• By: Seth Norman

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bySeth Noman

Classifying Fly-Fishing Literature

Or, the weight of the word.


“Fly-fishing literature” seems too small a fish to fillet into parts; worse yet, the cuts are often ragged. The cheap way to do this would be to call one genre “lyrical,” suggesting pirouettes, poetry and fiction, and the other “didactic,” usually too stiff and weighty a word. Even if these terms applied at all, the problem with reviewing collections of short works is that many contain pieces of both kinds. So let’s do this:

There’s prose written about fly-fishing, thoughtful and philosophic, often full of inspired narration, rich with an author’s voice, sometimes attended by other characters briefly but carefully observed—I offer Nick Lyons’ classic Spring Creek as a premier example, just re-released in a 20th-anniversary edition. Then comes fiction or non-fiction pieces wherein fly-fishing plays a role . . . provides context, culture, a catalyst that creates events, inspires conversations, begins or ends relationships, instigates adventures, prompts epiphanies that swell or soar beyond the banks of expectations. “This isn’t fishing literature,” one mainstream reviewer told me after his editor insisted he read one of these. “This is literature, period.”

Here’s where that leaves us: Each of the two books below leans—but does not fall—toward the opposite end of a fractured axis, a spectrum contrived for your convenience until somebody wiser comes along.



Fly-fishing plays a fundamental, or maybe foundational, part in each of the 16 stories and essays in Kent Cowgill’s new book. That’s true across a wide variety of subjects and themes, described in the jacket blurb as, “Ranging from the riotously comic to the nostalgic, edgy and suspenseful,” a list to which I would add “tender, tragic and unexpected.” Not surprisingly, the characters that people these pages are eclectic, from a sad, too-often-betrayed fisher’s widow to a Don Quixote who makes perfect casts while prancing about a river in red neoprenes.

Riffles has range; with that come risks. The author hopes a reader’s tastes are also broad, and that he or she will welcome both pathos and bathos—here, in “Rage,” a serious look at fly fishers’ behaviors, which also challenges standard assumptions about on-stream manners; there, in “Anglinguistics,” the antics of a Confederacy of Dunces, exotic types who’d communicate better if speaking in tongues.

That’s either warning or recommendation. I happen to enjoy a meal that begins with Thai soup, proceeds to a Texas steak and ends with something fluffy and French. Other readers, I happen to know from experience, prefer more consistent cuisines and points of view.

For me, two of the heavy entrées stand out in this small feast. The first is “Two Men in a Museum,” the 2010 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award winner and one of five Riffles stories that have appeared in this magazine. In brief, it’s the kind of long, earnest conversation a few fly fishers may have wanted to engage with a special “type” who hopes to amuse him- or herself at the expense of somebody with a passion they can’t fathom. Cowgill’s twist: In “Museum” we share the perspective of the smug, a conventionally successful suit who disdains our proxy as “an apparently competent man of prime earning years [who] could love something as trivial as fly fishing with the ardor of a child,” a “fellow from the hinterlands” an “ambitionless hack . . . no one who mattered had ever heard of.”

Of course, it turns out that passion for life is really the issue.

Then there’s my favorite, “Valentine,” which may also resonate with those who have, at times, sought from a fly-fishing excursion something beyond a sentient predator’s excitement: escape or respite from exigencies of a time confined and bleak. Countless have succeeded at this, of course, some of us many times . . . but not always. “This is a story about longing and isolation,” it begins. “About the things they can lead you to do, or almost do, when they run high in your blood.” It ends with a haunting tableau that reminds us not every epiphany is bright, however richly or brilliantly it redefines our world.

“Literature?” Yes. But with a caveat: Experienced fly fishers will appreciate many more angles in Riffles stories than others will, because it’s written for us.

What Trout Want

The Educated Trout and Other Myths

By Bob Wyatt

2013; Stackpole Books;

236 pages; hardcover; $24.95


“To challenge a widely held and deeply entrenched view requires some discussion and not a little temerity. It’s easy to wind up sounding like some kind of crank. Fly-fishing discourse is an old conversation that often escalates into full-blown argument, one that doesn’t always end with good-natured backslapping and a round at the bar; the famous Halford-Skues, dry-fly-versus-nymph debate is the prime example. Just to nail my colors to the mast, I throw in with Skues, Sawyer and Datus Proper, but I also have a few arguments of my own against our received ways of thinking about trout. If these arguments seem a bit too pointed at times, well, the drinks are on me.”

Speaking of bathos, I much enjoyed Bob Wyatt’s first book, Trout Hunting: The Pursuit of Happiness, for its wit, tone and style. Call it “voice.” The author respectfully describes fly-fishing’s most sacred cows; then, with humor, grace and abundant self-deprecating asides, politely gores our favorite oxen. Or maybe he’s a matador, waving a red cape at readers while crooning, “What? Heck, is this olé thing bothering you?”

All that’s true in What Trout Want, in which Wyatt enters a fly-fishing fray now fought longer than the Hundred Years War. As in war and Congressional politics, the sides have both sometimes set up straw-man extremes. On one bank crow fishers who (allegedly) believe the perfect fly will prevail, (apparently, almost) regardless of how it’s employed. On the far shore stalk anglers, obviously from pre-Dorothy Oz, who insist proper presentation will own the day, no matter the chosen fly and prevalent hatch.

Less absurdly reduced—and brilliantly explored by the many contemporary theorists Wyatt introduces, appreciates and commends (often as a preliminary to respectful but vigorous attempts to refute) this ongoing conflict reveals greater dimensions. It also accumulates tying and fishing lexicons sometimes confusing: from the 19th Century “formalists” and “colourists,” to selectivists, impressionists, presentationalists and, as of the late Gary LaFontaine’s The Dry Fly: New Angles, fly-fishing empiricists, generalists and naturalists.

Know it or not, most of us fall into one or, far more likely, several of these categories. And believe it or not, these allegiances will influence how we tie or buy flies, also how we approach and fish a river, stream or lake. (Example: Does a rising fish’s refusal cause you to tie on a new, hopefully more exact imitation, or lead you try a new direction or mend?) They even script the excuses we offer ourselves and others.

That’s where this book gets cruel. Note again the subtitle, The Educated Trout and Other Myths. Wyatt would steal solace from we who have been baffled by what we’re sure are “selective,” “pressured,” “overfished,” “suspicious,” “PhD” fish. Ain’t so, the author insists, cruelly but with a sympathetic smile. A skunking is simpler than that, though not necessarily easy to avoid, because trout are simpler beings than we choose to believe. In fact, “hard-wired” and “programmed” as they are, Wyatt believes they accept or dismiss our offerings based on criteria mostly irrelevant to anglers’ existence, save when we provoke ancient, instinctual reactions. Binary, almost: His model reminded me of the “artificial intelligence” claims made by the robotics company I once worked for. Their machines with electronic minds followed a series of “If, Then” equations absent anything like an “inference engine” to provide the anthropomorphic characteristics we like to project onto “wise old browns.”

I’m reluctant to reveal much beyond that, for a couple of reasons. First, frankly, is that I’ve forgotten too much of the history behind these issues. Wyatt cites scores of visionaries from both banks, from familiars like Goddard, Schwiebert, Swisher and Richards, to Marinaro, Mike Lawson and Kelly Galloup, to experts unknown to me, including Nikolaas Tinbergen and Simon Chu. Second, as often as the author credits others, I’m not entirely sure which parts of his large, coherent theory intersect, overlap or incorporate these: Wyatt’s extensive discussion of artificials, for example—certain to offend many—redefines “generalist,” embracing a refined impressionism (I think), and in places reminds me of a lecture Ted Lesson gave at the Fly Fishing on the Madison festival eight or 10 years ago, demanding an answer to “What do fish think of the hook?” Then there’s the issue of semantics, which Wyatt warily addresses in a section of Chapter Seven, “Selective or Spooky—Take Your Pick.” Penultimately, half the time I disagreed with Wyatt I suspected myself swayed by what I wanted to believe. And, finally, well, the author does his job far better than I can here.

I must, however, add these observations:

Part II of What Trout Want is filled by Wyatt’s practical advice on how to hunt trout—tips based on lessons learned during his decades fishing popular, pressured blue-ribbon waters in western Canada, Scotland and his current home of Middlemarch, “a semi-ghost-town situated on the Taaiere River in New Zealand’s South Island.” At the very end is appended a short, helpful article dedicated “To a Young Presentationist.”

Now, to bring this full circle:

Wyatt builds a serious argument here, adding his voice to a debate of consequence in the rarified realm of this sport. As noted, he’s respectful and appreciative, however provocative, contrary and irreverent—I must emphasize that. And yet?

When it comes to irreverent, I hope some readers will also enjoy—possibly against their will—a philosophic that includes a chapter titled “Outside the Box.” Therein they will find an analogy proposed by Wyatt’s friend Carl McNeil while he and Wyatt were “well oiled on a bottle of Macallan, so with the enhanced lucidity induced by good whiskey.”

I grant that anything called “The Urinal Cake Theory” should embarrass lofty discourse. So please believe that I am deeply embarrassed when forced to admit it makes a point. And for those who do find this too sharp, among other things: Remember, at least, who offered to buy your drink. ■


Books editor Seth Norman is the author of Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman and many other great reads. He lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he toils with local politics, smallmouth bass and chum salmon.

Sunlit Riffles and Shadowed Runs

Stories of Fly-Fishing in America

By Kent Cowgill

2012; Terrace Books (University of Wisconsin Press);

166 pages; hardcover; $19.95