Sunday April 20, 2014




Western fly fishing history topic of book

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Welcome to Week LXXXI of 'Fishing Parkland Shorelines'. Like most of us I am a novice fisherman, loving to fish, but far from an expert. In the following weeks I'll attempt to give those anglers who love to fish but just don't have access to a boat, a look at some of the options in the Yorkton area where you can fish from shore, and hopefully catch some fish.

I suppose every time I pick up a fishing rod, or look at a new hook begging to be purchased at the store, I am at least subliminally aware of the history of the activity.

The first hooks tied to a stick and cast upon the water in the hopes of catching a fish were of course carried out as a way to secure the next meal.

While I enjoy eating fish, love creating recipes highlighting fish, I do not fish as a means of holding off hunger.

Today we fish for relaxation, fun, challenge, and a host of other reasons not related to eating.

It has been that way for most sportsmen for decades now.

But how we fish, and with what, have their roots deep into history.

Among the ways we fish I have also suspected fly fishing perhaps has a richer history.

The idea of flies created at a workbench by a fisherman's own hand, something delicate, something mimicking the insects of a stream, has a different feel than buying a spoon, even one as iconic as those of Len Thompson and other designers.

That all said being aware of fishing history, has not meant knowing a lot about it, and I was probably aware of even less about fly fishing as I am coming to it rather late in life.

Which brings me to 'Cowboy Trout: Western Fly Fishing As If It Matters', a book by noted author Paul Schullery.

Schullery comes at the book from two backgrounds, one as a fisherman, the other as a western historian.

So what inspired Cowboy Trout among Schullery's many titles?

"Well, for one thing, it's great fun. Discovering early fishing accounts of western rivers allows me to compare my experiences with those of other anglers all the way back to the mid-1800. And there's a vicarious kick in imagining what an adventure it must have been, to be the first person to cast a fly all these wonderful places — the Yellowstone, the Missouri, the Firehole — just think what that must have been like," he said.

"In the longer view, writing Cowboy Trout also happened because writing books just naturally seems to lead to writing more books.

"Ever since I was executive director of The American Museum of Fly Fishing (1977-1982), in Manchester, Vermont, I've tried to find a little time now and then to pursue my interest in the history of American field sports, especially hunting and fishing.

"In 1987 I published American Fly Fishing: A History. After that, a series of other books on the subject just seemed necessary.

Schullery said the book also proved to have a story to tell in a pleasing way.

"Cowboy Trout is full of great fishing stories, but I also wrote it because I wanted to alert more scholars, and especially students, to the opportunities for meaningful research and publishing in the history of sport," he said. "It was my hope that I could write a book that showed how the study of western fly-fishing could shed light on some of the most important issues facing people in the American West today, like natural resource conservation, the changing regional economics of the so-called 'New West,' and so on."

The material in the book is actually a compilation of articles from the author.

"Every chapter in Cowboy Trout first appeared as an article in a magazine, and I wrote them over a period of a few years," said Schullery.

"But from the beginning I knew that it would end up as a book, so in each case I would first write the full-length chapter. I saved the full-length version in a file that eventually became Cowboy Trout, and then I trimmed a copy of the manuscript down to article-length. I guess portions of them appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including American Angler, The American Fly Fisher, and Montana The Magazine of Western History.

"As far as the difficulty of the research, it wasn't that difficult to find the material, and that's kind of the point. Students of history, or recreation management, or wildlife management, have amazing opportunities available to them these days, either in good libraries or on line. There is a wealth of historic material, especially very old angling books and other publications, available on line. Forty years ago when I first began researching these subjects, it was just the opposite; you didn't have much chance of seeing these rare items unless you made a trip to Princeton, Yale, or one of the other big universities with a good angling library."

Schullery said as in many things, location helped in writing the articles which would become Cowboy Trout.

"I've had a couple of other advantages as a researcher just because of where I live, too," he said. "Yellowstone National Park, where I lived and work for many years before my retirement in 2009, has a fabulous research library with lots of excellent material on the exploration of the American West. And Montana State University, in Bozeman where I live now, has built its Trout and Salmonid Collection into one of North America's premier libraries relating to trout and salmon fishing, salmonid science, and fisheries management. At various times over the past forty years I've visited some of the best trout-related libraries in the country, and MSU is right up there with them. It's been my honor to serve as Scholar-in-Residence at the MSU Library the past few years, and I never get tired of working with the special collections there; their Yellowstone collection is terrific as well, and most of my professional research career has involved Yellowstone."

And Schullery said the book has met his primary goal.

"Besides hoping that students will recognize the opportunities for serious research in these topics, I would just like readers to enjoy all the great fishing adventures and come away from the book with a heightened appreciation for the long, exciting tradition that they're participating in as western trout fishers," he said. "Everything from our values to our beliefs about nature to our techniques and tackle has come down to us from generations of people who, even though their tackle and clothes looked different, were very much like us. It never hurts to know where you came from."

That said Schullery added he has trouble knowing if Cowboy Trout has been all he had expected it to be.

"That's a great question, but I really can't answer it very well," he said. "The book received very nice reviews, it keeps selling, and now and then I hear from someone who found it very helpful.

"But one thing I've noticed about writing is that it's usually very hard to measure the effect of anything you've written, even if it gets a lot of public attention. I've often been surprised, years after something was published, when someone would tell me how it changed their thinking, or had some other important effect.

"I guess the short answer is that so far I just have no good way of measuring what difference the book might have made. That is why I'm so grateful for reviews like yours, though. Reviews increase the likelihood that people will discover the book and get something out of it."

The answer led me to wonder as a fellow scribe, albeit by no means with the resume Schullery has, how does Cowboy Trout rate in his own mind?

"I know that's a fair question, and people do ask me that about one of my books now and then, but I have to say that for me it's a little like asking parents which of their children they love most; even if they do favour one of them they probably won't admit it publicly," he said. "Each one is special, and it's that way for writing books, too. Cowboy Trout is special to me because it grows out of my own experiences — first, as a fisherman who has been blessed to get to fish all the places whose history I write about in the book, and second, as my personal celebration of the rich tradition of western angling that I have enjoyed participating in the past forty years."

As a fisherman Schullery is cagey about his own favourite spot to dip a hook. I rather expected that, but hey, it never hurts to ask.

"Ask yourself this question: if a journalist you didn't know came up to you and asked you to reveal your favorite fishing spot, would you tell him?" asked Schullery. "What I can tell you is that I most enjoy exploring the streams and lakes in Yellowstone National Park. There's enough variety of fish and water types in the park for a lifetime of exploring. And I've found that the best fishing, and some of the biggest fish, will be found in the less famous waters. That's a clue.

"For a long time I've fished mostly for trout, but when I've lived where there were bass or other fish I've always enjoyed fishing for them, too. Trout are abundant throughout southwestern Montana, and I have more choices here than I can possibly take advantage of. It's revealing that Montana State University describes itself as 'Trout U'."

As a final question I had to ask a historian of trout fishing, where he stood on the growing movement of catch'n'release?

Personally, I still like to fry a few fish, and enjoy the bounty of the water with a pile of home-cut french fries, and a cold dark brew. But, I will admit I understand the concept of releasing fish back to the water so the next guy can catch it another day.

"In the past several centuries of trout fishing, few changes have reached as deep into the values and culture of our sport as the rise in popularity of catch-and-release fishing," offered Schullery. "For just one example of many, it's been a hugely successful management tool in my home waters in Yellowstone, where it's enabled the restoration of some very important fisheries so that more people can enjoy really excellent fishing. "I tend to agree with the late Lee Wulff's historic observation that a game fish is too valuable to be caught only once. Lee was right about that, but I try not to be hidebound about it. It's true that I rarely kill a fish any more, but I have to admit that I'm not that fond of eating trout anyway.

"If I lived in bass country, it's a pretty sure thing that I'd be bringing some home more often than I do with trout. I just happen to prefer the way they taste.

"As a historian I've made an effort to understand the evolving ethics of outdoor sport. As our values have changed, so have our reasons for going fishing. I've devoted parts of several of my books to these ethical issues, and catch-and-release fishing is a big issue, as you know. "My book If Fish Could Scream: An Angler's Search for the Future of Fly Fishing, is about several of these controversial issues. These days I think the most important thing is for anglers to be a little more tolerant of each other despite our differences. We're not doing ourselves any good by squabbling. We really do need to stick together."

And there is the continuing evolution of fly fishing, a sport rich in history, and dreams of the future.

Oh, and as for Cowboy Trout, if you have a fisherman on your Christmas list, well it would be an ideal fit in most stockings hung by the chimney with care.


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