Fish Books: Finding Facts and Fiction

by Louis Bignami

You can't fish every day -- I know. I've tried. Even if you could, you probably wouldn't enjoy it. Anything becomes routine with enough repetition. Then too, those who don't know history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. Learning by your own mistakes is okay; learning from the mistakes of others reduces scar tissue! So there are at least two good reasons for reading about your favorite sport besides the chance not to mow the lawn.

Reading builds anticipation of future trips and refreshes recollection of trips past. Reading suggests new, or historic methods such as deep line drifting which, when modified for the boats and tackle of today, still work well. Most of all, reading about fishing offers an armchair pleasure available to all.

Unfortunately, a great many fishermen, and a sizable percentage of those who write about fishing, simply don't know the classics of the past like Zane Grey's bill fishing books, or Joe Brooks' books of the fifties and sixties. As a result, they reinvent the wheel, or rod, with new approaches that were old when women wore their underwear inside their clothing.

There's so much good material that it's difficult to choose. You can find solid general treatments such as Frank Woolner's 1972 Modern Salt-Water Sport Fishing or regional classics like Philip Wylie's Crunch and Des; Stories of Florida Fishing. Wylie's other works, Fish and Tin Fish, Denizens of the Deep, The Big Ones Get Away! or The Best of Crunch and Des all deserve a look.


For a good general account of the people who influenced saltwater fishing one book stands out -- my copy is quite tattered from multiple reads! George Reiger's Profiles in Saltwater Angling is, as the subtitle suggests "A History of the Sport -- Its People and Places, Tackle and Technique". George, well-known as a writer on conservation subjects, offers unique insights into the development of saltwater fishing, a subject that he's known well since childhood. If you can find one of these 1973 classics snap it up! It's worth the price just for chapter 15, "The Gulf Coast -- Yesterday and Today"; not to mention the extensive bibliography which formed the basis for my own collection of works on saltwater fishing.


Some of the most interesting books are quite old. For example, Charles Hallock's 1876 classic, Camp Life in Florida: A Handbook for Sportsmen and Settlers, tells of a time long past when the redfish outnumbered the tourists in the Sunshine State! Lots of early writers spent time in Florida. James Henshall's Camping and Cruising in Florida, from 1884 is typical, and worth the search. Writing styles have certainly changed -- I'm not sure improvement is the word here! -- and titles shortened, since bits like Holder's and David Star Jordan -- the latter a notable early conservationist -- Fish Stories, Alleged and Experienced, with a Little History, Natural and Unnatural, out in 1909.


If you want everything in one book, you can't do better than the book A.J. McClean edited back in 1965, McClane's Standard Fishing Encyclopedia. A.J. who I'm sure enjoyed his obituary in Trout which came out the year before he died, wrote the introduction to the best modern book on big game fishing, Jack Samson's Line Down! The Special World of Big-Game Fishing. Jack, who has caught everything except Moby Dick on a fly rod, also wrote the best saltwater fly fishing book, aptly titled Saltwater Fly Fishing, The Challenge and Adventure of Offshore and Flats Fishing with a Fly. In the latter book, "Coyote Flats -- Redfish and Sea Trout" should appeal to Texas fishermen. Anything with "Samson" on the byline deserves a read.

For a less expensive, but less exhaustive look at this period consider the 1962 Salt Water Fisherman's Bible by Erwin Bauer.

Fishing stories do, of course, go back a long way. Jonah would be one example. Tournament types might like to know cheating goes back at least as far. It's reported that when Anthony and Cleopatra were taking breaks from, depending on who you believe, statesmanship or amorous dalliance, they fished off her barge. Anthony bribed divers to stick fish on his hook. Cleopatra found out and had a salted, dried fish attached. So the creative types who enter frozen Florida bass in Texas contests were slow off the blocks!


Some common techniques go back even as far. In Fishing with Hook and Line one of the classic Frank Forester books cites "common pewter spoon" lures. At about the same time, the early 1800's, accounts of saltwater fly fishing add new insights to the duration of this now popular sport. Descriptions of squid presentation and rigging haven't improved since this period either!

Even before 1900, regional fishing guides divided the North and South, not according to the Mason-Dixon line, but as George Reiger points out, "The North ends when you stop catching weakfish, and the South begins when you start taking spotted sea trout." British anglers seem to concentrate on the South -- given their weather, and London fogs before coal fires were outlawed, an intelligent choice -- and their efforts developed the sport. J. Turner in The Giant Fish of Florida, a 1902 effort, had a good account of both night fishing for tarpon and a recommendation that anglers bring their ladies along even though the only local lodging was a huge houseboat called Hughes Floating Hotel.


Big game fishing came a bit late to the south; it started on June 1, 1898 when Charles Holder took a 183-pound bluefin tuna off Catalina Island. Others may have come first, accounts vary, but Holder wrote, so got the credit. It's interesting that Charles Holder's father was the first to observe that coral grew five or six inches a year and, in a notable career that sent his son fishing and writing, also ran the military prison at Fort Jefferson during the War Between the States. Holder's Log of a Sea Angler changes venues to the Florida and Texas coasts with early accounts of both snook and cobia fishing. These cast a pall on today's conditions, and catches! His rather lengthy list of credits, some self-published, include Big Game Fishes of the United States(1903) and an interesting look at early Florida, Along the Florida Reef.

The line from Holder through California's Catalina Tuna Club to today's fishermen is clear. In 1913, William Boschen took the first hook and line broadbill -- Boschen was the inventor of the internal star drag reel later built by Julios Vom Hofe who equipped most pioneer big game fishermen. Fransworth started the kite trolling techniques, later taken to the East Coast, off Catalina. These insured baits could be presented away from boat wakes so as not to scare fish. Zane Grey, rather a neophyte fisherman at the time, tried to cozy up to Boshen, but Grey seemed rather self-advertising to Boshen and other members of the rather patrician club. So Grey headed for the Pacific by way of Northwest steelhead waters. The whole series of Grey's "Tales of" books seems a bit casual about what today's fishermen would call "fair chase."

It's interesting that 20 years later, Grey tried to get Ernest Hemingway into a round-the-world fishing contest. Papa turned him down as Grey, even then, was fading fast. Grey, it's worth noting, caught a lot of fish with shark bites, on broken rods, etc. When the International Game Fish Association came into being they disallowed many of his records. Grey's most interesting biography (and the circles connect often in saltwater fishing) is George Reiger's Zane Grey, Outdoorsman, a solid 1972 book.


Grey overlapped the high period of big game fishing before, and just after World War II with Glassell and the Marrons. Eugenie Marron's Albacora offers a good read of the many records the couple set mostly off Peru. Wylie's books read well even now. Saltwater Daffy is, as its title suggests, "daffy". S. Kip Farrington, Jr. and his wife Chisie were, along with the Leonards, another famous angling couple of the period. Farrington's Fishing with Hemingway and Glassell offers an interesting look at the famous writer and well-known fisherman of the immediate postwar years. Farrington was reportedly Glassell's guest brought along to report on Glassell's catches, which included "the world's greatest fish", the still record 1,560-pound black marlin taken during his record-setting year.

There are a lot of good books written in the 1930's and 1940's. Harlan Major's Saltwater Fishing(1939) examines prewar tackle and technique. His writing life, a long one, extended through Fishing Behind the Eight Ball(1952) and covers the humor of angling well. Some of the best books fall into the realm of techniques. Mark Sosin and Lefty Kreh's book classic Practical Fishing Knots, a 1972 book now returned to print in a new edition, is one such. So is just about anything written by Vlad Evanoff, a skilled writer and painter. Like tips? Try 1001 Fishing Tips and Tricks(1970), Another 1001 Fishing Tips and Tricks(1970), Natural Saltwater Fishing Baits(1953) or Surf Fishing(1948).

Things don't change that much. Tips from my 1946 edition of A.J. Tapply's Tackle Tinkering still work . Al Reinfelder's Bait Tail Fishing of 1969 is another technique specific book worth a look.


You might also consider fishing fiction. Given the amount of fiction in some fishing books, you can figure this out on your own. Some books like Winston Churchill's History of English Speaking Peoples are "interesting even if it didn't quite happen that way". Tops on the list are Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream. Jack Hemingway, "Papa's" son, who writes on fly fishing and is now as famous for his daughters as for his father, has some insights on this period in his fine biography too. It's rather interesting that the jumping fish footage in the film treatment of The Old Man and the Sea is that of Glassell's world record Black Marlin now displayed at the Smithsonian. If you wanted to extend your scope a bit, Kipling's Captains Courageous deserves a look if you prune off the images of the Spencer Tracy film classic. Isn't it odd Tracy also starred in The Old Man and the Sea? I should not -- plug! -- the fact that I cover Glassel's record, a dozen or so saltwater records, and a couple of dozen freshwater records in my 1991 book, Stories Behind Record Fish available through the North American Fishing Club.

All of these books, and some that also include hunting, such as Stilwell's Hunting & Fishing in Texas(1948), offer worthwhile insights into the changes in fish population, tackle and techniques. There are, of course, many more, but this is a personal list largely based on my own collection.


Do realize that buying books is a disease! The only time I was ever thin I lived above a bookshop down the street from college. I'd regularly forego lunch, and sometimes dinner, to buy books from the bargain racks. In years since I've never passed a book rack. In London, my wife claims, I head for downtown bookstores while she unpacks. She may have a case. Fishing books are, like fish, where you find them. Garage sales, library close-outs, estates, even in one case a police rummage sale of unclaimed stolen property produced books. So do dealers. George Reiger told me about Ken Callahan. Now I get four or five catalogs a year from Callahan & Company, Booksellers, Box 505, Peterborough, NH 03458. Ken Callahan's prices seem reasonable -- many books are under $20, some under $10 -- his service prompt and refunds on returns reliable. If your budget won't permit purchase, don't overlook library interloan systems. In most states small local libraries can access books from urban or university libraries.

Such books, from whatever source, offer a solid alternative to working outside when the norte's blow or grass beckons. It's trite, but true even in the days of wide-body jets, "that there's no ship like a book to take you to faraway lands."