The book about “The Book” and “The Movie”

July 9, 2021

I just read John Maclean’s new book Home Waters –  

The story behind the novella A River Runs Through It.  Recollections of fly fishing in the early to mid-20th century. Traditions passed down and followed. Natural skills emerging in some, but not all. Still they loved to fish. Much more about the life of the man who wrote the book and his family.

I recommend John’s book for those who are curious about the back stories of “The Book” and “The Movie.”

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Popular Mechanics is a magazine (or was) that provides information on how to do all kinds of mechanical projects at home.  Build a go cart, an automatic dog feeder, a tree house, rebuild a lawnmower. Instructions in detail for all manner of projects. Each article breaks the work down into the tools and materials, the steps and techniques. Mechanical. It doesn’t dwell on the joy of using the newly engineered creation much past the opening paragraph.

Today’s fly fishing instruction seems similar. Step by step instruction on the rig, the flies to use, what matters and what not so much.  How to divide up a piece of water and make sure to scour the bottom with those nymphs to “snag” each and every possible fish before moving on.

A seine hauler or bottom dragger would do no better than a dedicated bottom fisher following the segmented grid they envision on the water. All to be able to go home with the satisfaction of knowing they caught fish, all the fish or as many as possible, as soon as possible, with all but a sonar screen to help.

Tactical gear in hand, lines and leaders, indicators and sight-ers, droppers and tungsten jigs, mop flies (what?). Modern fly fishers look more like Marines in the bush outfitted for combat – and they look as intense too. It’s not my idea of fishing.

I look back on my copy of Trout by Ray Bergman.  Truth is I have spent my fly fishing life trying to do what Bergman did. He fished competently for sure, using techniques and tackle that fit the occasion, but he also enjoyed the place, the time, the rhythm and the comradery. The natural flow of the life all around him.

That is what fishing is about for me. Not combat. 

Not achievement or fish counts. Fish are our excuse to be here, to spend time in beautiful places. To relax as well as challenge ourselves with a more difficult way than the worm to catch a fish. It seems we have come full circle and are heading back to the “worm” – as long as it works.

A 1970’s campaign to convert wormers to fly fishers

When in high school soccer and football were one season sports.  In the fall in our school.  In winter there was basketball or wrestling, spring brought lacrosse and baseball.  Track seemed to be less confined to a season but the idea was to diversify and to give your body and mind a break. 

When my kids started soccer there were leagues for fall and spring followed by indoor games in winter and summer camps.  It became a constant, never ending pursuit – of what? Not many Pele’s resulted, just kids burned out on sports before Jr. High School.  The next generation continued the plan only this time everyone got a trophy. No matter what.  A trophy for showing up – some got them even if they didn’t always show up.  What is the point?  Pursuit of what?

My fear is that our new fly fishers are coming into the sport, influenced by these mechanical means, trained to expect a trophy, and missing the true beauty of the sport. Ask yourself: Is the point of your fishing to catch fish no matter where, or how, or with what? If so just buy a trawler!

How many fish does one need to catch to enjoy the sport? For the answer expose yourself to the fishing of Maclean and Lyons, Travers and Gierach. Do yourself a favor and stop this mad rush to achieve as it takes away the most valuable of all things that fly fishing offers –

An acquired art which offers a respite from this mad, mad world.

Picking up a good book can help as well. Take a look in the Reading Room.