Ten classic fishing tomes that no self-respecting rod should have missing from his library, selected by Keith Elliott
The best fishing books are difficult to define, with classics that are no longer considered essential fare and others still in constant demand. Keith Elliott selects the ten tomes that no self-respecting rod should be without.
Time under the covers with these tomes may call for a re-evaluation of the bucket list. Read 5 things to add to your fishing bucket list for inspiration.
BEST FISHING BOOKS
This should have been simple. “Choose the 10 fishing classics that have stood the test of time and should be on every angler’s bookshelves,” the Editor asked. But strange things have happened over the past decade. Books once considered classics from the 18th, 19th and early 20th century have fallen out of favour. Classics, maybe – but nobody wants to read them any more.
Go to an auction now and George Bainbridge’s Fly Fisher’s Guide, Thomas Barker’s The Art of Angling, Ephemera’s The Book of the Salmon, Sir Edward Grey’s Fly Fishing (1899), George Kelson’s The Salmon Fly and many more struggle to reach reserve prices. Booksellers can no longer shift Pritt’s The Book of the Grayling, Ronalds’ The Fly-fisher’s Entomology, Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing in the River Tweed by Scrope or A Book on Angling by Francis. Nobody wants them. Today’s fishers are no longer reading books once considered essential fare.
I am acutely concerned that if I die tomorrow, my wife may sell my 3,000-odd fishing books for what I told her I paid for them. Yet how many, among all these volumes, will endure to inspire anglers not just in 2050 but in 2100 and beyond? Sadly, not as many as I once believed.
But fishing books are still being bought, read, collected, treasured. Certain ones are in constant demand and command a premium. Today’s anglers, however, are less hidebound by tradition. Methods are different. Rivers no longer abound with salmon. Unless you’re rich, it’s unlikely you can afford to book a prime Norwegian river for the season. So, instead, this list is not of books you ought to buy but will probably never read, it’s 10 books you can pass on to sons and daughters and their offspring, with the likelihood they will gain the same pleasure from them as you do.
Among books that have truly stood the test of time, nothing can match Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, the English language’s most reprinted book after The Bible. You can find it in miniature and extra-illustrated editions, where collectors decorated pages with prints, autographs, letters and pictures. (I’ve seen one comprising 10 volumes.) But why has this book survived? Its language is archaic, its advice often lifted from other sources, its rambling structure a challenge for modern readers. It’s not even a great story, being a mixture of not very good poetry, an admiration of milkmaids and a conversation between Piscator and Viator, discussing the merits of their chosen pastime. But its rustic charm and delightful phrases make the effort to read it more than worthwhile. Its most famous quote, perhaps, is Walton’s somewhat gruesome description of hooking a frog. “Use him as though you loved him; that is, harm him as little as you may possibly, that he may live the longer.” I prefer to adapt his description of cooked pike: “This dish of meat is too good for any but anglers, or very honest men,” and wheel it out for any exceptional meal (though perhaps pike tasted better in his time than now).
Early editions are among the rarest and most valuable fishing books. A 1653 first edition could cost you as much as £75,000. My favourite version is a two-volume work by Robert Bright Marston, editor of The Fishing Gazette, for the 100th edition in 1888. It contains beautifully evocative photographs by Peter Henry Emerson of the rivers Lea and Dove, capturing perfectly Walton’s quote: “God did never make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.”
MR CRABTREE GOES FISHING
One single book, though, boasts sales that probably exceed all of those Walton editions. Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing is arguably the best-selling sports book of all time. Its author, Bernard Venables, recalled seeing a notice outside the Daily Mirror building proclaiming that sales had topped two million (the Mirror published the book) and it continued to sell heavily for several years after that. It comprised a series of strip cartoons, similar to today’s graphic novels, about a father teaching his son to fish; it inspired a generation, who can still repeat many of its lines, such as: “Gosh, Dad! It’s going like a train!” Most of its techniques are still valid today (though nobody would gaff a pike any more).
Venables had joined the paper as an illustrator and one of his first tasks was to craft a gardening strip. Jack Hargreaves, later famous for Out of Town and The Old Country television series, was recruited to create the words. Hargreaves came up with the gardener’s name: Mr Crabtree. Unfortunately, Hargreaves knew as little about gardening as Venables. The series seemed doomed. “What shall we do with Crabtree?” asked the editor. “Well, he could go fishing,” suggested Venables. It was so successful that Venables soon had a complete page to fill and was encouraged to work from home. “I don’t want your copy to smell of the office,” the editor said. The Crabtree strip then grew into a book. “I was just left to do it,” Venables said. He chose the typography, painted the watercolours, wrote the text. It took six months.
From its 1949 launch, Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing set up camp in the bestseller charts. Richard Walker, probably the best all-round angler of all time, said of it: “Until Crabtree, many people regarded fishing as a joke. Crabtree made it serious.” Venables, alas, made nothing from the book. Because he was part of the Mirror staff, he was paid no extra for creating it. But his legacy is probably the greatest general fishing book of the past 100 years, perhaps of all time.
Around the same time, a novel came out in America that revived the flagging career of Ernest Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea, the story of an old man who hooks a huge marlin only to lose most of the fish to sharks, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and contributed to its author being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The 1952 edition of Life magazine, in which the story appeared, sold 5.3 million copies in two days. Several films were made and if we discount Jaws, it has been the most successful fishing film ever, though none captures the magic of Hemingway’s words and the epic battle between Santiago and the marlin.
The Old Man and the Sea captivates any fisherman, whether you chase giant sea-trout in Tierra del Fuego or stocked rainbows in a concrete bowl. My favourite lines? The moment that the marlin shows itself: “The line rose slowly and steadily and the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides.” It made me, a kid in short trousers, dream that one day, I too, would fish for marlin.
The other sea-fishing writer whose works have proved enduring far beyond their creator’s lifespan is Zane Grey. In real life, Grey was a crotchety, vain, obsessive, fiercely competitive, glory-seeking womaniser who lacked both humour and humility. Maybe he carried this huge chip on his shoulders because he was christened Pearl. And it was a wonder that he wrote at all. He produced his first story, Jim of the Cave, when he was 15. His father tore it to shreds and beat him.
But he went on to become the most successful author of Western novels, selling huge numbers and ruling the bestseller lists for years. He made huge amounts of money – and spent most of it on ever-more ambitious fishing trips. His son, Loren, said that his father averaged 300 days a year fishing through his adult life. In 1931, he bought a boat for a round-the-world fishing trip that cost more than £300,000, a staggering sum in those days. (It wasn’t seaworthy, either.)
Despite appearing to be a man it would be easy to dislike, Grey created wonderful and some of the best fishing books. As Tom Fort wrote in The Best of Zane Grey: “When truly inspired by an encounter, he has no equal in communicating excitement. The prose is simple, taut, dramatic, his way with the climax enviably compelling and direct. You exult with him, despair with him. Your heart pounds with him.”
My favourite is still Tales of Freshwater Fishing. In it, Grey reveals he owned more fishing books than rods (and he owned a huge number of the latter). “I was asked why I so obviously thought the English fishing books superior to the American. ‘I suppose because the English anglers write better,’ was my reply. ‘Then they have infinitely more background and tradition. If they had such a river as the Rogue, such wonderful fish as steelhead, what wouldn’t they write!’”
BEST BOOK ON THE DRY FLY
While much of that literature has fallen out of favour, two English writers of that period are still read and revered: Frederic Halford and George Edward MacKenzie Skues.
The New York Times praised Halford’s Dry-fly Fishing in Theory and Practice (1889) “as being, within certain limits, the best book on fishing with the artificial fly ever written”. Halford has acquired a reputation as being dogmatic and opinionated but, as William Senior wrote in The Field in 1914: “He was a delightful companion – generous, big-hearted, amusing, a sayer of good things in a human way, and finely opinionated. He was a dangerous man to tackle in an argument if your knowledge of the subject was rickety. You could not always agree with him but could seldom floor him, the ground he stood upon being rock-solid.” The book became the bible for dry-fly anglers and is still in worldwide demand today. Halford truly changed the way people thought about the sport of fly-fishing, and imposed a system on to what had previously been random and haphazard.
On the other side of the coin was Skues. Halford’s disciples believed Skues’ radical thinking on upstream nymphing was somewhat below the belt: effective, it’s true, but unethical. For many years, notably at a famous debate in the London Flyfishers’ Club, the Halford set held sway. Now, both techniques are seen as acceptable and Skues’ achievement in almost single-handedly developing a method for trout using below-surface fly-fishing is rightly given its proper due. His books, most notably The Way of a Trout with the Fly (1921), drew admiration all over the world. The American historian Paul Schullery wrote: “It quickly established him as one of the day’s great angling theorists – as it also established the intellectual and ethical basis for sunken flies as legitimate tools of a well-rounded angler.” He added: “His self-deprecating and deceptively simple-sounding writings on trout and fly-fishing remain among the wisest and most revealing in the sport’s enormous literature.”
To appreciate Skues’ and Halford’s importance, there are a couple of books that help newer readers understand the debate’s ferociousness and how key their thinking was in shaping modern trout fishing. These are FM Halford and the Dry Fly Revolution (2002) and GEM Skues: The Man of the Nymph (2013), both by Dr Tony Hayter. They will surely be works that anglers will still read, enjoy and appreciate a century from now.
Trout seem to inspire some of the finest fishing writing. Hugh Falkus was perhaps best known as a film-maker and broadcaster, writing and presenting The World About Us films and winning first place at the 1969 Montreux Film Festival for his film on gull behaviour. But for anglers, Falkus is synonymous with salmon and sea-trout. Anyone seeking either species should devour his two classics: Sea-Trout Fishing (1962) and Salmon Fishing: A Practical Guide (1984). Both have remained in print since their launch. (How many fishing books can boast that?) The former was a seminal work, especially his original thinking on catching sea-trout at night, a method hinted at by earlier writers but never written about in such detail (and so well). He challenged conventional thinking and provided in superb detail an analysis of what was required for success. He wrote: “Don’t wait for the perfect night that so rarely comes. Ignore the wiseacre who hangs up his rod and speaks of thunder; let others tap the glass and funk the ground mist; don’t worry if the air is dry or the grass is wet or the wind is north, south, east or west; if you want to fish, then fish. And go on fishing however poor the conditions – because you will neither gain experience not catch many fish if you don’t.”
Brian Clarke and John Goddard took a different approach in their 1980 work The Trout and the Fly. It was the book of the film (or was it the film of the book?), The Educated Trout, a 50-minute BBC film in The World About Us series that documented their researches about how refraction and reflection affect what a trout sees. The book was a revelation. Richard Walker said it was “likely to prove the most import contribution to the literature of trout fishing this century”, while a review in the New York Times stated: “If you are a fisherman, this book is probably going to change your life.” With masses of underwater photography, The Trout and the Fly shows how an angler, his fly, tackle and his concealment (or lack of it) appear to a fish and affects its actions. Its observations and advice will still be valid (assuming there are any trout left) 500 years from now.
THE THIRD GAME FISH
Once upon a time, pike were considered the third game fish. Illustrations from the 18th century show the aristocracy fishing for pike, often preferring them to salmon. Pike fishing was a highly respectable pursuit for a gentleman. Times change. Suddenly, pike were seen as savage killers, to be removed by fair means or foul, and those who pursued them were seen as slightly dodgy characters, the sort who would net your salmon or snare your trout. But pike, whether for their size, their mean looks or alpha-hunter status, still bear a huge fascination.
Historian Frederick Buller has been obsessed by them since he saw extra-large pike while working for the Freshwater Biological Association in the Lake District, and started to compile data on the largest specimens. It took years and meant travelling all over the British Isles but the result was one of the great books: The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike (1979). This wondrous piece of dogged research records every outsize specimen that Buller could trace worldwide. It lists 230 pike in excess of 35lb, with stories and, where possible, photographs of each. Buller, interestingly, never caught a pike to qualify for his own listing, though in company with Walker he lost a monster fish estimated at more than 50lb from Loch Lomond.
You don’t have to fish for pike to admire this book and its stories, though Buller is rightly sceptical about some claims, quoting Frank Buckland, Queen Victoria’s inspector of fisheries, who said: “More lies have been told about pike than any other fish in the world.” Demand is still strong, with first-edition copies selling for more than £500. And it’s highly probable that Buller’s other majestic tome, The Domesday Book of Giant Salmon, which came out in 2007, will also be read and admired when salmon are only found in fish farms.
Finally, let me add another “modern” book that captivates anglers and non-anglers alike. Somewhere Down the Crazy River (1992) is the extraordinary story of two men who rediscovered mahseer, often known as the Indian salmon. That in itself is a fine story but what makes this book stand out is where the authors, Paul Boote and Jeremy Wade (now famous for his River Monsters programme), endure appalling deprivations to capture a goliath tigerfish from the Congo river, one of the most frightening places on earth. They were shot at by river pirates, attacked by soldier ants, caught malaria but eventually found the fish they sought, though Wade told me: “It was 10 times worse than we wrote in the book. People looked at you as though you were food.” And how frightening is the fish, which looks like a giant herring with the teeth of a vampire and grows to more than 100lb?
“Just bathing in the river carries the risk, we are told, of the sudden loss of genitals. The doctor himself witnessed wounds where pieces of arm or leg had been cut off. One victim had merely been washing his hands over the side of his canoe. All four fingers of his left hand had been completely severed. Not even crocodiles are safe.” Sometimes it’s better to read about fishing than actually do it.
FISHING CLASSICS: KEITH ELLIOTT’S TOP 10
- The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton (first published 1653)
- Dry-Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice, FM Halford (1894)
- The Way of a Trout with the Fly, GEM Skues (1921)
- Tales of Freshwater Fishing, Zane Grey (1928)
- Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing, Bernard Venables (1949)
- The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1952)
- Sea-Trout Fishing, Hugh Falkus (1962)
- The Trout and the Fly, John Goddard and Brian Clarke (1972)
- The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike, Fred Buller (1975)
- Somewhere Down the Crazy River, Paul Boote and Jeremy Wade (1992)