cline bookworms 1

cline bookworms 1Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman MT

There’s probably not a single reader of the J. Stockard Fly Fishing blog that hasn’t at some time in their angling career used some type of BAIT to catch fish. I mean real bait like live minnows, worms, chucks of herring, leeches, Velveeta cheese, stinky catfish nuggets and of course those ubiquitous florescent salmon eggs. Let me know if you are out there and have never once used BAIT.

Bookworms aren’t actually BAIT, but being one can make you a better angler and provide context every time you venture out. I unfortunately (from a storage standpoint) started down the bookworm path with angling related books when I was a teenager, close to half a century ago. The ~750 titles I have today have been read at least twice, some are reviewed regularly. When you add the availability of rare titles in the online public domain, I suspect I’ve read over a thousand books related to angling. (Not that many in the great scheme of things as the Trout and Salmonid Collection at Montana State University contains over 11,000 titles and that’s just related to trout and Salmonids). The great majority of my reads have been related to fly fishing but many were about aspects of general angling of all persuasions.

It’s difficult to create a comprehensive list of categories that any angling book might fall in, but here’s a quick list that covers most titles—How to Do It, Where to Go, The Science of …, Stories (fact, fiction and fantasy), and my favorite The History Of… The best titles combine elements of all these types of books. The larger question, apart from the pure entertainment value of reading, can you really become a better angler if you take the bookworm approach as I have? Obviously the authors of titles such as How to Find Fish and Make Them Strike (Bates, 1974) and Taking Trout–Good, Solid, Practical Advice for Fly Fishing Streams and Stillwaters (Hughes, 2002) believed their advice would improve your angling skills. Some book titles just scream: “Read this and catch more and bigger fish” such as Stalking Trophy Brown Trout-A Fly-fishers Guide to Catching the Biggest Trout of Your Life (John Holt, 2012).

cline bookworms 2For those of us who fish enough to consider fly fishing a high priority avocation (“A vocation is a calling, an occupation, or a large undertaking for which one is especially suited. It can be roughly synonymous with career or profession, though vocation connotes a seriousness or a commitment that these words don’t always bear. An avocation is something done in addition to one’s vocation—usually a hobby.”) off the water but related activities play a big part of our daily lives. We tie flies, we fiddle with gear, we plan the next trip, the next adventure and we are constantly refining our expectations and our experience. And, we read about fly fishing. There’s no shortage of angling literature. From the 15th century on, anglers have been writing about angling. One only has to look at some of the great angling bibliographies and literature reviews to see the profusion of books on the subject. One of my favorite is Arnold Gingrich’s The Fishing in Print-A Guided Tour Through Five Centuries of Angling Literature (1974). Although dated in today’s world, Gingrich who was the founding editor of Esquire magazine, paints an eloquent story of angling history through the literature it spawned. On the title page, a short quote by Sparse Grey Hackle (Alfred W. Miller, American author of Fishless Days, Angling Nights (1971) and prolific sporting columnist for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Sports Illustrated.) sums up my feelings about books on fly fishing subjects: “Some of the best fishing is not done in the water but in print.”

cline bookworms 3I was struggling a bit to find the best way to illustrate that you can become a better angler if you are well read. But Kate from J. Stockard provided a bit of unexpected inspiration. Arriving home recently from a pre-Christmas sojourn to South Florida and the Keys (unfortunately no fishing due to weather) I found an unexpected surprise. Kate had graciously sent me a copy of A Primer of Fly Fishing (Roderick Haig-Brown 1964) from her personal library as gift. Roderick Haig-Brown (1908-1976) was a Canadian fly angler and writer of international repute. His prose and storytelling are legendary among well-read anglers. Many of his works grace my library, but the Primer was not one of them. We are all products of our experience, but Haig-Brown was a fly angler with global experience for Western trout, steelhead and salmon, Atlantic salmon and on the great rivers of England and Patagonia. Even with this work, which is a half-century old, I was sure it probably contained some worthwhile advice for today’s fly angler.

It was a quick read and of course much of what Haig-Brown was telling the potential fly angler is much dated by today’s standards. What struck me most about this particular book was Haig-Brown’s ability to paint compelling and informative descriptions of our sport’s basic fundamentals in prose, rather than through endless images. Published well before the plethora of books with gaudy color illustrations and of course in an era where there was no internet or You Tube, A Primer of Fly Fishing does an exceptional and entertaining job of explaining the basics of fly fishing. Although there are too many to extoll here, a few quotes from the book demonstrate the timeless nature of really well-written books on fly fishing.

Haig-Brown on the virtue of the worm: “The worm is a great teacher. It will show you that some spots [on the stream] are more productive than others, and some [spots] are a waste of time.”

Haig-Brown on cane versus fiberglass (dedicated to those anglers obsess over the perfect all-round fly rod): “They [glass rods] may not offer the fisherman his choice of subtle variations of actions, but this I suspect is small loss since any competent fisherman can adjust himself immediately to the peculiarities of whatever rod he is using in a short spell of fishing.”

Haig-Brown on flies: “The type of fly and how and where it is fished will always be of far greater importance than exact pattern.”

Haig-Brown on observation: “The power of observation, besides being a great source of pleasure, is the keenest tool in fishing of all kinds. Any good fisherman is observing constantly throughout his fishing, recording observations in the recesses of his mind and comparing them with the observations of other days.”

There’s no doubt Haig-Brown was a well-read angler and in A Primer of Fly Fishing, he spends a number of pages of a book clearly aimed at beginning fly anglers, extolling the virtues of the great literature of the sport. “Fortunately, fly-fishing has an outstanding literature and any fly-fisherman who wants to advance in the sport will find many fine books to lead him on in the line of any specialization he cares to adopt. He will find also a fair number that entertain and satisfy by their quality and style alone. And finally, there are those which so expertly describe specific types of fishing, even though under far different conditions that those familiar to the reader, that they both entertain and instruct.”

The Wind Gives Motion to the Fly (Fred Everett "Fun with Trout", 1952)
The Wind Gives Motion to the Fly (Fred Everett “Fun with Trout”, 1952)

Although this may seem presumptuous, well-read anglers are in a way emulating the historic guild systems of master craftsmen, journeymen and apprentices. I will never become the master craftsmen that anglers like Lee Wulff, Frederick Halford, GEM Skues, John Gierach, Joe Bates and many others were, but I can learn from them. I am clearly a journeyman fly angler, always willing to learn and become better at the sport. Reading and practicing and recollecting what I’ve read on the water or at the vice is just part of the journey. There’s great enjoyment in reading about something, putting it to work and seeing it succeed. There’s great enjoyment in fishing waters that though reading, you know you are standing in the same footsteps that great anglers fished. There’s a true sense of satisfaction reading about the missteps, foibles and eccentricities of real and fictitious anglers when you know you’ve done, at some point in your life, the same silly things. Becoming a well-read angler is one way to improve both your angling skills but the pleasure you gain from fly fishing as well. Nothing wrong with book worms.
Bozeman, Montana


  1. I have loved fly fishing books since I first checked “Trout” out of my local library in the late 1950s. My brother recently gave me his copy of “Trout”. He bought it through the mail with a coupon from Field and Stream in 1938. While I do not have the collection you have, I enjoy to works I do own. Since I have been a fly tyer since I was 11, I probably own more tying books than anything. I am not sure they have made me a better fisherman, but they certainly have helped my tying. I got to meet Polly Rosborough several times and have his book on the Fuzzy Nymph.

  2. I’ve loved books of all kinds since childhood, although there were not a lot of them in the household in which I grew up. I still remember vividly, at age 12, the first time I stepped foot in a library. I was totallly overwhemled and in awe to learn that I could borrow any of these books and take them home with me, whenever I wished! As for my personal angling library, although it fills two tall bookcases I’m sure I don’t come close to matching Mike’s total. Recently, in fact, I’ve even done some weeding out–a painful process for a lover of books. I’ve arrived at the age of “downsizing” with everything, however, and have decided that those two bookcases are it! For more to come in, something has to go. Actually, I think that this process of refinement is a good thing in many ways. These books have been my constant companions for the 48 years I’ve been a fly fisher, and I can’t imagine my fly fishing life without them. I love watching You Tube videos, but ideas and concepts obtained from books is different, and, IMHO, deeper and better.

  3. Among my own favorites are Ray Bergman’s classic work and a book Kate of J.Stockard introduced me to, called “Favorite Flies and their Histories,” by Mary Orvis Marbury.

    But even sans those, I already consider myself well read on the topic, Mike. I read your stuff.

    – Mike

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