Angler of the Year: Ted Leeson

Angler of the Year: Ted Leeson

A writer who captures the spirit of why we fly-fish.

  • By: Jim Babb
Ted Leeson

Ted Leeson

When I first met Ted Leeson, in 1995 at the fly-fishing industry's annual trade show in Denver, I didn't know that over the coming years we would share many days of fishing and laughter from Oregon to Maine and lots of places in between. That we would become known in certain snarky circles as the"Tippet Brothers," and would perfect a relentless tag-team homage to our perpetual muses, Beavis and Butthead, that would annoy everyone but us. That he would write a tres-flattering foreword for my first book, Crosscurrents, and that without his encouragement and advice I probably wouldn't have written that book or any others. That Ted and his habitual co-conspirator Jim Schollmeyer would write the Fly Tier's Benchside Reference, a book so encyclopedic and accessible that almost everyone everywhere who wraps feathers around hooks would find it as indispensable as a vise or a bobbin. That the same team would produce The Benchside Introduction to Fly Tying, whoseunique split-page format and leave-no-threads-unwrapped instructions would make it far and away the best book for learning to tie well.

All I knew was that this Leeson guy had written a book about fly-fishing in Oregon called The Habit of Rivers, and that I hadn't needed those rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and The New York Times to recognize it as the most encompassing and eloquent fly-fishing manifesto in print, and that it wasn't yet another gaseous gush of self-congratulation or thigh-slapping faux-folksiness but a sophisticated personal essay of the first order, a personal essay from the school of (and in my editorial judgment ranked with) Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt, Thoreau, Thurber, White, Fisher, Berry, Dillard, Lopez-a Midwesternly modest yet intellectually impassioned effort to explain the unexplainable, to concentrate on the thing itself and only obliquely on himself, and therefore make it cellularly resonant for ourselves. If you know what I mean.

I didn't know that a dozen years later I would be asked to write an Angler of the Year profile of Ted for Fly Rod& Reel, although I can think of no angler more deserving. And I didn't know how difficult it would be to write about one of my closest friends without getting all sappy and gooey or reverting to our private language involving such cerebral Beavis-and-Buttheadian observations as"You're never gonna score," or"You said 'wood.' Uh, huh-huh-huh."

But if there's a little Huck Finn in all anglers then there's more than a little Tom Sawyer in all editors, so to help paint this particular fence I've enlisted the aid of other Friends Of Ted who wield pretty fair paintbrushes, including a man who has influenced modern fly-fishing, and certainly fly-fishing writing, more than anyone I can imagine, Nick Lyons:

"I saw an essay by Ted in Gray's [Sporting Journal] about the dry fly and thought it the most original piece of fly-fishing thinking and writing I'd seen from a contemporary. I didn't know much about him but [I] wrote and asked about a book. This grew into The Habit of Rivers, and I can't think of a book I published at the Lyons Press that I admired more. It was thoughtful, elusive, brilliant, quietly wise, and obviously grown from long and passionate experience.

"By happy chance, Ted and his wife, along with his brother and some friends, took a house on the Madison not a quarter mile from an old stone house we rented then. We fished a little spring creek near Sheridan together, and Odell, and drifted the Madison in Ted's McKenzie boat. He's a superb fly fisher and a wise and gentle friend. There is no cant about him, not a touch of the peacocking so prevalent in fly fishers who have achieved some prominence. He's superb company, and our talks ranged widely over literature, fly-fishing, practical matters and much more. He remains, and will be so for many years to come, one of the most remarkable, honest, quietly humorous, and brilliant of the modern fly fishers."

Readers of this magazine may know Leeson less as a gifted fly-fishing essayist than as the best reviewer of fly tackle there ever was. As Paul Guernsey wrote of Ted last year,"There is no one else in fly-fishing who approaches gear with Ted's combination of seriousness, objectivity, experience and thoroughness."

His resume as Tackle Reviewer Ueber Alles has roots both genetic and academic: his father was an engineer; his brother, Greg, designs exotic secret optical thingies; he's a graduate of Marquette University with a bachelor's in physics and a bachelor's in English (Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude). Ted was offered a National Science Foundation fellowship to do graduate work in physics but opted instead to minimize his future earnings potential with a master's and a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia.

At their home in Beloit, Wisconsin, Ted's dad supplied him and his two younger brothers with their own dedicated workspaces and tools."Ted was fond of inspecting and dismantling whatever came his way," brother Greg (universally known as Gecko) writes."He was in hog heaven when a friend delivered a full-size pinball machine ready for an autopsy. It took days to 'undo,' but in the end everything was neatly sorted and catalogued-screws, nuts, washers, relays, switches, light bulbs, everything.

"He did a fair amount of woodworking in those days and was a meticulous craftsman. He whittled, carved, and once built a beautiful model of a wooden schooner from plans he drafted himself. He was curious about everything that came his way, collected and mounted butterflies and all manner of insects, got into bird identification, crystal growing, and was wildly interested in beekeeping."

Ted, captivated by fishing stories in Field& Stream, Sports Afield and Outdoor Life, was also the instigating force behind the brothers' fishing fetish, and the accounts of their self-taught progress from worm-drowning larval stage through ultralight-spinner pupation into finished, keen fly fishermen form the backbone of Ted's remarkably lush and revealing book, Jerusalem Creek. Like The Habit of Rivers, it is a keenly wrought portrait of a place-an unnamed series of small spring creeks in Wisconsin where the three brothers Leeson and an honorary fourth sibling called Lizard grew into fishermen, and into men-though not all of them. In a tragic event that in less skillful hands could have become a Hallmark moment, the youngest brother became a haunting memory, and a pivotal paragraph in Jerusalem Creek:

"On another August day, along a spring creek in Wisconsin, my two brothers and I, soon to go our separate ways, sat on a grassy bank in the small shade of a cornfield and talked of what might come next. A season later, two of us came again to the same spot, this time with no words to speak, sitting in a silent grief for the empty place beside us, mourning a brother who would never return, wondering how it could be that absence, that thing not even there, could fill up so much space."

"Ted was our unofficial leader," Gecko writes."At every stage we got not only instruction, but encouragement. He would show us where to fish, what fly to use, where and how to make the cast. When we were finally successful he would offer heaps of praise, and we would revel in our own accomplishment."

Ted emerged into manhood not just as a self-taught fly fisherman but as a natural teacher, learning to dismantle a complex subject, analyze it, describe it in such a compelling and accurate fashion that his students were afterward astonished to have learned so much, and to have so enjoyed the process.

The success of his new creative nonfiction course at Oregon State University, as his wife Betty Campbell (Oregon State's Victorianist, a noted Dickens scholar, and an artistic fly fisher in her own right) says,"is nothing short of astounding. He's got 10 graduate students (a huge number for one class here) as well as 10 undergraduates, and he's been meeting with the grads for special workshop sessions-over and above the call of duty for all of them. He's really knocked himself out trying to make this an exceptional course, and he's obviously won their complete respect and devotion as a nonfiction-essay-writing guru. His MFA students are, hands down, the best in our department, and the fact that Ted has so impressed them-and really taught them something-is quite spectacular."

Believe Betty; I do. Because last year I published a short story from one of those students in Gray's Sporting Journal, not exactly where budding fish-writers begin their careers. Since emerging from Leeson's course, John Larison has also published in Fly Rod& Reel, Field& Stream and Fly Fisherman. His first book, The Complete Steelheader, is due out shortly from Stackpole.

"I've never had a teacher like Ted," John writes."Somehow he manages to transcend the teacherly role and become a mentor and friend to every student in the room, pushing us to work harder and patting us on the back when we succeed. The graduate students on campus jockey for slots in his classes. The undergrads line up outside his door during early office hours. And this from a demographic known for its inability to arise from bed before noon. As an example of his compassionate enthusiasm, I once gave Ted 50 pages of a terrible book I had started; he wrote me 25 pages of feedback and bought me beers afterward."

If you wonder what this emphasis on Leeson as Educator has to do with angling in general and Angler of the Year in particular, ask yourself the question those of us who work in fish-publishing ask all the time: Where will the fly-fishing writers of the next generation come from?

A logical answer is that a few may come from Leeson's class in magazine writing and creative nonfiction, even though neither course focuses on fly-fishing. A slightly less logical answer is that many others will come from the example of Ted's eloquence, his ability to articulate why it is we all do what we do.

As is the case with all good fishing writers, Leeson writes about far more than just fishing. His essays are filled with biology, geology, glaciology, hydrology, herpetology, ornithology, volcanology, not to mention philosophy, psychology, and just about every other -ology or -osophy you could imagine finding in a book about something so necessarily rooted in the natural world as fly-fishing.

No one ever decided to dedicate his or her life to fly-fishing after reading an equipment review, or a how-to book on casting or nymphing or tying flies. People come to fly-fishing-at least the kinds of people we want in fly-fishing, the kinds of people who will devote themselves to learning its skills, of course, but also its traditions, its ethics, its spiritual connections, if you will, to something beyond just"rippin' lips" and"stickin' a rill hawg"-because they have been inspired by the example of a friend, or a mentor, or a writer who examines his own heart and thus reveals to all readers the universal heart of our particular hobby horse, writers like Norman Maclean, John Gierach, Nick Lyons, David James Duncan, Ted Leeson.

Ted brings new people to fly-fishing precisely the way he brought in his genetic brothers and adopted brother: by learning how the thing is done-and, more important, why it's done-and showing others how to do it, and why to do it, and how to keep doing it in a way that the thing both can continue to be done and will remain worth doing.

He could have been writing of himself when he wrote of his beloved Wisconsin spring creeks:"Resilient and reliable, richly constituted, quietly hospitable and productive, consistent in the face of extremes."

And when he writes of fishing in general he truly writes of us all-as we would be, as we should be:

"In the end, to fish well is to cultivate an arrangement of time and place, of circumstance and perspective. We arrange ourselves into the arrangement, and if the collusion is careful and lucky, we reap a kind of enclosed moment of some sharply felt beauty and significance. The particularities of river and landscape, of the trout and the season, of the fisherman and the fishing, all merge, crystallizing the instant into a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts, the way a musical chord, with high tones and low ones struck at once, pushes back the borders of simultaneity and creates within the space of harmony."

Great writer, great fisherman, great guy, great educator whose influence extends far beyond his classroom at Oregon State and doubtless will extend far into the future in ways we can't yet see.

He teaches us all, does my friend Ted.

Too bad he's totally never gonna score.

James R. Babb is editor of Gray's Sporting Journal and the author of Crosscurrents, River Music and Fly-fishin' Fool. He's also probably never gonna score.