Plead The Fifth

theriverwhy This past weekend the Professor and I were enjoying a soggy evening with a little red vino while trying to determine the top five fly-fishing books of all time. We reached consensus pretty quickly on four great reads, but the jury is still out on the fifth slot. Take a look at what we came up with:

1. The River Why by David James Duncan. This is a personal favorite of mine. Adore this book because it’s really just a great love story hidden in a fish story.

2. The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton. I haven’t read it, going with the masses here.

3. Trout Bum by John Gierach. Didn’t blow my skirt up but I defer to the world on this one.

4. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. I know, I know. We love to hate what this film did to our secret little sport. But I love it. I love Robert Redford, I love Norman Maclean, I love the writing. It’s beautiful. It’s literary. It’s poetic. And even if you don’t like it, you at least have to admit, without it we wouldn’t have Buster.

5. ????

What’s your ruling? Did we get it right?

Don’t hold your tongue, instead plead your case for the fifth title to make the list.

54 Responses to “Plead The Fifth”
  1. What? No Harry Middleton???

    On the spine of time.

    The earth is enough.

    knock Gierach down a notch or two an put Harry in 3rd!

  2. The Longest Silence by Tom McGuane has to be on the top five list. At least it is on mine.

    The Nick Adam Stories by Ernest Hemingway is on my five as well.

  3. Timmy Mac says:

    Well, I was going to suggest “Vermont River: The Classic Portrait of a Man and His River,” by W. D. Wetherell, which I really loved, but Cameron Mortenson is definitely right about The Nick Adams Stories.

  4. Rod says:

    What Cameron says, “The Longest Silence by Tom McGuane…” It should be on the top of anyones list. I’ve read it 5-times, it’s that good. Best fishes, Rod

  5. CharlieTuna says:

    “The Next Valley Over” by Charles Gaines is a personal favorite. It’s a collection of short stories covering both fresh and saltwater and locations all over the world. The character studies are fantastic, but most importantly, it’s a vivid reminder that fly fishing is all about the journey and not the destination.


  6. Dan says:

    Pale Morning Done by Jeff Hull. A good love story about river guides.

  7. northernfly says:

    Agree with Cameron, Thomas McGuane is an excellent writer and The Longest Silence is easily in my top 5.

    Cameron Mortenson: The Longest Silence by Tom McGuane has to be on the top five list.At least it is on mine.The Nick Adam Stories by Ernest Hemingway is on my five as well.

  8. tuw says:

    great call woolly bugger! I have been wanting to read “Rivers Of Memory” for some time now.

    Harry was on his way to being one of the legendary writers of angling literature-it is too bad his life and career were cut short.

    I agree that Gierach needs to be knocked down a few notches.

  9. Timmy Mac says:

    Whoa, whoa, whoa…that’s crazy talk. Gierach is one of my favorite writers, fishing or otherwise. Let’s not go overboard here…

  10. Mark Coleman says:

    Make it 5 votes for McGuane. And one for Jeffrey Cardenas’ “Marquesa”. It’s hard to find a copy (an affordable copy, anyway) but worth the effort. Fantastic story and very well-written.

  11. The Professor says:

    Clearly I was under the influence of the vino and the charms of FFC-the Gierach choice was regretfully premature when I think of the absence of Middleton, McGuane, and Roderick Haig-Brown from the list.

    Just my opinion Timmy Mac-which makes this a fun discussion.

  12. Jeff Martin says:

    Agree with most of your choices but would have to add Habit of Rivers by Leeson

  13. The Professor says:

    Here are a few of my favorites that sure are an entertaining read.

    “The Aluminum Hatch”- Ronald Weber
    “The Snow Fly”- Joseph Heywood
    “Travers Corner” trilogy-Scott Waldie
    “Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis”-Howell Raines
    “The Trout Whisperers”-Pete Bodo
    “The Alaska Chronicles”-Miles Nolte

  14. You’ve got to have Tom McGuane “Ninety-Two in the Shade.”

  15. Ken Campbell says:

    I for one was quite taken aback that “A River Never Sleeps” was absent from the list. Shocked actually.

  16. 5 Titles? Nah, can’t be done. 5 Authors? Still not, but a little closer to making it happen.

    Gierach? He’s OK, but top 5!? Maybe somewhere in the top 20ish.

    No order here (and 5 over my limit):

    Sydney Lea – the best fly fishing fiction you’ve never heard of: “A Place In Mind”
    Harry Middleton
    Ernest Hemingway (love him or hate him, the Nick Adams stories and “Old Man and the Sea” are classics)
    Roderick Haig-Brown
    Sparse Grey Hackle (Alfred W. Miller)
    Robert Traver (John D. Voelker)
    Ted Leeson
    Robert Behnke (different genre, but too influential to miss)
    David James Duncan
    Norman Maclean

    Uh…I could go on. But I’ll spare you. If anyone’s interested, I do have a link to 154 fly fishing books that are mostly literary works, not how-to’s (many with my ratings and some with reviews, also contains links to the book’s info) over at Goodreads.

    FFC – feel free to delete this if you don’t like links in comments

  17. Gus Orviston says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with “The River Why” and “A River Runs Through It,” but would ditch “The Compleat Angler (who actually reads this one…and/or can or would choose to, for that matter?). Although Trout Bum is classic and Gierach is entertaining, I don’t think he is on par with some of the literary greats included in this discussion. I echo other’s opinions here by rounding out my top five with McGuane’s “Longest Silence,” Haig-Brown’s “A River Never Sleeps,” and Middleton’s “The Bright Country” or “The Earth Is Enough.” Hull’s “Pale Morning Done” is overwritten, overrated, and irrelevant.

  18. Scumliner says:

    Anyone who says they like “The Compleat Angler” has never read it…

  19. Wolfy says:

    Robert Traver was mentioned, and I’ll throw in a hearty second.

    Gierach is good for a quick fix in the winter, next to a fire, but he wears thin if you overdo it.

    Nick Lyons “Spring Creek” and “Bright Rivers” need to be on any list

    Roderick Haig-Brown is a must as well

    too many too list


  20. Tarheel says:

    The Traver’s Corners Trilogy has got to be on there. I would also put “Zipping My Fly” by Rich Touches (sp?). I would drop the brit bait fisherman. I am a huge Gierach fan, but I might replace “Trout Bum” with “A Good Life Wasted”

  21. deter says “the habit of rivers.” by ted leeson

  22. Tosh says:

    Of course, I’m a bit partial to The Alaska Chronicles, but I don’t think we can lump it into the all-time category since it’s only been out for 9 months. Maybe next year.

    My vote goes to 92 In the Shade, and I’d probably bump it into the 3-4 slot. One of the greats that I re-read every few years.

  23. Timmy Mac says:

    Despite the shocking and tragic anti-Gierach bigotry expressed in this thread (I kid! I kid!) y’all are certainly filling up my Amazon shopping cart pretty GD fast.

  24. Mike Ray says:

    I vote for Middleton’s “The Spine of Time” – classic and funny. Then I would kick of”The Compleat Angler” in favor of The Longest Silence by Tom McGuane. Has anyone actually read the Compleat Angler all the way through?

  25. Tony says:

    “Trash Fish” – Greg Keeler…

  26. Banning says:

    I glad to see so many people have the same affinity for Thomas McGaune’s – The Longest Silence. It’s at the top of my list!

  27. Sam Snyder says:

    Haig-Brown is a must
    Middleton, also should be up there, I would go with Earth is Enough. However, On the Spine of Time is also a worthwhile read.
    Of Course McGuane, The Longest Silence is a top read.

    While the Alaska Chronicles makes for fun (and fast) reading, it is hardly great literature. Same goes for Gierach, although he fills a wonderful niche in fly fishing literature.

    And for great storytelling, with the best of historical minds, a read with Paul Schullery, Royal Coachman or Cowboy Trout, is also an important component to a fly fishing library. No one knows our history better than Schullery.

  28. James says:

    Nick Adams Stories by Hemingway should be included, without a doubt.

    A VERY wonderful, important but relatively unknown book is called Trout Tales and Other Angling Stories, which is a collection of works by Corey Ford. I have never laughed so hard at any outdoor-themed writing, ever. He is particularly gifted at describing the clumsy and comedic, if mildly annoying, parts of the sport that we all know, such as botching flies or attempting to locate a hole in waders.

    Don’t forget Gordon MacQuarrie! A classic “outdoor writer” who truly loved fly fishing and wrote about it often. Stories of the Old Duck Hunters has many wonderful fictional short stories about chasing trout in Wisconsin.

    Finally, I would propose adding any book by Gene Hill. He was the editor of Field and Stream for some time during the 70s and he writes very short essays about fly fishing, bird hunting, and dogs. It is even more appreciated by those who both hunt and fish, and undoubtedly those who own dogs. I cannot think of a better book to read by the fire at a fishing or hunting camp.

  29. Tosh says:

    Well, then I guess my definition of great fly fishing literature would have to be any book that doesn’t put me to sleep or make me think of tweed.

  30. Wally says:

    Trout Bum is classic. Way back in the middle of the white collar decade Gierach showed us how blue collar fly fishing can be.
    Don’t forget Steve Raymond. Year Of The Trout is my favorite.

  31. James says:

    The Fly Fisher’s Guide to Crimes of Passion

  32. James says:

    Wasn’t Izaak Walton a bait dunker?

  33. ss says:

    Walton used all methods for catching fish, including “dunking bait.” It was not until Charles Cotton that fly fishing was added to the discussion in The Compleat Angler – that was the fifth edition of the book.

    Regardless of we think of Walton as a “boring read” or a “bait dunker,” his influence on the history of fishing literature cannot be denied. After all, Walton’s The Compleat Angler is the third most printed text in the English Language. I am not saying that makes it a page-turning read, but influential in our history – yes.

  34. Dave says:

    Good choices, with Leeson and Mclean as best stylists. But Walton, god love him, is only on there to lend sophistication to the list, like we all cautiously include John Milton. It’s not that it’s not important, or sophisticating…not even dull, so long as you keep its seminality in mind. But would you pick it up before McGuane, Haig-Brown, Harry Middleton? nope.

    Not to mention all the stiplings at StoryArc.


  35. Turnip Truck Driver says:

    Well done Chick, and your readers stepped up and provided many more.

    If, as I do, one loves Montana, fly fishing, dogs and guide humor, permit me to suggest Scott Waldie’s trilogy, Travers Corner, Return to Travers Corners and Travers Corner, Final Chapter.

    Allegedly, Travers Corner is Darby, Montana. Scott Waldie was a guide turned author and provided some excellent reading before he was called home to the perfect seam.

  36. Montanaflyfish says:

    Local Mo’ fishing guide Dave “Amos” Ames’ three classics have to be included:
    “True Love and the Woolly Bugger”
    “A Good Life Wasted or Twenty Years as a
    Fishing Guide” and
    “Dances with Sharks”

  37. Sully says:

    Turnip Truck Driver-
    Just a quick correction- Scott Waldie lived and wrote about Twin Bridges. There is plaque recognizing him on the Ruby.
    One time I dropped in to visit Nevin Stevenson who was working in Scott’s shop there. In the course of the discussion I asked Nevin, who went a good 260-pounds, how he liked Twin Bridges. “If I was into screwing other mens’ wives I would weigh 135 pounds by now.” was his reply.
    Lots of stories from Twin Bridges.

  38. Yall are the bees knees. This red-hot conversation about fishing lit has been a hoot. Probably my favorite comment thread ever on FFC — I just had to stay out of the way and soak it all in. In addition to all these comments there have been two dozen more comments on the FFC Facebook page. And I have never received so many email replies to a post! Your ideas are spectacular, your passion unmatched. Have I mentioned lately that I have the greatest blog readers bar none?

    There are so many good titles in the mix, and I hope to work may way through most everything mentioned. I am most keen to read “92 in The Shade”. And then maybe the Travers Corner trilogy. And “Trout Whisperers” b/c I hear there are plenty of good Missouri River mentions!

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for jumping in the mix and giving this site soul. Love it…

  39. Mark says:

    Hey – you Texans…I may have missed it in the posts – but what about your own John Graves “Goodbye to a River”…..that book is so beautiful and pushed me over the edge to fly fishing..the writing is so much better!!!
    All the best!

  40. great call Mark. haven’t read it but it’s one of the many books my dad really loves. it’s in my must-read stack for sure

  41. hugh koontz says:

    “Old Man and the Sea” certainly belongs as i near retirement age…
    “Trout Madness” was one of the first fly fishing books I ever read and it would still be on the shelf had the shelf not been burned.
    But where is “Moby Dick”? Didn’t he rise to a dry?

  42. Harry Middleton’s The Earth is Enough is an absolute gem from an outstanding writer who left us much too soon.

  43. Mike says:

    The 5th: Return to the River or A River Never Sleeps.. both by Roderick L. Haig-Brown

  44. Great post FFC and responses from everyone.

    I had a $50 gift certificate to B&N and ordered up The River Why, The Wyoming Stories, and Ninety-Two in the Shade. I needed some new reading for an upcoming trip to the PNW in March.

  45. Dave says:

    I vote for 92 In The Shade

  46. Timmy Mac says:

    Got and started reading The Longest Silence last night. Y’all were right!

  47. Ordered three books last week and they arrived this week:

    Lost in Wyoming – Scott Sadil
    92 In The Shade
    The River Why

    Looking forward to cracking these open in the next couple months.

  48. stiles says:

    I’ll put in my vote for “Upriver and Downstream” Edited by Stephen Sautner

  49. WindKnot says:

    Definitely top of the list is McGuane’s “The Longest Silence”: unparalleled saltwater prose.

    “Trout Bum”? Really? I much preferred “Sex, Death & Fly Fishing”: a much better read all-round and actually informative and funny. Still, not what I’d actually call literature.

    “River Teeth” is an awesome book, not all about fishing and thank goodness for that. David James Duncan is a freakin’ genius.

  50. joshua@gallatin river guides says:

    “a river runs through it” got me started in flyfish.
    “trout bum” kept me going in the beginning.
    “a good life wasted” led me to become a flyfishing guide
    gierach is the best

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