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Five "Must-Read" Books for River and Stream Fishing

by Slapout Mike

    On a recent float trip, my guide, who knew I read a lot about fishing asked me what books I would recommend.  It was a pretty broad question and we discussed a few titles as we floated down the river.  It occurred to me however that my fishing techniques and experiences on our Alabama Rivers and streams have been influenced to some extent by the books I’ve read.  To that end, I thought I’d try and identify five of those books which, at least from an approach, equipment and technique standpoint have been the most influential and useful.  Where this goes might seem a bit odd, but rivers and streams are rivers and streams.  They flow over rock, gravel, sand and mud.  They are of different temperatures, clarity and fertility.  They flow through different environments and are home to different species no matter where you fish. Fishing High Pine Creek near Roanoke, Alabama isn’t much different technique wise from fishing Indian Stream in Pittsburg, New Hampshire or the San Gabriel River in the mountains just north of Los Angeles where I grew up.

     Additionally, we all fish differently.  I enjoy both fly-fishing and ultra-light spinning.  Others may never fly-fish, but regularly and successfully work the rivers and streams with bait casters and medium spinning gear.  It doesn’t really matter. The fly-fisherman can learn from reading about spinning while the hardware guy can learn from reading about fly fishing.  So no matter what your ilk, don’t let the titles below throw you.  They all have valuable ideas about successful river and stream fishing and I personally have learned a lot about fishing our kind of waters from them.

     Worming and Spinning For Trout – Jerome B. Wood (1959).  Without a doubt, this one book published seven years before I graduated from high school, has had more influence on my fishing success than any other.  The cover price was $3.95 and my mother brought it home one afternoon and gave it to me after she found it on a bargain table for $1 at a local bookstore in my home town of Pasadena, California.  It still has the $1 price tag on the cover.  At the time, my fishing was limited to an occasional trip to the beach piers at Newport or Huntington Beach with my parents or one of the local reservoirs in search of “Velveta Trout”.  But things were changing.  A friend of mine and I at the time were beginning to venture off into the canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains behind where we lived in search of native rainbow trout.  Completely uneducated about real trout fishing, my mom decided I needed a book.  Thus I came into procession of Worming and Spinning For Trout—a book solely devoted to catching difficult trout in heavily fished waters in Western New York.  Unlikely as that might seem to apply to a Southern California teenager, three chapters—13-How to Spot Trout Hides, 17-Stream Approach, and 18-Spinning for Big Trout taught me how to catch fish in rivers and streams.  A mere 156 pages, this book has been read countless times.  Out of this book, I learned the technique of upstream spinning.

 

     "Only now and then will you hear or read about upstream spinning for trout.  It is a relatively rare method, [in 1959] but one that will consistently out fish any other spinning technique on most trout streams."

     That’s the opening paragraph in Chapter 18-Spinning for Big Trout. It was true in 1959, and although not unknown as a technique today, I still believe it is the most consistently successful method for fishing rivers and streams for trout, bass and anything else that swims therein.  I catch a lot of fish and I would estimate that 90% or more of my casts when using ultra-light spinning gear are of the upstream techniques I learned in this book.  In Chapter 17-Stream Approach I learned probably one of the most singularly important pieces of stream fishing advice in my fishing life:

     "Be constantly on the lookout for such second-best opportunities.  You must find them if you want to do better than average.  Many other anglers are making the obvious approaches, fishing the obvious hides.  What you want in heavily-fished streams is the less-obvious setup.  Be a piscatorial rebel who refuses to follow the flock.  It pays off."

     As I matured and entered the U.S. Air Force in the late 1960s I was blessed with lots of opportunities to fish in rivers and streams.  Whenever I did, I was geared up for and using upstream spinning and stream reading techniques I learned in this wonderful book.  Worming and Spinning for Trout was my inspiration.

     Trout Fishing and Trout Flies –Jim Quick (1971).  Jim Quick wrote two fishing books.  His name is not one commonly associated with fly fishing experts but his book Fishing The Nymph is widely cited.  He was marketing professional and in later life, a fishing tackle entrepreneur in Southern California.  For someone like me, a young, adventurous buck just back from Viet Nam, for whom fishing was a real avocation, Trout Fishing and Trout Flies was the perfect book.  It had everything.  It taught me about all the trout species, about the rivers and streams they lived in and the flies and lures that caught them.  Indeed, despite the title, Jim Quick’s book gave plenty of instruction on catching trout with hardware as well.  I was fly fishing and fly tying before I graduated from high school, but Jim’s book really allowed me to turn myself into a successful fly fisherman as well as fly tier.  Until the mid 1970’s I suspect that all the trout flies I tied, were from patterns in Trout Fishing and Trout Flies. In 1972-73 I was stationed in Great Falls, Montana and fishing the Southwest Montana rivers every chance I could.  When I was fly fishing, I was using flies I tied based on Jim’s patterns and using techniques and information from Jim’s book.  Years later, when I was first stationed in the South, I found myself reading Trout Fishing and Trout Flies before I ventured out onto an Alabama stream.  The following passage from the chapter entitled “The Little Brooks” captures the essence of the knowledge Jim’s book conveyed to me:

      "The successful fisherman of the little brooks must copy the stealth of the Algonquin, develop the monumental patience of nature itself, have the energy of an ambitious ant and the curiosity of a detective.  Possessed with these traits in more than average abundance all he needs then is the perseverance of a spider trying to build a web bridge from table to phone in the home of a feminine teenager, and a studious obsession to learn the water he is fishing.  From there on it’s merely a natural skill and some experience."

     Trout Fishing and Trout Flies isn’t about fishing for bass and bream in Alabama rivers and streams, but it could be.

     How to Find Fish—And Make Them Strike—Joseph D. Bates Jr. (1974).  By 1974, I was a regular paying member of the Outdoor Life Book Club.  My library was growing with some new title related to fishing and sometimes hunting arriving every month.  When How to Find Fish arrived, it was devoured.  I was currently living in Western Washington State and regularly fishing local and Eastern Washington rivers for trout.  This book had everything and the following on the back of the book jacket said it best: "Illustrated with 60 photos of actual lake and stream situations, diagrammed to show where and how to fish them."

     This is one of those books that are truly practical.  It was in 1974 and is today.  From the book jacket: "This fishing book deals with basic principles: How do you find fish?  How do you provoke them to strike a lure or bait?  The book doesn’t tell your how to cast or tie knots.  It does tell you how to catch more fish, because after you read it, you’ll be fishing over fish instead of over empty water…."

     Even today, I regularly peruse How To Find Fish to refresh my understanding of the streams I fish. Regardless of species, if it swims in rivers and streams, How to Find Fish will help you catch more of them.

     Fly Fishing For Smallmouth Bass – Harry Murray (1989).  In 1993, I got the opportunity to live and fish in the Washington, D.C. area.  Once I got my bearings, many days were spent on the Upper Potomac, South Fork and North Fork of the Shenandoah Rivers chasing Smallmouth bass.  Although I’d fished for Smallmouth since 1991 when I made my first trip to the lakes of northern Minnesota, I’d never really fished in rough and tumble rivers for big bass.  All my river experience up to the 90’s had been in trout and salmon streams out west or in Europe or the big slow Alabama.  At a fly fishing show in the winter of 1993 I had the good fortune to meet Harry Murray and acquire an autographed copy of his book.  Harry lives on the North Fork of the Shenandoah.  This book is the brain dump of a guy who lives and breathes small to medium river smallmouth bass fishing.  If Harry lived on the Coosa River, the book would have been entitled: Fly Fishing for Spotted Bass.  If he had lived on a small tributary of the Tallapoosa, he would have written the book: Fly Fishing for Redeye Bass.  If it was the Flint in Georgia, well you know: Fly Fishing for Shoal Bass. You get the picture. This is the ultimate river and stream bass fishing book.  In the Preface, Charles F. Waterman, a noted bass fishing writer in his own right said: “He [Harry] doesn’t have much modern competition in this area [Bass fishing in rivers].  If you want more detail you’ll have to wait for new techniques to be developed.”  Even though it is a fly-fishing book, much of what Harry conveys would contribute to successful hardware fishing for smallmouth [bass] as well.  It has for me.

Swing nymphing as illustrated by Harry Murray

      Fishing Small Streams With A Fly Rod – Charles R. Meck (1991), Fresh Water Bass—Ray Bergman (1942), How To Fish from Top to Bottom – Sid Gordon (1955)

     As you can see, I couldn’t really decide on number 5 so I’m listing three more books that helped me and I trust will help you fish our southern rivers and streams better.  When Ray Bergman wrote Fresh Water Bass, he didn’t live in the synthetic world we live in today.  I don’t know if Ray would have caught more bass if he ran around in a Ranger, pinged the bottom with a Hummingbird and chucked Sluggos, but whatever he used, he caught a lot of bass.  Fresh Water Bass is one of those pre-synthetic era Bass fishing books that brings a lot of insight to the sport about those fish we seek today.

     Small streams are different from big rivers, not just in size, but in many interesting and subtle ways. Although Fishing Small Streams With A Fly Rod is about trout fishing, it is also about finding and taking fish in small streams and creeks.  It’s a book full of interesting how-to’s that every stream fisherman should know, even if the quarry isn’t trout.

     Sid Gordon’s How To Fish From Top To Bottom is one of those books that just about every serious fishing writer cites at some time or another.  It is probably the first real overall attempt to write about reading water for all types of freshwater fishing.  This statement from the dust cover says it all: Sid Gordon’s revolutionary book, HOW TO FISH FROM TOP TO BOTTOM, provides the key with which the enthusiastic fisherman my unlock that greatest of angling secrets, known to so few,--the knowledge of how to “read water."

     How can you argue with chapter titles like: Water Can Be Read Like a Book (1) and Bass Is A Worthy Foe--Panfish Are Fun (14).  Statements like this provide timeless insights:  … I do not care to burden my fly with the heavy weight of a spinner.  I realize of course, that a spinner provides flash to draw the attention of the bass, but back in the early 40’s I solved that problem by creating a fly with flash.  I achieve that flash by ribbing my fly with embossed silver tinsel…. How To Fish From Top to Bottom is just one of those must read books.

     There are literally hundreds (probably thousands) of books devoted to the subject of fishing.  Every year more titles are published.  Some are useful, some are not.  Some books just rehash stuff that was published 20 years previously.  Information in some books clearly becomes dated as new techniques, equipment and materials are introduced to the sport.  But dated information isn’t necessarily useless information and should not be ignored.  You can’t buy a Lead Winged Coachman from Orvis today, but if you chose to tie one up, and fish it like Jim Quick would for trout or bass where Joe Bates and Ray Bergman taught you to find fish, you would probably be successful.  I’ve never seen a C.P. Swing spinner, but since a #2 Mepps works just as well when fished upstream according to Jerry Wood’s instruction and seems to catch smallmouth [or other bass] where Harry Murray tells me to find them, I am happy.  I am lucky enough to travel and have fishing opportunities for trout every year in Colorado and Montana.  But when I am on the Yellowstone River hunting big Brown Trout, I am not fishing much differently than when I am on the Coosa hunting Spots or the Tallapoosa searching out Red-eye. What I’ve learned about trout works well here as well as what I’ve learned about river bass works well there.

     I wrote this article for two reasons.  One, I really believe these specific books helped me become a better river and stream fisherman.  I suspect they will do so for others who read them. These are the five+ I chose.  They influenced me.  Others, equally instructive, may have influenced you.  Two, in general, books combined with the energetic application of what they’ve had to say have contributed significantly to my fishing success and I have always encouraged serious fisherman to read seriously about fishing.  You might be asking yourself ‘where do I find copies of 40 year old fishing books?’  Fortunately, we live in the internet age.  Every one of the books discussed above are available in used condition on-line from www.abebooks.com and other online book sellers.  But you still have to buy them, read them and apply them on the river. Go for it.

 

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