Imagine your perfect fishing cabin. Maybe yours is full-on chinked logs, but not mine. Mine’s got a tin roof, pine siding, and a shabby wood panel interior. When the rains come, you have to yell across the bruised and cluttered coffee table to be heard over the percussive din. The couches and heavy, upholstered chairs sag with concave cushions that don’t support; they swallow. Old rods molder in forgotten corners; ragged flies hang from doorframes, each point embedded with a story; posters and stickers and long-spent calendars occupy empty wall space; a tying table scattered with the chaotic detritus of a thousand (or maybe ten thousand) flies stares out a dirty window; at least one fish mount floats, glass-eyed, above a soot-blackened fireplace, or woodstove.
Perhaps the details of your fish cabin (real or imaginary) differ from mine, but I hope we can agree on one thing: the bookshelf, or should I say bookshelves. Good fishing cabins need books, and lots of them.
Ours is a sport of escapism and introspection, which is why a cabin—preferably in the woods and certainly close to rivers and/or lakes—lined with shelves that list under the weight of spines and pages offers the ideal sanctuary. Where did Gus settle when he left the self-important stuffery of Henning Hale Orviston and the cornpone mothering of Ma Carper? A simple cabin in the woods beside a river. If you have any idea what I’m talking about, you’re clearly a reader and you know good fly fishing literature. If not, read on. That wasn’t a test; it was an invitation.
Fishermen (and, of course, women) are by nature thoughtful, questioning, and a little odd, which is why so many of us are also readers and writers. The history of fly fishing is often palmered around our classic tomes. The first book on fly fishing was published in 1496, notoriously penned by a British nun (though the true origin of that text remains mysterious). Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler was first published in 1653 and remains in print nearly 400 years later.
Be honest, have you ever read either of those “classics”? No? That’s cool. Me neither, at least not in their entirety. How can you get wrapped up in 17th century prose about fishing for chubs and bream, especially when you could be watching Eastern Rises. (If you’re on our mailing list, we recently sent you a code to download that phenomenal film for free. Check your inbox.)
As important as Walton’s legacy has been for our sport, you’re not a bad person for having skipped it. Reading doesn’t have to be an act of penance that feels like Shakespeare homework. You can choose contemporary and compelling fly fishing stories that aren’t 400 years old, stories that describe the experience you love in language that feels familiar and new at the same time.
Similar to our previously published list of the best fly fishing films ever produced, we bring you our picks for the eight greatest (mostly fly) fishing stories ever written. We promise that at least one, and probably all, of these books will make you want to read more, even if you’re not sitting beside a fire in your imaginary fishing cabin.
Here are our picks in no particular order:
The River Why by David James Duncan
Coming-of-age stories are popular for a reason: we can all relate to the awkward flailing of children as they stumble toward adulthood. In this book, Duncan refracts the classic novel form through the lens of an angling prodigy. Gus Orviston graduates from high school (barely) and moves out to pursue his lifelong dream of fishing as much as humanly possible—allowing for the bare minimum of basic needs. How do you think that works out? Beyond the horizons and limitations of a fishing-focused life, The River Why explores love, friendship, the nature of goodness, and what makes a life well-lived. It’s a wild, hilarious, and memorable ride. DO NOT WATCH THE MOVIE! IT’S A CHEAP BASTARDIZATION OF A BEAUTIFUL TALE. DON’T CHEAT YOURSELF.
Trout Bum by John Gierbach
John Gierach coined the term “trout bum” in the 1980s. Back then, trout bums didn’t have Rod Vaults mounted on shiny trucks pulling motorless boats that cost more than a semester at Montana State University. They were more like, well, bums—marginally employed, poorly dressed, occasionally unhoused—hovering on the fringes of society and waving strange fishing rods around. Since this first book, Gierach has published 30 other titles worth reading. You feel like you’re sitting with him, be that beside a small stream in his home state of Colorado or on a far-flung brook trout river in Labrador, listening as he deftly recounts a perfectly formed fishing story. His prose isn’t flashy, and he’s never self-important, but he might have perfected the art of the fishing essay.
The Feather Thief by Kirk W Johnson
A true crime detective story conceived on a fly fishing trip in northern New Mexico where a blocked writer suffering from PTSD encounters utterly unexpected inspiration. This book unravels the mystery behind a trove of historical bird skins stolen from a the British Musem of Natural History by a lanky, prodigal flautist
. Johnson traces the backstory of this heist into the deep (and strangely sinister) underworld of traditional salmon fly-tyers. We know that fly fishing breeds obsession, but this book will make you feel better about the depth of your own fishing depravity. It’s also just a thoroughly researched and well-told tale.
Brown Dog by Jim Harrison
The Brown Dog novellas are not fishing stories. In fact, while the protagonist of the series loves brook trout fishing more than almost anything else in this life, he doesn’t actually get to go fishing all that often. He’s too wrapped up in dramas small and large that illuminate essential tensions of the human experience. Brown Dog made our list—in addition to being a masterful work by a fly fishing obsessed writer—because on page after page the central character reminds us of all the right reasons to go fishing. The fatigue and alienation inherent in modern culture; the clarity of purpose found in seeps, springs, creeks, or rivers; the sublime, simple perfecti
on of that which humans did not create (be that a mountain peak or the female form). Brown Dog
experiences and indulges his corporeal appetites without the obscuring clouds of cultural expectation or learned dogma; we should all be so lucky.
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean
Ever heard of this obscure title by a little-known Montana scribbler? Of course you have, but have you actually read the book or have you just watched the big screen Brad Pitt version? No other story had such significant impact on modern American fly fishing. “The Movie,” as it was long known in the fly industry, attracted so much national attention that it’s credited with creating most of the companies you associate with our sport. Love or loathe the image of the modern fly angler, that visage would look very different had Robert Redford not adapted a relatively obscure novella into a Hollywood juggernaut. Setting the movie aside, though, you really should read the book that started it all. While the film is excellent, the book is better.
Wild Thoughts From Wild Places by David Quammen
For 15 years Quammen wrote a column for Outside Magazine called “Natural Acts.” The essays ranged as far and wide as Quammen’s interests, from pigeons and coyotes, to kayaking and vortices, to love and the thermodynamic arrow of time
. Wild Thoughts from Wild Places
collects a revised selection of those columns into a single volume. They hold as a consistent body of work because each essay plots Quammen’s meticulous scientific research to understand a phenomenon he encountered while playing outside. That same impulse is what inures many (perhaps all) of us to fly fishing and keeps us engaged throughout entire lifetimes. We have some encounter with fish on a river, or a creek, or a flat, or a lake, that presents us with a riddle we must find a way to solve. Fly fishing only appears in the first essay of this book, but serves as the catalyst for the whole thing.
Fish Won't Let Me Sleep by James R. Babb
Jim Babb is the most talented, influential fly fishing writer whose name you may not know. While his work doesn’t get nearly as much acclaim as Gierach, McGuane, McClean, Duncan, or others, he’s arguably just as skilled, maybe more so. Babb steered the helm of Gray’s Sporting Journal
for nearly two decades as the managing editor while also writing the angling column. Any of Babb’s books won’t disappoint. We chose Fish Won’t Let Me Sleep
more or less at random but could just as easily have selected Crosscurrents, Fly Fishin’ Fool, or any other. Babb manages to convey his exceptional intellect and encyclopedic knowledge of fly fishing history and literature without ever once sounding pretentious. In fact, he’s comes across as an endearing self-deprecating humorist who gently offers worthy epiphanies through his own folly. If you have not already read Babb, do so now. Buy whichever title you like; we’re betting you’ll soon own all of them.
Body of Water by Chris Dombrowski
Chris Dombrowski primarily writes poetry, but Body of Water is narrative nonfiction. On its face, it’s just a damn good fishing story—a Montana fishing guide falls into an obsession with bonefish and spends time and money his young family cannot afford pursuing them. Of course, as all of us who genuinely pursue fish know, it’s never just about the fish. As readers follow Dombrowski over sun-soaked flats chasing another hookup, another banshee howling run, we get far more than we might have expected. The book provides an unauthoritative account of the Bahamian bonefish industry and culture through the cataract-milky eyes of a man who arguably pioneered that industry. It explores how these unpalatable and once reviled bottom feeders became silver bricks in the foundation of high-end Bahamian tourism and the subsequent tussle over who should stand atop that structure. Body of Water
stands out, not just as an engrossing fishing book with enough depth to feel worthy of your time, but as a sublime example of what happens when a poet turns his whittled phrasings into a long-form narrative. It’s just satisfying to read.