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Fly Fishing Guidebooks

If accumulating fly fishing books is a disease, amassing guidebooks is its most acute symptom.

From the ubiquitous Wilderness Adventure Press Flyfisher’s Guide Series to the locally printed spiral-bound booklets available at fly shops, any angler who is drawn to printed works on the sport knows about guidebooks. Even in an age where so much of the information contained in such works is available online, new editions and books are released annually.

Why is that? How can publishers continually profit by chronicling access points? Why is there such a draw to books filled with short anecdotes, hatch charts, and maps of varying levels of usability?

My theory is that their secret formula to success involves playing off of anglers’ 10% need for information and 90% desire for escapism. I’ve benefited significantly from some of the pertinent information in guidebooks, but mostly what they’ve done is whetted my appetite to get out and fish.

I’ll sit down and read a fly fishing guidebook like it is a novel. Most of them do begin with a forward of some sort that borders on prose: a tale of personal discovery whilst writing the book, what has changed in the author’s life between printings that mirrors the changes in a stream, and so on. It hooks you, draws you in, and suddenly you’re reading about a marginal river in a part of the state that you’ll never have any reason to visit.

Thanks to guidebooks, I’ve also found myself speaking semi-authoritatively on rivers that I’ve never seen, let alone fished.

“I’m going to Mongolia for a few weeks to work on my dissertation,” someone might say.

I’ll confidently reply, “You definitely need to try to get to Ulan Bator and find a guide to take you out for taimen. If you’ll be there between May 15th and June 20th it would be ideal. Do you have mice patterns and an 8 weight? That will put you on the 40 to 50-inch fish. Oh, and watch out for the fermented mare’s milk.”

"Hark, Izaak! Thine guidebook was true regarding the fine, fat trout... and the presence of many a local washwoman!"
“Hark, Izaak! Thine guidebook was true regarding the fine, fat trout… and the presence of  local washerwomen cordial and fair!”

But the escapism that comes from reading guidebooks isn’t limited to the far-off destinations that one may never step foot in. Hearing someone else write about the rivers I fish is fascinating. I’m not sure if it is more interesting to hear someone make the same observations that I would make, or to see a completely different perspective. Either way, I must admit that there is a tinge of jealousy to read about another angler’s exploits in my water. Almost like they’re currently standing in a hole that I wanted to cast to.

Before Al Gore brought us out of the stone age by gracing us with the world wide web, the only real options for figuring out where one could fish were guidebooks or word of mouth. Or, if one was particularly intrepid, systematically traversing every blue line on a topographic map. If pursuing the word-of-mouth angle wasn’t an option, due to the waters in question being out of state or the inquisitive angler suffering from severe social anxiety, picking up the appropriate guidebook was the only course of action.

Whenever one does purchase a guidebook, it is with full knowledge that a revision is coming. It might not be next year, or even the year after that, but it is coming. New regulations, posted property, and surely some degree of paradigm-shifting content will be in the new printing. The angler faces a real conundrum. Should I buy the new book? And if I do, what should I do with the well-loved and nostalgically significant copy I already own? The answer is simple: squirrel it away somewhere. You’ll never know when it’s archival value will be necessary and/or profitable. Just don’t tell your wife.

Over the nearly two decades I’ve been fishing, I’ve collected a number of guidebooks. Some contain beautiful pictures, detailed maps, and elegant writing that beckons one to fish even the most pedestrian of put-and-take creeks. Others are effectively the literary equivalent of a cave painting: “fish here,” with a photocopied squiggle representing a creek… or a road… or something. Both have their place, and at the end of the day a good read doesn’t always translate into what is needed for a good day on the water.

Books in their tangible, paper form will never go away. For a pursuit like fly fishing, which fundamentally requires physical engagement, there is a natural draw to holding a volume and learning or reminiscing. Handing a book is part of the experience. It might be a pulled over on the side of the road, trying to ascertain if you’re currently parked in the pull-off that is next to the excellent pool – or dangerously close to the hermit that chases fly fishers from his land with a shotgun. It could be in an overstuffed leather recliner, with a beverage in hand and no intention of leaving the house. The same book is perfectly suited to either situation. Guidebooks are a part of fly fishing culture, and it is better because of them.

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