gerber, Ed Lahey, Barry Gifford and Kathryn Marshall, among others.

And Chatham would have done more. This, from a 1998 interview at jacketmagazine.com, describing the origin of Clark City Press:

“ . . . one of the things that was an eye-opener for me was how many manuscripts came unsolicited to us; hundreds, if not thousands, many of which were eminently publishable. What that showed me was how many serious writers had nowhere to turn, they were scratching at every possible opportunity . . . particularly for younger people or people just starting out, it’s a very discouraging landscape to view.”

Ten years later Clark City Press drowned with Chatham’s fortunes. He reports this demise in the remarkable “Note From the Editor,” a story within a story that tells how Art Flick: Catskill Legend came to be. To tempt but not to spoil: Here’s Chatham, broke and half-broken—“scratching” like hell—who back in the halcyon days had fished with Bill Flick, dedicated son of legend Art . . . who’d asked Chatham to read a manuscript by Roger Keckeissen, an enormously literate but never published author, committed to championing Art in a biography that’s also a vignette of a place and era, and populated by characters who remain influential: the Darbees and Dettes, Ernie Schwiebert, Arnold Gingrich, Joe Brooks, Ray Bergman; and, especially, Field & Stream columnist Ray Camp.

West Coast fanatic Chatham wasn’t of Art’s time, nor a familiar of Catskill waters, nor Northeastern clans and fly-fishing royalty. “Having no particular interest in trout,” he’d never read Art Flick’s classic, The Streamside Guide, and at the prospect of perusing a novice writer’s first effort “ . . . silently groaned.”

Twenty pages into the manuscript Chatham’s seduced, however, first by Keckeissen’s writing, and then by the meticulously researched exploration of Flick, a shoe-salesman-turned-fishing-guide, later owner of the Westkill Tavern, fly designer, tier and winner of the Buz Buszek Award, de facto lord of the famed club named for his lodge, author of one of the most successful fly-fishing books in American history, and ferociously effective conservationist who early on fought agencies and industries with blunt common sense.

Also an enigma: Flick spent vast amounts of time collecting insect specimens for Preston Jennings, as Jennings compiled A Book of Trout Flies, and remained deferential to Jennings even when he dismissed Flick’s efforts and disparaged him. (As Ernie Schwiebert wrote in Streamside Guide’s Introduction, “Just because Preston Jennings ‘poisoned me’ on [The Streamside Guide], there’s no reason to go on nursing a grudge against it. It’s a major work and I’d be a fool to say otherwise.”)

But as dedicated to observation as Flick certainly was—as carefully as he observed, and identified important insects for a generation of others—he fished remarkably few patterns, primarily his own famous Red Quill and the Grey Fox Variant, (which he used to raise Atlantic salmon when guides could find none on streamers). He also angled relatively few waters for much of his life, first among these his beloved Schoharie Creek. To paraphrase what I remember of a Will Rogers’ aphorism, who might have channeled E.F. Schumacher. “Any fool can make something complicated; takes a genius to keep it simple.”

The same may be said of Flick’s life, suggests his biographer. Keckeissen got to know Flick while staying at his Westkill Tavern in the Catskill Mountains, where he was long a regular guest. The author wasn’t alone in his appreciation of the man and mentor: Flick made friends nearly fanatic in their loyalty, including Ray Camp, a sporting columnist for Field & Stream, who pleaded, prodded and blackmailed Flick into writing what would become The Streamside Guide. Ernie Schwiebert helped Camp’s efforts: “Art Flick did not want to write a book,” he insists in Streamside Guide’s Introduction. “For every argument he advanced against the project I had two in favor.”

More than 200,000 copies, that little book sold, thanks in part to the prescience of Nick Lyons, another Flick admirer. “I liked Art immensely. He was earthy, hearty, direct, a tall solid man devoted to fly-fishing, an expert tier of the half-dozen patterns he used, a man incapable of bullshit.”

Introduced to both icon and biographer, Chatham decided this was a work worth doing about a man who deserved to be remembered. That was “why” enough for Clark City Press.

Comes 2008. Catastrophe.

Comes 2014.

The “how” is another story. It’s in the book.

Subsequently, Art Flick never saw himself described so closely; neither did Schwiebert have the chance to contribute an Introduction, though I believe he would have approved of Nick Lyons’ remembrance.

And, sadly, author Roger Keckeissen died before his great effort appeared. But not—not—without hearing Russell Chatham promise that his book would be published, beautifully printed and presented. So it is, laid out with a reader’s margins, in a font and ink that are easy on the eyes.

Nothing is lost that’s so well remembered.

Seth Norman
About Seth Norman 12 Articles
Seth Norman lives in Washington State. He’s the Books columnist for Fly Rod& Reel, and has written a few of his own, including Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman/.

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