Winter Musings

It’s early winter here in the Virginia piedmont, and the fall drought has finally ended. Our streams are flowing again, and they beckon to expectant fisherman. Unfortunately, most of our larger streams are managed in ways that make them dependent upon stocking. Thus, they won’t have any fish in them for several weeks, that is, until visited by the trout laden VDGIF trucks. So I ventured up one of our small, native-trout streams a few days ago. To no surprise, I caught only a few one and two year old fish, that is, 3-5 inch brookies. All the older, larger fish had been victims of the long drought.

So what is a trout fisherman to do in such circumstances, travel to distant lands, tie flies, make fly rods, read about fly fishing, or drink a lot of bourbon? Well, I don’t have the funds to travel south of the equator this year, the passion to tie flies all day long, the skills to make a fly rod, or a sufficient supply of bourbon to get me through the winter doldrums. That leaves reading about fly fishing.

We all read with different objectives, and therefore, a list of one person’s favorite reads may prove of interest to some fellow fly fishers, but certainly not all. With this disclaimer, rather than succumb to the effects of bourbon, I thought it would be fun for me, and hopefully helpful to others, to provide a short list of my favorite fly-fishing books and authors. I will try to convey a sense of why I like them, what they offer to the reader, and their contribution to the fly-fishing literature.

“Trout”, by Ernest Schwiebert

I will begin with my favorite author, Ernest Schwiebert. He began fly-fishing at the age of eight, and during his lifetime he fished with most all the famous Catskill fly fishermen, who regarded him as a pre-eminent colleague. He authored five books on fly fishing, three of which I have read, including “Matching the Hatch” (1955, http://amzn.to/1nZUMnI), the classic “Nymphs” (1973, http://amzn.to/1nZVotB), and the monumental, two volume “Trout” (1978, http://amzn.to/1R8j8r4). I regard the latter as the best, all-around book(s) yet written on the sport of fly-fishing. The author had an encyclopedic knowledge of our sport (died 2005), and an engaging writing style. An architect by trade, he richly illustrated all his works himself.

In “Trout”, he begins with a history of fly-fishing, then covers the American trout species, the tools of our trade, casting, fishing strategies and techniques, and finishes with a few thoughts about the etiquette to be followed while fishing a trout stream. A few samples-

“Fish behavior is completely rational. Both food and survival are primary instinctual drives, and understanding this from the trout’s point of view is basic in reading water correctly. The fish seek out optimal temperatures, oxygenation, shelter from predators, and adequate supplies of food. Their world is continually hostile, and a fish that is insufficiently wary will not survive. It is also a world in which calories ingested by feeding are continually spent in survival, growth, and movement.”

“The primary habitat consists of both holding lies, where the fish seek shelter and concealment, and their principal feeding lies. Big trout sometimes feed once or twice a week, but feed heavily when the mood strikes them. During the nonfeeding cycles, big fish move into their favorite holding places, which offer them maximum concealment. Hunger brings them out into the shallows and current tongues that offer optimal feeding opportunities, particularly at night.”

“Downstream from the brooding hemlock ledges on a river in Pennsylvania, the murky currents flowed smoothly over the dark winter-scoured stones, and the April sunlight danced weakly on the riffles. It had been a dour, almost bitter spring. There were still few buds on the trees except for the bright reddish swamp maples, and even the willows had only the faintest olive cast. There were no flies hatching, although the sunlight reached the riffle gravel, stirring its ripening early-season nymphs. “

“The typical odyssey we travel in learning to fish is a gradual and satisfying journey. It is a slow evolution from beginner to expert, and it involves a subtle metamorphosis from fisherman into angler. However, it is not merely the refinements of fishing and our fish-catching skills that occupy this transformation. It is also a remarkable evolution in attitudes. The full metamorphosis is complete when a man realizes that his fishing skills have been so developed that he can deplete his own sport. It is a singular milestone of self-knowledge.”

“Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout”, by Charles Brooks

Another of my favorite author’s is Charles E. Brooks. He also hales from an earlier era, and wrote several books, two of which I have read, “The Trout and the Stream” (1974, http://amzn.to/22wSuMv), and “Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout” (1976, http://amzn.to/1nZVHVc). They are illustrated by Dave Whitlock, and are more concise than the works of Schwiebert. However, I feel that his book on nymph fishing provides the best summary in the literature of the various methods of nymphing employed up to that time. In addition, fishing the fast, deep runs of the Madison River in Montana, he developed the technique of fishing with weighted lines and nymphs to get and keep the nymphs down where the larger fish are feeding. An excerpt describing the “Brooks Method”–

“When a trout in such currents darts from behind his boulder, or lifts up from a bottom depression to seize a nymph, he is instantly slammed with the full force of what actually amounts to a moving wall of water. That water will be moving, in some cases, at twelve or more feet per second. It will thrust the trout downstream several feet in the half second or so it takes him to reach and grab the nymph speeding by. The instant he has secured the nymph, the trout will whirl sharply upstream to swim back to the protection of his lie. It is then, if his line is under control, that the angler will feel the strike, a hard, fierce, jerk. The answering strike must also be fast, and hard or you will not hook your fish”.

“Thus the basis of the method is getting a large artificial down deep enough for the trout to see it and want to take it, and under enough control to be able to feel and hook the fish if he does take it.”

And his thoughts about the learning process in fly fishing, and nymph fishing in particular-

“The stream is a book with an endless number of pages; no matter how well one reads or how long, he will always be coming on new and exciting chapters. There is a never-ending fascination beneath the surface of a stream and the happy reader knows that he will never in his lifetime be finished with this lovely book.”

“Dynamic Nymphing”, by George Daniel

If reading to expand your knowledge of fly-fishing techniques, another book that I would recommend is “Dynamic Nymphing” by George Daniel (2012, http://amzn.to/1Ueabzf). He has been a captain of the American international fly-fishing team, and wrote this book following his experiences abroad. It is richly illustrated with both photographs and line drawings. I think that it nicely builds upon the works of Schwiebert and Brooks, covering recent advances in nymphing, especially those developed by our European counterparts.

European trout waters run low and clear, and fly fishermen there have had to develop new techniques to fish them productively. Each country of course claims that its technique is unique, and bears their respective country’s name, but in reality they are quite similar. The European techniques are based on the use of floating lines and longer rods, generally 10 feet in length, and very long leaders, 14-16 feet in length, with additional tippet to which is attached multiple, weighted flies. No float or suspender is used; rather, a short piece of colored, nylon tippet is incorporated into the leader. European fly fishers have dominated the international competitions in recent years, and it unfortunately seems that due to recurrent droughts, we are increasingly faced with similar water conditions here in the states. It is a read well worth the time and a technique to consider adopting.

“The Fishing in Print, A Guided Tour Through Five Centuries of Angling Literature”, by Arnold Gingrich

As you may have surmised by now, I really enjoy reading the older fly-fishing literature. If you share this interest, I would suggest that you read Arnold Gingrich’s “The Fishing in Print, A Guided Tour Through Five Centuries of Angling Literature” (1974, http://amzn.to/1R8jNZI. This work in no way resembles a catalogue; rather it is a very readable history of fly- fishing. Gingrich has divided the five hundred years of fly-fishing literature into sixteen eras, each notable for new techniques or thoughts that came to dominate or change the sport. He provides the historical context, and weaves the authors and their works into his discussion, highlighting their contributions. An example for the era “Halford and Purism”-

“Although the first reference to dry-fly fishing in the sense that we know it today came in the 1851 third edition of G.P.R. Pulman’s “Vade Mecum of Fly-Fishing for Trout”, there had been frequent mentions of the taking of trout with flies on top of the water going back over nearly two centuries to the time of Col. Robert Venables. But most of these citations of surface-takes of flies by trout were either as phenomena or desiderata, rather than to a recognized and purposive practice. But by the time of the Pulman mention that’s what it had become. And by the time of Halford it had become the common but not yet universal practice. Hills (John Waller Hills, “A History of Fly Fishing for Trout”, 1921, http://amzn.to/22wTksz) is clear, that Halford systematized the dry fly, and is the historian of the dry fly. He did for it what Stewart did for upstream fishing. Neither were pioneers, for both described what they did not invent; but both, by practice and writing, made an unanswerable case for the system they advocated”.

Gingrich also provides many rich excerpts from the books that he considers to have been most influential. Based upon my impressions while reading his work, I have purchased a number of books to add to my personal library and have yet to be disappointed in choosing to do so.

Enough musings; it’s time to tie a few more flies, in hopes that January will provide some better days to fish, and grist for my next article. Otherwise, it may have to be more musings!

Article written by Allan G. Simpson, December 2014