Tapply's Gone Fishin'

Tapply's Gone Fishin'

Plus, Alaskan angling; and a guide to coastal cutthroats

  • By: Seth Norman
I was too many pages into a work by an unfamiliar writer when he finally described a fly-fishing process, apparently to educate readers. Suspicious already, I expected thin gruel. What I got was gray water. Don't read me wrong: I find the "How I Got I Hooked" story occasionally entertaining, a la I Don't Know Why I Swallowed the Fly; and some people who pick up fly-fishing when they're good and gray proceed with such commitment that soon they're sage. But if an author aims at the market of devotees and pretends to be one, however modest his skills, and if by "devoted" he means fishing twice a year while learning enough about the sport to fit into a thimble, leaving room for your thumb… He might leave readers, and reviewers, a little bit cranky. Gone Fishin' By William G. Tapply Illustrations by Barry Glickman (The Lyons Press: 2004; 888-249-7586; www.lyonspress.com) 184 pp.; hardcover; $22.95 This book's an antidote to such pale efforts. Fortunately for me, William Tapply's Gone Fishin' was next up on my pile, a collection that identifies in "Acknowledgements" those qualities the author appreciates in outdoor writers: storytellers who are "humble," "funny," aim for "clarity and brevity," won't "settle for mediocrity," and "make it look easy." You might expect that the son of "Tap's Tips" Tapply-a brilliant innovator, author and student of the sport-would learn to fish soon after starting on solid food. That's almost true; but here's how W. Tapply frames that relationship in his "Prologue:" "I was uniquely lucky to grow up with a fishing writer for a father. Or maybe he was a writing fisherman. He was very good at both, and even better at fatherhood." Pages later, in "First Principles," we learn how this famous father let the angler-as-a-young-man find his own way, gently-sometimes mysteriously-nurturing an obsession the son found for himself while wandering woods and water. Appropriately enough, in several of the essays that follow we discover what fly-fishing does and does not mean to the author's own spawn, and how this dad handles that. Elsewhere Tapply describes the flies he would pick, if offered only a few; about that moment when a float plane leaves you in the wilderness, excited and perhaps a little frightened; and the lessons taught by spooky brookies on a tiny stream. A meal, Gone Fishin' is. Comfort food and fine conversation-the kind of book Tapply himself might pack and re-read on a trip, as is his habit; and to which I might return, next time a dose of gray water makes me cranky. Top Water: Fly-Fishing Alaska, The Last Frontier Troy Letherman and Tony Weaver (The Countryman Press: 2004; 800-233-4830; www.countrymanpress.com) 294 pp.; hardcover; $49.95 As a boy I was much interested in a pair of leather-bound tomes, Volumes II and III of a set modestly titled The History of the World. Early on I suspected that-even with Volume I -these didn't contain quite the whole story; still, I appreciated an illustration of a magnificently tattooed Assyrian warrior that almost prepared me for the inked-and-pierced waiter who warmed my coffee last week. I remembered said History during the 2004 Ennis-on-the-Madison Fly-Fishing Festival, while talking with a new acquaintance at the Silver Dollar Bar and Grill. Somewhere between Bob Jacklin's presentation on Yellowstone Park and Ted Leeson's incendiary discussion of what fish really think of flies, Troy Letherman admitted he was awaiting delivery on a book he'd co-authored with Tony Weaver, constructed as a "comprehensive" overview of fly-fishing in Alaska. "Comprehensive," I said slowly, trying not to let my eyebrows wander while silently wondering, Are we talking Volume I? Because it seems like the research for that would be a career. So it is, more or less: As editor of Fish Alaska Magazine, Letherman has spent years justifying the subtitle of Top Water: Fly-Fishing Alaska, the Last Frontier. As is important to a project this size, the authors know a host of sources-fishing and fisheries experts who contributed vital parts to a substantial whole. Six of the latter show up in "Acknowledgements," along with credits to the dozen-plus photographers whose work makes Top a visual feast. "Three million lakes, three thousand rivers, and innumerable small streams: Water is not in short supply in the Great Land." Obviously not; so Top Water is obviously not a mile-by-mile guide. Instead, the authors organize their approach by species-a chapter each on steelhead, chinook, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon, rainbow trout, lake trout, arctic char and Dolly Varden, grayling, then "Alaska's Regional and Saltwater Species." Each begins with a surprisingly extensive description of biology and life cycles-material I found especially interesting when revealing how familiar fish adapted to far-northern climes. From there we move into the exigencies of fly-fishing-concrete and detailed information on gear, flies and "angling strategies" illustrated with some excellent diagrams. Maps highlight likely venues, and there's a serious effort to help anglers improve their odds when timing runs to select venues, often the greatest of Alaska trip gambles. That brings up another point: By now most fishers have heard about or experienced Alaska trips where crowds create conditions less than stellar, and too many fish-big rainbows, for example-show scars revealing how often others have hooked up before us. Such stories suggest the antithesis of a frontier experience. But the authors disdain claims that "Alaska is fished out," often "uttered by those trying to sell high-dollar expeditions to Kamchatka or those whose annual Alaska angling never extended beyond the Brooks River, the Kenai or lower Talarik Creek. No one with much experience in the Last Frontier would ever commit verbal incontinence." Indeed, the most salient theme in Top Water is that fishers who plan and prepare can find exactly the kind of adventure "Alaska" brings to mind: "Immaculate, pristine country-perfect for the angler looking to sample some of the last truly wild fisheries on earth." Fly-Fishing Coastal Cutthroat Trout By Les Johnson (Frank Amato Publications: 2004; 800-541-9498; www.amatobooks.com) 144 pp.; softcover; $29.95 West Coast anglers of sea-run cutthroats tend to whisper and hide. For good reason: Their fisheries are fragile, where they still exist; and the fish themselves so slow to mature-and often so willing to eat steel-that it's easy to imagine them following other species into oblivion. But here's the rub: Who's to protest when cutthroat populations decline, if nobody knows they're there? If Les Johnson's How to Fish for Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout has been this cult's Bible for 30 years, then Coastal is likely to become the faithfuls' newer testament. Old timers will find Johnson has added valuable information, and newcomers will discover an invaluable primer. But while major salt- and sweetwater systems get their due, nobody should expect detailed maps. On the other hand, if you would seek solitude on a sound's cobbled beach, there sometimes to cast dry flies onto salt water…if you are willing to hike past river banks bristling with salmon killers, then slip stealthily into a lonely slough…or would wander in misty forests hoping to hook a trout turned chrome or gold… Start here. Whisper, and hide.