Fly Fishing Book Reviews

Fly Fishing Book Reviews

  • By: Seth Norman
Trout Lessons

Trout Lessons

Freewheeling Tactics and Alternative Techniques for the Difficult Days
By Ed Engle
2010; Stackpole Books
hardcover, 192 pp.; $29.95

“My intentions when I started writing Trout Lessons were pretty straightforward. The plan was to give fly fishers some ideas for those days on the river when the usual stuff didn’t work… a practical guide… to supply a checklist of technical solutions…

“But the biggest surprise… was what emerged in addition to what I set out to do. As I gathered and wrote down alternate techniques to use… I found that my own tactics weren’t as usual as I had thought.”

Thus begins Ed Engle’s Trout Lessons. Content drives any good book about tactics, techniques and tools—a truism appropriate for instructions on how to cook Thai, cripple a centrifuge, catch tough fish or conquer Gaul. But the “best” way to present information depends on the goals, expectations and interests of the reader. When said reader agrees the author is expert, teaching lessons more-or-less finite, then a didactic approach will serve. “Heat wok and insert worm; add Nam Pla; downsize fly as you pin barbarians against the river Arar.” Of course, a wise writer will remember a directive I often attribute to Will Rogers: Any fool can make something complicated, it takes a genius to keep it simple.

The game changes when variables make absolute answers impossible and the reader and writer both know that. A shared goal remains, as does the assumption that the author will bring entrées to the table. But now he serves a guest who wants a rasher of facts and food for thought.

With that in mind…

Early in Trout Lessons a reader’s likely to experience—and appreciate—a fine illusion: that this is a conversation. True, you’re listening to Engle describe approaches to taking fish that won’t, at the moment, respond to reasonable, widely-accepted and well-intended presentations. True, Engle observes more carefully than most, and has a lot more often during the decades he’s fished and guided difficult Colorado waters. True, too, that Engle has tried techniques and ties others have not for such long periods of time, as when he chose to fish only a Zonker for three months on the oh-so-technical Cheesman Canyon stretch of the South Platte. True also that he’s chummed around with talented people doing the same, sharing the wealth with fishers like John Gierach and A.K. Best… and that as a result he can offer both match-the-hatch “technical solutions” and off-the-wall options that may so blow some tight-jawed trout’s brain that its take—finally—might prevent you from blowing your own brains out.

But other than that?

Call it dialectic if you like. Credit Engle’s informal language and engaging sense of wonder, or maybe the lack of oppressive expert ego. What’s clear is that you’re invited, to think and consider. Engle’s a host who does not presume: He answers the questions he thinks you will ask, serving (and showing) how with large portions of why and side-dish histories of accidents that worked and thus begat insights. He gives credit where credit is due others; and confesses, with pleasure, when he finds himself uncertain or mystified. However seriously he fishes, he doesn’t hesitate to name and distinguish casts like “Splash & Crash,” “Plop & Drop,” “Slap & Dap,” “Drag & Nag,” “Sudden Inch” and “Down & Dirty.”

Just don’t let levity deceive you. Engle’s chapters “Tight-Line Tactics” and “High-Water Strategies” are each worth the price of dinner. As to his last helping, “Oddities: Dry flies that sink, spiders, and triggers,” now we’re talking dessert.

Lessons is full of illustrations, with especially good diagrams and drawings. There’s plenty of that “practical” information the author set out to provide, match-the-hatch material and technical checklists, along with tactics “not so usual.” Then there’s the message Engle repeats in content and tone, encouraging anglers to “go one step further… to let go of any preconceived notions you may have and ultimately allow the trout and the river to inform you about the best solution…”

In Hemingway’s Meadow

Award-Winning Fly-Fishing Stories
Edited by Joe Healy
2009; Fly Rod & Reel Books
softcover, 176 pp.; $16.95

Love Story of the Trout

Award-Winning Fly-Fishing Stories
Edited by Joe Healy
2010; Fly Rod & Reel Books
softcover, 221 pp.; $16.95

The Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award is a special gift to this sport’s readers. It appears almost yearly in this magazine, and for quite some time I have wondered when a book would collect winners between one cover.

Done. In Hemingway’s Meadow came out in 2009. This column dared an announcement, but Meadow and (now former) FR&R editor Joe Healy and I reluctantly agreed a full review would require such a litany of caveats there’d be scant room for anything else.

The tout for In Hemingway’s Meadow made it as far as the FR&R Web site just as Love Story of the Trout arrived at my door—a 2010 anthology that, in addition to Traver winners, includes FR&R gems from way back. I can’t ignore these books any longer. Here are the caveats:

Fly Rod & Reel Books published both of these, though they also profit the Voelker Foundation, sponsor of the Traver Award in Short Fiction.

A bridesmaid of mine appears in Love Story. So does a winner, in Meadow, probably awarded because the committee feared I was too fat for a bridesmaid’s dress (or not, since all submissions are stripped bare of identification, almost including distinctive metaphors).

For eight or 10 years I’ve helped judge Traver submissions, one of a half-dozen folk who decide results during a polite, literate and sometimes vigorous discussion.

Many of the 30 or so authors included have appeared, and will again I hope, in other FR&R issues. I’ve met about eight, all after they won, and four of us joined as plaintiffs in a lawsuit (no connection to FR&R, by the way).

At the end of a celebration that followed, one of the above may have helped prop up the right half of my body on the way out of a Bozeman, Montana bar. If I’m not quite certain about that, and don’t believe that was the real Hemingway on my left, I am quite sure I wasn’t done with my drink.

All the above serves as a preface just to write this: In Hemingway’s Meadow and Love Story of the Trout contain many of the best fly-fishing short stories in print in the past two decades and more, written by some—maybe most—of the best writers working in the field. They range from science fiction to political parody and debatable blasphemy; include ghosts; reflect on love and loss; there’s almost always fish. Beyond that, with this award the Voelker Foundation has done more to promote fly-fishing’s short-fiction genre than any other organization I know of, or even all others combined. There.

Charlie’s Fly Box

By Charlie Craven
2010; Stackpole Books
hardcover; 220 pp.;$39.95

It’s only speculation, but if fishing hadn’t distracted author and fly designer Charlie Craven at an early age (if he instead chose, say, microsurgery as a career, then wrote and illustrated a lay book about that), Joan Rivers might be passing as her granddaughter in close-ups while the rest of us performed organ-transplants at home, tossed off facelifts for neighbors and friends after work, and occasionally provided favorite pets with opposable thumbs.

Because Craven kept his priorities straight, a casual count reveals 21 barbules on the left side of the second cul-de-canard barb from the top in the illustration for step 7 of the Mole Fly instructions, page 101 of Charlie’s Fly Box. While it’s a fair guess that his demo hook lies at the large end of a recommended size range of 16 to 24, I’m not sure about that, since the fingers in his number 4 photo look like “actual size” sections of small grapefruit.

With only 13 illustrated steps—plus four more showing how to conserve cul-fluff—this Mole Fly is among the simpler ties among the 17 patterns Craven offers in this 8.5" by 11", 220-page book. It’s also a boon: Wind gray 8/0 Uni-Thread to a Tiemco 2487, select and bind CDC, dub beaver—voila—you have “…perhaps the most effective Baetis emerger pattern that any of us have ever fished,” a fly whose “effectiveness… astounds me to this very day,” and a secret weapon included here only because “I have learned that it’s not what you keep to yourself in life that counts, but what you share with others. Please reserve my spot in heaven now and forgive me what I’m about to do.”

While I promise a student reader will feel so inclined, a non-papal indulgence is not quite a foregone conclusion. By the Mole-point Craven has already walked you through recipes for nine flies. Steps? You wish to talk steps? There are 21 for Charlie’s Mysis (with material prep); 25 for his Jumbo Juju Chironomid; and although the Poison Tung comes in at just 12, the Caddistrophic Pupa requires 31.

I don’t usually keep count of these things, at 59 steps—all photographed in exquisite detail, spread over 12 pages, every shot captioned—but I was quite sure Charlie’s Hopper set some kind of a record, at least for fly patterns meant to fish. But when his Ragin’ Craven played out to 89 at last, let’s say I was two gimlets shy of reason. On what universe, in how many lifetimes? I found myself wondering.

And yet? O, how I wanted this fly. I realized when the ice began to melt: I could tie it. . . and so can you.

The Mole Fly comes in at a baker’s dozen steps, because that’s all it needs. The Ragin’ is another animal; but both emerge from the author’s assessment of what will work and why—triggers he explains in his intros. And thanks to these steps and plates, if you can palmer a hackle, and have access to an excellent shop or catalog for top-flight materials, with patience, you could do it. And boy, would you learn a lot in the process.

My favorite element of Charlie’s Fly Box comes from an intro to Chapter Eleven describing the origins of the Mugly Caddis, a vignette that provides a measure of the man John Barr calls “the best fly tier I have ever known.”

Comes an evening when Craven and other fishers fail on the Henry’s Fork, even though fishing flies that, in Craven’s case, would likely pass inspection under an electron microscope. All fishers but one, that is, who cleans up, catching not just many, but “Big Ones.” “I hated him,” the author admits, and, “I think everybody else on the river was on my side on this…”

Imagine that angst amplified when he discovers that the devil fly “crushing some of the most educated trout in the world was a chewed No-Hackle Elk Hair Caddis that had lost most of the hair in its wing; its dubbed body… nearly completely unwound [and] trailing off the hook in a long ragged strand… barely holding together…”

I’ll let Craven offer his painful confession:

“As a fly tier, I pride myself on tying cleanly constructed patterns: Loose bits of dubbing, ragged wings, or disproportioned parts are not something you will find in my fly box or my bag of tricks. As a matter of fact, I have been known to spend an inordinate amount of time stacking and re-stacking hair wings or trimming individual hairs…”

And yet, comes now his own Mugly, a carefully thought-through and elegantly constructed version of that murderous, all-munched-up caddis, presented here among a precious few, even if “ …not my style and I still find its bedraggled nature a little offensive…”

It’s hurts him so. But credit Craven for his priorities; hand over that non-papal indulgence, I say. And be thankful that almost any tier can make his own Mugly, in 19 steps.

Our book reviewer Seth Norman lives in Washington State. He says, “For the record, I’ll be tying a dozen of the flies from these books this winter, eager to fish them next season.”