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The Backstage Pass

A Traveling Anglers Reading List: The Best Fly Fishing Books

May 03, 23

We believe appreciating the literature surrounding our sport is as important as getting it done on the stream or the flats. Reading about fly fishing, especially when going fly fishing isn't an option, can be the next best thing. But, how do you know what classic angling books to read?

To call a book a classic, someone once said, is to ensure no one will read it. To call a trout stream a classic is to assure throngs of anglers will flock to it, guidebooks in hand. So what happens when a fly fishing book is called a classic? Who can say for sure, but here are a few worth reading.

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In no particular order, here are some favorite “must-read” travel books worth diving into when en route to your fly fishing destination or at home waiting to plan your next great fly fishing trip.

The River Why by David James Duncan

If Western anglers consider Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It," the Bible, David James Duncan’s “The River Why” is their Apocrypha. Irreverent, whimsical, philosophical and downright hilarious, the book follows Gus Orviston from the waters of his mother’s womb to the hidden waters of the Pacific Northwest, where he finds, among other things, love, brief-but-thorough enlightenment, hatred of how-to angling guides, hangovers and magnificent fish. Full of literary references as obvious as a midge, “The River Why” ’s eclectic blend of Shakespeare and blues singer Taj Mahal, of Izaak Walton and Rumi, has solidified a readership that runs the gamut – from academic, latin-spewing match-the-hatchers to bro-bras tossing back PBRs during fly-fishing film tours.

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Maclean, a Montana-bred University of Chicago Shakespeare professor, wrote the book in his 60s after years of prodding by his children to write down the stories he always told them. The careful reader will note that it isn’t until the last quarter of the book that one of the characters actually lands a trout. When Maclean’s world of rivers and families is finally distilled into the seminal climactic moment, “I am haunted by waters,” most readers – anglers and non-anglers alike – are left reflecting on more than the final scene. It reminds of us the myriad of reasons we fish.

Trout Bum or Sex, Death and Fly Fishing by John Gierach

To suggest just one book by poet-turned-freelance writer John Gierach would be like suggesting an angler carry just one pattern in his fly box. Gierach writes for the still-inspired curmudgeons among us, who love to sit around discussing the intricacies of camp coffee or split-cane rods as much as they enjoy finding a perfect match to the emerging stage of a pale morning dun. His journeys across the West with fishing partner A.K. Best articulated an entire generation’s desire to cut ties, find a decent campsite along a river, and fish until the problems – be they marital, financial or existential – disappear.

Body of Water by Chris Dombrowski

Balancing a passion for fly fishing, the arrival of his second child and struggling with an income hovering perilously close to zero, author Chris Dombrowski suddenly gets an all paid fishing trip to the Bahamas. His journey leads him to meet legendary guide David Pinder and through hearing his stories, discovers a profound integrity and wisdom in a legendary guide’s life.

Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemingway

Arriving at Seney, Michigan to find the town devastated by a fire, lead character Nick Adams follows a road leading away from the town and seeks sanctuary in an untamed wilderness.

A Good Life Wasted by Dave Ames

A chronicle and celebration of the fishing-guide life, this book offers a unique perspective on an implausible period in the recent history of human civilization. When Dave Ames started guiding, Rocky Mountain locals rode horses and dug camas roots; now they’re trading stock options on cell phones. The collision of stone and computer ages was short-lived, but the deep-rooted themes of this book remain. It’s about what happens to wild people when the wilderness is gone.

Annapurna by Maurice Herzog

No one had ever climbed an 8,000-meter peak when Herzog led a team of accomplished French climbers to Annapurna in 1950. Herzog made it to the top, but on the descent, disaster.

Coming Into the Country by John McPhee

McPhee writes beautifully of his passion for the Alaskan backcountry while taking a hard look at the many misguided attempts to manage the Last Frontier’s natural resources.

Exploration of the Colorado River by John Wesley Powell

Powell lost most of his right arm fighting for the Union, but that didn’t stop him from leading the first descent of the Grand Canyon… in 1869… in wooden boats.

Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

An epic 1947 journey across the ocean on a balsa wood raft in an attempt to prove the South Pacific could have been peopled by natives of Peru. Read it before you see the movie!

Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett

Corbett was an Indian-born Englishman who became legendary for his ability to track and kill man-eating tigers and leopards in India. He also fished for Golden Mahseer. This is old-fashioned storytelling at its best.

My Life as an Explorer by Roald Amundsen

The job title that all of us would love to have: Professional Explorer. Amundsen was the first to sail the Northwest Passage and also beat Scott to the South Pole. Quite the life.

The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane
One of our favorite writers and arguably the greatest Montana author. In 33 essays, McGuane takes us around the world pursuing fish in a tale that reads more like fiction than fact.

Pale Morning Done
by Jeff Hull

Probably not destined to be a classic, but still a great fictional read about Montana rivers, fishing guides, and the fly fishing industry. A fun book to read, especially if you ever spent time as a professional guide.

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

The incredible tale of Massachusetts fishermen caught in the crosshairs of a “once-in-a-century” Nor’ easter. A story of hard luck, loss, and heroism.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

You probably read it when you were a kid. Time to read it again. The famous account of a castaway who survives on a remote island (that may or may not have been in the Bay Islands of Honduras).

Roughing It by Mark Twain

Twain headed west when the Civil War began, spending six years on the wild frontier. Roughing It is the record of that time, full of outrageous characters and events.

We Die Alone by David Howarth

In 1943, Norwegian commandos sailed into a Nazi trap on the coast of Norway. Only Jan Baalsrud survived, and this book tells the story of his escape. It’s a great survival tale (and the good guys win).

The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant

Bondurant features his grandfather and two grand-uncles as the main characters in the novel, which tells of the trio bootlegging moonshine during the Depression and Prohibition in rural Virginia.

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

It is not necessarily a fishing book but is a riveting true story about Teddy Roosevelt’s descent of an unknown unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon and all the perils he encountered along the way—many relating to the mighty river. If you can stretch it, this book should totally be on the list.

The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie

The first of Guthrie’s epic adventure novels set in the American West. Here he introduces Boone Caudill, Jim Deakins, and Dick Summers: traveling the Missouri River from St. Louis to the Rockies, these frontiersmen live as trappers, traders, guides, and explorers. The story centers on Caudill, a young Kentuckian driven by a raging hunger for life and a longing for the blue sky and brown earth of big, wild places. Caught up in the freedom and savagery of the wilderness, Caudill becomes an untamed mountain man, whom only the beautiful daughter of a Blackfoot chief dares to love.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

Bound for Antarctica, where polar explorer Ernest Shackleton planned to cross on foot the last uncharted continent, the Endurance set sail from England in August 1914. In January 1915, after battling its way for six weeks through a thousand miles of pack ice and only a day's sail short of its destination, the Endurance became locked in an island of ice. For ten months, the ice moored Endurance drifted northwest before it was finally crushed. But for Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven men, the ordeal had barely begun. It would end only after a miraculous journey through more than 850 miles of the South Atlantic's heaviest seas to the closest outpost of civilization. It’s the definitive account of Shackleton's fateful trip, Alfred Lansing brilliantly narrates the harrowing voyage that has defined heroism for the last century.

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison

If you have never read Harrison, this is a great place to start. An entertaining read and fine introduction to the humor, wit, and insight of one of the most engaging authors of our time.

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

A journey through Patagonia to the southern tip of South America – “the uttermost part of the earth” – and the search for forgotten legends.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

Some might think it’s cliché to add Hemingway to a list of great fishing reads. We disagree. In fact, we’ll go so far as to say that you’re not a real angler if you haven’t read this book.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

The definitive account of one of the most momentous journeys in American history. Don’t come to Montana unless you’ve read this book!

Ninety-Two in the Shade by Tom McGuane

Set in Key West, this is the story of a man seeking refuge from the world of drug addiction by becoming a skiff guide – even though a tough competitor threatens to kill him. It sounds like just about every Keys guide we know.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

A frank and funny account of a mountain-climbing expedition in the wild and remote Hindu Kush region in northeastern Afghanistan. One of the classics of travel writing.

Stormy Weather and Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen

The London Observer has called Hiassen “America’s finest satirical novelist.” All of his books are hilarious, but these two are our favorites.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

One of the most extraordinary survival odysseys of the Second World War. As you read the entire book, your only thought is, “Are you kidding me?"

The Joe Pickett Books by C.J. Box

Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett has been the protagonist in thirteen C.J. Box novels, starting with Open Season in 2001.

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens

Imagine hacking your way through thick jungle, racked with malaria, in a country on the brink of civil war. You discover, despite all this, the lost city of Tikal. And 43 other Mayan ruins.


Bonus reads:

These last two books are must-reads for any angler. We've saved the quaint synopsis because the breadth of information in these two cannot be properly summarized. Read them. You’ll catch more fish, guaranteed.

“The Dry Fly: New Angles,” by Gary La Fontaine, The Lyons Press, reissued 2002

“Presentation,” by Gary Borger, Tomorrow River Press, 1995