Two Great Fish Reads

A review of Stephen Sautner's Fish On, Fish Off and Mark Spitzer's Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West.

I’m always looking for a good fishing book in the summer, and two recent releases are among the most enjoyable I’ve read in years. Even better, they’re perfect for angler-naturalists and conservationists.

A visitor looking through my bookshelves will sometimes ask how many books on hunting, fishing and outdoor life I’ve read. About the best answer I can provide is “Too many.”

Many are honestly not very good and some qualify as crimes against paper. I also have a love of good writing, natural history and science, and too often outdoor writing contains none of the above. It would seem you can only read so much half-baked fly fishing philosophy, or face so many charging Cape buffalo, before crying mercy. And yet I persist.

I continue on this path because I love field sports, and because there is outdoor writing that, in my opinion, is as good as anything out there. Some choices here are obvious: Faulkner’s The Bear or A River Runs Through It. Others are less well known but they capture the outdoors so well I return to them again and again: Stephen Bodio’s Querencia, the works of John Gierach and Thomas McIntyre, Rick Bass’ deer hunting stories. Writing like this make my time afield, and my life, richer.

I add these two fishing books to that shelf, praise I don’t give lightly. And they should appeal even to those who don’t share my addiction to outdoor books. These are titles for fish nerds, conservationists and anyone who loves a well-spun story set in nature.

Top 10 List

  • Fish On, Fish Off: The Misadventures and Odd Encounters of a Self-Taught Angler

    By Stephen Sautner (Lyons Press)

    Stephen Sautner is executive director of communications for the Wildlife Conservation Society, a frequent partner in conservation work with The Nature Conservancy. Ted Williams, who wrote the foreword to this book, writes the popular Recovery column for this blog. With these two names on the front cover of Fish On, Fish Off, I expected a good read. I did not expect to be bent over laughing.

    There are many reasons to recommend this book, but the biggest is that it is damn funny. I have found that very few books have made me actually “laugh out loud,” but this one did. It did because Sautner has an eye for detail, and he describes perfectly the many trials and tribulations of being an angler in the 21st century. If you fish much, a lot of this has happened to you: broken rods, lost fish, hooks in painful places, more lost fish, no fish, bad weather and more. Sautner writes about the fishing you won’t find in outdoor magazines: the New Jersey trout opener and the cast of characters it attracts, for instance, or casting meticulous flies to rising fish that turn out to be feeding on bird feces.

    But I’d be wrong to suggest this is simply a funny book. Sautner brings a journalist’s attention to detail and a naturalist’s sense of place to every chapter. He also epitomizes what an angler-naturalist should be. He’s aware of his surroundings and appreciative of fish and the places they live.

    In many fishing books and articles, fishing occurs “out there”: at destination trout streams, at perfect places with perfect gear and perfect guides. I often suspect this positioning helps neither fishing or conservation; it removes the need to care for local waters and makes fishing irrelevant to those who can’t travel to fish. Sautner fishes when he can, where he can. This often means less-than-pristine urban waters – but they’re a more realistic fishing destination for many than blue-ribbon streams. He does travel, but even then it is often sneaking in a few casts on a work trip, or trying to balance fishing with other demands. (“Any serious angler will tell you that mixing serious fishing with family ‘quality time’ generally assures mutual disappointment for all involved,” he writes.)

    People are important in these stories: parents, kids, grumpy experts at tackle shops, lovers, friends and the occasional jerk. With Sautner’s descriptions, you’ll feel like you know these folks.

    This is not explicitly a conservation or science book, but I can think of few conservation or science books that so eloquently make the case for fishing’s relevance in the 21st century. I find myself recommending this one to my naturalist and fish nerd friends.  We need more books that provide a true picture of what outdoor life in the 21st century means. Fish On, Fish Off does just that.

  • Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West

    By Mark Spitzer (Bison Books)

    How do we measure the state of rivers, streams and lakes? For Mark Spitzer, the answer lies in bizarre fish that many people consider “ugly.” In a madcap travelogue, he encounters these weird fish and muses on their conservation – and what their plight says about humanity.

    Spitzer is a creative writing professor, poet and novelist who has previously written two books about the primitive fish called gar, as well as a book-length epic poem about the hellbender, a large river amphibian. As with those books, this book brings a unique perspective to freshwater conservation, to put it mildly.

    Spitzer seeks out each fish in a unique way, from electrofishing for invasive silver carp, to catching large flathead catfish by hand, to participating in a bounty program for pikeminnows that feed on salmon. Along the way, he meets with many biologists and others who care for the fish. He uses fishing, and fish encounters, as a way to explore larger issues around our treatment of rivers and the broader environment.

    As with Sautner’s book, it’s also about his own relationship to fish and the natural world: “On this monster quest I was mostly alone with my own mind, driving thousands of miles, processing death and divorce, and these fish provided transcendental moments—the kind we live our lives hoping to achieve, the kind that reassure our chromosomes that Nature can save us from ourselves.”

    This book contains some of the more unusual fishing stories, and unusual conservation stories, you’ll encounter. It’s a difficult book to categorize but you’ll also find it tough to put down.

    Fish road trips are one of my favorite things, but the epic ones are not for the faint hearted. You stay too long at the fishing, you drive too many miles, eat too many convenience store burritos. You are often too hot or too cold, wet, dehydrated, sunburned and sleep deprived. But you’re grinning ear to ear. Because of those fish. And such trips develop their own strange rhythm, for the faithful a form of poetry.

    Here is a book that captures that rhythm. Every page. The fish-obsessed will smile knowingly and follow Spitzer as he encounters everything from endangered razorback suckers to burbot on ice. And along the way, you’ll realize you’re enjoying a lot of science and conservation as well.

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1 comment

  1. Henry Hughes says:

    Dear Matt Miller,
    I frequently enjoy your nature blog, and loved your reviews of Spitzer’s Beautifully Grotesque Fish and Sautner’s Fish On, Fish Off. Great books, indeed.
    I read, collect, teach, and occasionally anthologize literature dealing with angling, and would love to ask you a few questions. Would you consider emailing me? I’m a professor of literature at Western Oregon University and it would great to get your sense of where fishing literature is heading.
    Thanks very much,
    best fishes,
    Henry Hughes