As someone who loves both fishing and books, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that I spend an inordinate amount of time reading fishing books. At their best, fishing books can fuel dreams about new species and destinations or shed important insights on ethics and conservation.
Still, even I must acknowledge there’s a lot of nonsense written about fishing. I have never held the belief that waving a thin piece of graphite automatically confers grace or character. Too many anglers are content catching and celebrating non-native fish, often at the expense of native freshwater biodiversity. Reading a lot of fishing stories, it can feel a bit like golf with a fly rod.
But anglers can be among the most effective voices for conservation. Most people, even wildlife conservationists, ignore fish and freshwater ecosystems. Anglers have taken the lead in restoring and protecting rivers and streams. The Nature Conservancy has worked with anglers on a long list of important projects throughout the organization’s history. My very first day on the job, 21 years ago this month, involved writing about a conservation effort on a well-known trout stream. This has been a current running through my Nature Conservancy career ever since.
The books featured in this review all also have a conservation theme running through them, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit in the descriptions of fish and the places they are found. These books show that angling can be a portal to better understanding and protecting freshwater environments, but only if we pay attention.
I hope you enjoy them, and as always feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.
Illuminated by Water
By Malachy Tallack
“What little I have to offer by way of technical advice is not really worth writing down, and would probably best be ignored,” author Malachy Tallack explains in his introduction, “But Why is also the question that matters most to me, the one to which I keep returning, again and again.”
Few fishing books tackle the why as thoughtfully as Tallack, a claim I don’t make lightly. He writes lyrically about his fishing experiences, particularly outings in the Shetlands, where he grew up, and Scotland, where he currently resides. He captures the totality of the experience, with vivid descriptions of places, the people he meets and the inherent joys and frustrations of angling.
He alternates these fishing adventures to tackle bigger issues, from the gender imbalance in fishing, how fishing connects to larger environmental issues, and the ethics of catching, release and eating fish. For each of these issues, Tallach’s writing stands among the best of the subject.
Illuminated by Water was completely absorbing, transporting me to distant lochs, while also giving me new ideas to ponder about my favorite recreational activity. Just a delight of a book.
By Steve Ramirez
Steve Ramirez seeks the healing power of fly fishing, and for good reason. His career as a Marine and law enforcement officer left him with PTSD, toxic work environments and a significant amount of setbacks and stress. It would be understandable for him to turn away from humanity and seek the quiet of fly fishing.
But that’s not this book, not really. While Ramirez does seek new fish and fishing experiences, he wants to do so by connecting to people not turning away from them. And so he embarks on a series of trips across the United States, each with a conservationist devoted to native species. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the people he fishes with).
He’s seeking not just fish, but also hope. Hope for creeks and for native species and for a world that often seems has gone mad. Enjoying others’ favorite home waters, Ramirez strives to fish with purpose, attentive to each detail of the experience. As he writes, “we are all better off mindfully catching and releasing a single fish in a special place than catching countless fish anywhere, mindlessly.”
Ultimately, Ramirez knows we won’t conserve what we don’t love. In eloquent prose that is at times hilarious and other times heartbreaking, he captures what he loves most: native fish and wild rivers and good friends among them.
By Paul J. Radomski
I own fishing books devoted to Nile perch, tench, goliath tigerfish, redeye bass and snakeheads, among many others. I have way too many titles covering trout from just about every angle. But I have never read a book devoted to one of North America’s most popular sport fish, the walleye. Well, until now.
Fisheries biologist has written the definitive account of the walleye. His years of experience both studying and fishing for the species has provided him a wealth of knowledge, from the walleye’s place in culture and history to current research and management of the species. This is a highly readable account that includes fishing stories and recipes, recommendations for conservation and much more.
Like any popular gamefish, the walleye attracts a fair amount of “barstool biology” with anglers providing their own solutions to management issues. Radomski understands angler perspectives. He also understands the science. The result is a book that can help shape a better future for both walleye and the people who love them.
Golden Years, Golden Hours
By Paul Vang
Paul Vang, and outdoor writer in his eighties, is well aware that most of his fishing trips are behind him. This is a book in no small part about aging. But this isn’t a book about nostalgia or sentimentality. Vang still leads an extraordinarily active life. If he pines for some sort of perfect mythical past, it doesn’t show here.
Instead, Vang seems to focus on savoring every moment he can still get afield. His writing is filled with what is best about the outdoor life, the time spent with family and friends, the thrill of experiencing new places and the solace of returning to home waters. And he recognizes that these outdoor adventures all depend on clean water, healthy habitat and public lands.
A lot of the fishing and other outdoor adventures take place near his home in Montana, but he’s also had a wealth of experience around the continent. This isn’t a book about big fish, although they’re here, or technique. It’s about enjoying the totality of experience, whatever your age, and recognizing that every day on the water or in the field is a gift.
An Atlas of Illinois Fishes
By Brian A Metzke, et al
Every angler, stream explorer and freshwater conservationist should know the fish species of the waters they visit. So often, even stream advocates know only a bit about freshwater biodiversity. Fortunately, there are a growing number of excellent fish references books, often organized by U.S. state, that provide detailed information on each species.
An Atlas of Illinois Fishes is a welcome addition to this list. I’ve had the pleasure of fishing and visiting several conservation projects in Illinois, and confess that the tremendous biological diversity surprised me. It’s a great state to explore for freshwater naturalists, and this book provides extensive information on each Illinois fish species.
There are identification keys, photos, range maps, conservation information and more. This one fills a welcome need in my fish reference library. Any fish nerd would enjoy it.
The Secret Carp
By Chris Yates
Chris Yates is well-known in the United Kingdom, but much less so in the United States. This isn’t a new book, but I’ve recently become acquainted with Yates’s work and he’s already among my favorites. Quite simply, he gets it. He gets why anglers do what we do and eloquently describes the little pleasures of the experience that somehow make it all more than the sum of the parts.
The Secret Carp is my favorite. In England, fishing for carp and other “coarse” species has a long and treasured history. (In the United States, even native species like suckers and gar are too often labeled “trash” fish, under-managed and under-valued). This book involves one full day of carp fishing in which not a lot happens in terms of catching fish. But a lot happens along the water and in Yates’s always-roaming mind.
Reading it makes me appreciate fishing even more. It is a reminder that, at its best, fishing ignites a childlike sense of wonder. Read this book, and then read everything Chris Yates has written.
Join the Discussion
Thank you very much. Casting Onward and the Secret Carp look perfect for my brother.
Hi, Matthew. I’m not much of a fisherman myself to be honest. I used to fish with my dad even going on fishing trips with him up until I was about 11 maybe 12. And sometimes I would join my friend Scott in my 20s and 30s while he was fishing at the lake near us, Lake Chabot, in the Bay Area of CA, which I found relaxing though I didn’t fish myself during these hangouts. Your take on these books was interesting to read. I was curious to know if you have ever come across any short stories or novels with a slight supernatural edge or one with a cryptid theme mixed in any of the fishing books you’ve read? Especially interested if they are subtle examples as I know a good deal of horror-related books with cryptids in them like the Dead Bait anthologies+ numerous horror offerings in novel form by Severed Press. I’ve tried looking for stuff like this before but interested in a more realistic setting with fishing the focus, the cryptid or supernatural elements secondary. I guess the closest thing I found over the years that fit the bill was Monster Stick & Other Appalachian Tall Tales by Paul and Bill Lepp, which I found amusing and sometimes pretty funny and entertaining. I would be interested in something similar but hopefully with more of an extinct or rare fish and one bigger than expected. Sorry this is partially off topic but it sounds like you really know your fishing tales and I got interested enough to buck it up and just ask you. ??