If the world were just, the fly fisherman would never be separated from the river. The itch to fish would never require a trip to the river to scratch it, because one cannot journey to a place where he’s already found.
Sadly, in the world we live in, we are constantly being forced from the river, we never get to fish as much as we want, and the itching gets worse. To alleviate our ailments, we resort to alternative remedies—videos, movies, and anything else about the fish we catch or how we catch them— that soothe us temporarily. While I enjoy all that explores the sport, I find the greatest joy in reading the books about fly fishing.
To me, reading is the modern media equivalent of fly fishing. With more efficient modern methods of distributing information such as social media, videos, and blog posts, books are an ode to simpler times, and reading, for me, takes me back to those times.
Over the years, I’ve pored over any written account of fly fishing that I could get my hands on, and through my readings, I have determined what I believe to be are the necessary prerequisites for fly fishermen. These are the three books that, I believe, every fly fisherman should read.
1. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean
“A River Runs Through It” is the most popular of my recommendations, made so by the (also fantastic) Robert Redford movie adaptation starring Brad Pitt. While the movie nearly does the book justice, it is impossible to visualize the poetic beauty that Norman Maclean spent nearly his entire life crafting.
The book is a semi-autobiographical account of Maclean’s relationship with his family and growing up in early 1900s Montana. In their house, testosterone engulfed family dynamics and made expressions of love difficult. So, subconsciously or otherwise, fly fishing became what held the men in the family together, even when they were apart.
The novel is bookended by both my favorite opening and closing quotes: “In my family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” and “I am haunted by waters.”
These two lines epitomize the book’s ability to induce nostalgia and sentimentality for those of us who are lucky enough to have had lifelong fishing partners.
“I am haunted by waters.”
Every time I read the book, I teeter on the verge of tears in recalling days spent fishing with my dad.
While this book won’t educate you on how to fly fish, you will learn about many of the reasons we fish, especially those that have nothing to do with catching anything. This will come through a story that’s all too familiar, told in a way that is nothing short of lyrical.
And along the way, your mind will be filled with the beautiful images of a house outside of Missoula Montana surrounded by mountains, sitting in a valley with a river running through it.
This is a beautifully written, painfully true book that even those who have never picked up a fly rod before will love. But if you are a fly fisherman, it is a 100%, must read.
2. Body of Water by Chris Dombrowski
You won’t see posters of Body of Water in every fly shop like A River Runs Through It. But I predict that it will soon be mentioned alongside Norman Maclean’s classic in conversations about books that transcend the sport. It’s that good.
Body of Water, at its simplest form, is a book about bonefishing, but it goes much deeper than that. It’s a historical analysis of the eco-tourism industry’s impact on developing countries; an ecological investigation of the effects of catch-and-release fishing practices on environmental systems; a memoir of a mentor-mentee relationship.
The book critiques the systematic racism of post-colonization societies. And tells the story’s of legends in the fly fishing world— pioneers of the sport of fly fishing for bones.
This book is a holistic view of fly fishing, spoken with passion in lyrical, mystical language. There is no doubt that Christ Dombrowski is a fly fisherman, though his writing may tempt you to think of him make you think of him more of a poet.
My only warning for Body of Water is to beware your bank account. After reading this book, you’ll have to experience fly fishing for bonefish for yourself.
3. Trout Bum by John Gierach
John Gierach puts a name to what we all dream of one day becoming— people who fly fish all the time. He calls them Trout Bums, and his book by the same title explores their world.
The book combines hilarious stories of outrageous experiences with some decent fishing advice, all while making you fall deeper in love with the sport. Trout Bum discusses fly fishing equipment, techniques, and culture.
“ Fly fishing for trout is a sport that depends not so much on catching the fish as on their mere presence and the fact that you do, now and again, catch some.” To me, this John Gierach quote, epitomizes the most fundamental aspect of fly fishing: the chase.
If your life lacks laughter, you’re trying to learn how to fly fish, or if you’re just trying to better understand your husband who disappears every weekend to stand in a river waving a stick, Trout Bum is a must read book.
Books Every Fly Fisherman Should Read
I think every self respecting fly fisherman should read at least those three books, but there are, of course, many others that explore the topic. If you have a book about fly fishing that you love, tell us about it in the comments so we can read it ourselves.
And if you still haven’t finished our required reading, get off Netflix, and do yourself a favor by picking some of these books up! It might even make you a better fisherman.