• By: Seth Norman
Atlantic Salmon Magic

Atlantic Salmon Magic

by Topher Browne
2011; Wild River Press
hardcover; $100

In the first sentence of his author’s preface, Topher Browne insists, “Somewhere in the North Atlantic swims a salmon with whom you have an appointment.” I might miss mine—I’m on Pacific Salmon Time—but what’s truly important is that Browne does so many things well in Atlantic Salmon Magic that on page 256 I decided, again, to recommend the book to somebody who doesn’t plan to pursue this storied species, and so winces at Magic’s list price.

Somebody just like the fellow being described on page 256, who’s just then enjoying the tail end of a two-part vignette Browne uses to bracket a chapter mostly devoted to the history and practice of swinging “The Sunk Fly.” It’s a high-tone Me and Joe adventure that starts on the Guala River at “a pricey beat above Storen.” Browne is Me and Joe is “Jen,” a German fisher who, like so many sidekicks these days, has a doctorate in “something to do with the brain and drugs.” Day after day, these two fail to find fish, remaining friendly and gracious as they cast into fugue states, out of hope—unless that was just me—then back again, and at last into weather slipping from “nasty” toward “To Build a Fire.”

“You like the fluff, in other words,” a cruel but savvy reader might note. And that’s right. I like all the devices Browne uses to frame and pace great blocks of information—his anecdotes, his humor, and particularly his tribute to “maestro” fly tier Warren Duncan. More than that, I appreciate fluff’s function in Browne’s larger purpose, which is to teach.

Let me repeat that: Magic means to teach. Never mind the sheer size of this book, the foreword and introduction by famous names, lavish photos of fish and places and all those gorgeous flies, also the pleasure of reading large print presented on superior paper. These are part of the package, of course; but it’s lessons that matter here, text and drawings that illustrate a heart and soul how-to intended to provide specific instructions necessary to chase special prey. Call it a very posh primer, if you wish, into which Browne pours biology, history, voluminous research and vast amounts of practice—his own and other experts—a curricula he hopes will save novice and intermediate anglers years of time, or decades. And that would be a special success, when casts between strikes may number in the tens of thousands; when so few fish and such dear access make trial-and-error a great deal of both; when a conversion of casts to “tilts” would give Don Quixote better odds against his windmill. You’ll want to wade through Magic and be well-schooled in its ways.

It’s precisely because there’s so much in Magic to learn that fluff is important. “Keep students engaged” is one of the foremost rules of good teaching. However fascinating the subject, when you’re presenting volumes, take time to excite, inspire, and simply refresh with laughter.

Browne follows other maxims, including repetition: he may take two routes to a point he wants to hammer home; he’s didactic when there’s one right way, and adds the opinions of others when there are questions. He also acknowledges that some answers lie beyond the grasp of mortal fishers, as in his dissertation on “Flies that Take Atlantic Salmon.” Browne thoroughly covers the basics there, also fish optics, catch statistics, traditions, aesthetics and personal preferences. But with so much unknown, a now thoroughly informed reader is still appropriately bewildered, thus ever-so-grateful for observations like these:

“… confidence is an integral part of fly selection. If you hook a salmon on a given pattern, you now have a fly that has hooked at least one salmon. If another salmon eats it, you have the making of a trend.”

And “…it is impossible to tease apart the relative value of pattern versus presentation. How do you assess the relative contribution of apples and peaches to a successful apple-and-peach cobbler without becoming a person that nobody wants to sit next to at dinner?”

The Dry Fly Gospel

by Terry Coffey
2009, Terry Coffey
softcover; $12.95; $4.95 on Kindle

There’s so little lyrical fly-fishing writing around that dividing the genre beyond fiction and essay is like parsing kernels of corn. Worse yet, an annotated discussion of distinctions might outweigh the novels and collections found on the shelves of most shops today. And yet, and yet . . . failing to prepare readers for what they’ll find in a lyrical book leads to angst announced on Internet sites, as reviews, comments and syphilitic diatribes.

It so happens I stumbled upon critiques of The Dry Fly Gospel before I had a copy in hand. Among rafts of positives lurked posts complaining about issues I thought best to address post-haste. Here’s that distillation.

This book is self-published and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. There’s no name or imprint except the author’s. While that raises flags, none climb even close to half-mast, IMHO. Yes, the copyediting missed a few things, though far less than in a hundred books I’ve read. If you simply must grade on production mechanics—if the wraps on a rod are as important as the blank—balance amateur deficits against writing that is, if not lyrical, lively and pleasing, professional. Note that eight of these dozen stories ran in places like Weeds, Yale Anglers Journal and The Southern Cross Review. I will, however, admit this caveat: Although fly-fishing’s knit into most pieces here, four containing the word “fishing” would read fine without it. That’s your warning and it’s fine if those reads aren’t for you; consider if everybody liked the most popular fiction, fly fishers would pass Harlequin romances across campfires on the Big Horn as our guide ripped nippers from his strong and tawny bodice.

From there to Gospel: author cum editor and publisher Terry Coffey takes risks here no mainstream publishing house would dare—and with reason, in this market. What’s an original approach to one reader is a gimmick to another. In Coffey’s case the peril is amplified by a paradox he creates: At times he tells stories using structures essentially traditional, touching themes conventional, more or less from narrative perspectives seriously unusual, if not hell-and-gone beyond the Pale.

There’s nothing paradoxical or offbeat in “Rear View Mirror Thing,” the conflicted musings of a woman guide confronting a mother who doesn’t approve; nor in “Attracted to Light,” wherein a character weary from illness, treatment and wading rests at a diner to write a letter to the father she misses, only to find a new, best destination. As for the story illustrated by the image on Gospel’s cover—a nun in habit who stands, eyes downcast, cradling a fly rod in her arms—it’s no stretch to imagine how memories of fishing might symbolize a life denied by her calling, in moments when a divine voice dims.

But then…

Certainly Coffey’s character in “What Daphne Doesn’t Know” isn’t the first man to wonder how his beloved wife and fishing companion might fare when he’s gone. Per myth, he’s not even the first person who, dead, is reincarnated as a sentient tree.When that tree is reduced to lumber, then to a panel installed in a most unfortunate place; when the view from this perch prompts a postmortem character change that means something, you know this ain’t Kansas. You’re no nearer in “The Jar of Worms,” a Dead Sea Scroll providing new parables about Jesus, Fisher of Men and fly fisher of trout, writ by an apostle who’s furious because his Savior tolerates the company of Judas, worm fisher. Here, Coffey treads on rare ground, also water.

Pretty ambitious gimmicks, by my lights. But don’t mistake me: Coffey offers mischief for mischief’s sake; and, truth to tell, several times pushes too hard and too far for my comfort, as in the title piece.

Parts are the whole, however. And a word like “quirky” fits this collection the way a single finger might, shoved into a glove too small for your palm. It’s all things—light and clever here, evocative there, certainly surprising—and to my mind a tiny tour-de-force. At the very least, I hope it heralds more to come, from Coffey and others so bold.

Our book reviewer Seth Norman lives in Washington State.