Our Favorite F&S Stories: Song of the Angler


Growing up, I had three goals in life: to meet the great A.J. McClane, my boyhood hero; to impress him so that he would offer me his daughter’s hand in marriage; and, finally, to take his job as the fishing editor of Field & Stream.

Alas, he passed on to the great bonefish flats in the sky before I could meet him. All I had to show for my efforts to impress him was duplicating his ability to toss 90 feet of fly line without a rod, which is just as useless a trick as it sounds, though it can improve your timing. 

Fishing is moveable feast, and McClane moved. He fished in more than than 100 countries in his 40-year tenure as fishing editor. It was deliciously rumored that he was a Cold War spy, using his fly rod as a cover. Whether that is true or not is beside the point. His talent was undeniable, and if you possessed the gift of imagination that I had as a boy, you could fish around the world with him, such was his ability to tell a story while passing along wisdom. But it was as much how he wrote as where it took you.

If any one of his articles stands out to me, it is “Song of the Angler,”  which tackles the question all must ask if we are to join Izaak Walton’s brotherhood of anglers: Why do we fish? The answer may just be below. —Keith McCafferty

Song of the Angler

People often ask me why I enjoy fishing, and I cannot explain it to them because there is no reason in the way they want meanings described. They are asking a man why he enjoys breathing when he really has no choice but to wonder at its truth. Psychologists such as Dr.  Ronald Ley (Why Anglers Really Angle, February 1967) have tried to explain its mystique in terms of behavioral conditioning, but this is as oddly misleading as his comparison of angling to golf. There are also pundits who believe that the rod provides an outlet for our hostilities, our frustrated egos, or our competitive instincts, or that it symbolizes the primitive feelings of man in his search for food, ergo the need to kill. To a degree I believe all these qualities exist in every participant in any sport, and if so, healthfully so, because it is far more harmless to vent one’s spleen on a trout stream or a golf course than on one’s fellow man. However, if this assumption is logical, then the rationale of angling is still without explanation.

The chirping plague of analysts who have invaded every Chamber of the mind from the bedroom to the tackle room has missed one thing—angling is a robe that a man wears proudly. It is tightly woven in a fabric of moral, social, and philosophical threads which are not easily rent by the violent climate of our times. It is foolish to think, as it has been said, that all men who fish are good men, as evil exists on all of life’s paths; but to join Walton’s “company of honest men” requires first the ability to accept a natural tempo of misfortune not only in the allegory where failure is represented by the loss of a fish (or success by its capture) but in life itself. In the lockstep slogan of young radicals thumbing their noses at the world, reality is no longer realistic; but I would argue that life is a greater challenge than death, and that reality is as close as the nearest river. Perhaps an exceptional angler doesn’t prove the rule, but then anglers are exceptional people.

Lord Fraser of Lonsdale is not only a pear, but he wears the robe of an angler as well. He is a skilled fly-fisherman, and when last we visited together, he caught a 35-pound salmon which was the biggest in the camp for many weeks. What’s more, he could charm the socks off Willie Sutton, and I have heard him spellbind a room of strangers with tales of his life in South Africa, while sipping rare wines, naming each chateau and its vintage. This introduction would be fatuous were it not for the fact that Lord Fraser is totally blind. Both of his eyes were shot out in the First World War. A profoundly intellectual man, Fraser has developed his other senses to a point that most of the people who sat with him that night had no idea that he was unable to see them; yet he later could summarize the physical characteristics of each person as though he was describing a rare burgundy.

I don’t know if you have ever tried wading (unaided) and fly fishing a stream while blindfolded. I cannot do it, and I would probably lack the guts if I had to do it. Fraser’s explanation for his ability to do this is that he can hear all things around him: the changing tempo of deep and shallow water, the curling smack of a rapid against the boulder, even the roll or rise of a fish. His ear for the music of angling is incredibly keen. Is this Dr. Ley’s behavioral conditioning? In terms of a contemporary development of the senses, perhaps, but it does not explain why a man, even a blind man, enjoys angling.

The music of angling is more compelling to me than anything contrived in the greatest symphony hall. What could be more thrilling than the ghostly basso note of a channel buoy over a grumbling surf as the herring gulls screech at a school of stripers on a foggy summer morning? Or an organ chorus of red howler monkeys swinging over jungle stream as the tarpon roll and splash in counterpoint? I have heard them all—the youthful voice of the little Beaverkill, the growling of the Colorado as it leaps from its den, the kettledrum pounding of the Rogue, the hiss of Yellowstone’s rifles, the sad sound of the Orinoco, as mournful as a G chord held on a guitar. These are more familiar to me than Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and for my part more beautiful. If there are three “B’s” in angling, they are probably the Beaverkill, the Broadhead, and the Big Hole.

Big-game angling has quite another music. The hull creeks and the outriggers clap as the ship comes into the wind while the sea increases the tempo as she turns from stern to bow. Then the frigate birds scream at a ball of bait and you know the marlin are below. As the ship lurches over the chop her screws bite air in a discordant wine and the mullet trails skitter flap skitter flap until the pitching hull sounds like the soft rolling of drums.

At last one note assails the ears, the snap of white linen pulled from the outrigger. Now the water explodes in a crescendo of hot engines roaring into life before you lean into a quarter ton of shoulder-rocking fury. And in that ageless walking leap which follows no path in the ocean the angler hears the most exciting sound of all—the wailing of a reel as stark and as lonely as a Basin Street clarinet.

But my protracted maundering leads us away from Doctor Ley’s hypothesis which he reinforced with the learned E. L. Thorndike’s Thesis of punishments and rewards. What are the rewards of angling? A dead fish? A trophy? At some point perhaps, but then it takes years to become an angler.

There are tidal marks in our development. In the beginning, when one is very young and inexperienced, fish are measured in quantity. Then, only quality becomes important. Eventually even record fish lose their significance unless they are of a particular species, and ultimately the size doesn’t matter provided they are difficult to catch.

The latter condition is fairly easy to find in these days of declining resources. Trout in the upper Beaverkill, for instance, are generally ½-pound in weight, but they can be the most demanding kind. The water is diamond clear and at the shadow of a passing bird or the glint of sun against rod they instantly vanish under the nearest boulder. You must work with a leader of cobweb diameter and have enough control to drop your fly in a teacup target through a maze of overhanging limbs. There are large trout in the stream, of course, wise old browns which you might catch a glimpse of once in a while, usually in a pool that everybody believes has been emptied.

Recalling the years when anglers gathered at the old Gould cottage on the Beaverkill—a temple now fallen to death and taxes—which Arnold Gingrich described in his wonderful book, The Well-Tempered Angler (you can even smell the waiters drying in the rafters)—one man comes to mind who knew perhaps a bit more about the rewards of angling than most of us.

Ellis Newman could cast a fly line to 90 feet with his bare hands. I saw him make three measured casts with tournament tackle each of which fell short of 200 feet by inches. I doubt if a more polished caster ever lived. He had neither the time nor the inclination to compete in games (except for the pigeon shooting circuit which he did for money). We often fished along opposite banks of the Beaverkill, or alternated pools, just for the pleasure of each other’s company.

Fly fisherman casts a fly rod in a stream
santypan / Adobe Stock

One day, when the mayflies were on the water, Ellis caught and released several good browns below the dam, one going about 3 pounds. At the top of the next run we met a young boy who proudly displayed a 9-inch brook trout. Ellis admired it so much that I thought we were looking at the biggest squaretail captured since Cook hit the jackpot on the Nipigon in 1914. When the lad asked Ellis if he had any luck, he looked very serious; “Oh, I caught a few, but none were as pretty as yours.”

Ellis worked with underprivileged children and handicapped people at his own expense. And the expense was appreciable. He designed Rube Goldberg wheelchairs and tractor-driven bucket seats for fishing and for hunting as well, and he even developed a method of running steel cable through a string of boulders to build “necklace” dams on his eroding Beaverkill. Ellis never waited for the fulmination of a new idea to die down before putting it into practice, and the people who loved him may be consoled with the reflection that angling would have suffered a greater blow had he regarded each new venture carefully.

Arnold Gingrich became, as Charley Ritz once called him, “that terrible fishing machine” in the sense that he was on a first-name basis with every trout in the stream. He would appear with smaller and smaller fly rods, considering any stick over 2 ounces as heavy tackle, and any leader above 7X suitable only for salmon. But the publisher of Esquire magazine is a tremendously energetic individual and the piston like style of casting with flea rods was duck soup for him.

Arnold earned his robe in my eyes the first time we angled together; in releasing a tired trout he held the fish underwater gently, almost lovingly, stroking its belly and talking to it. He is a master of conversation and, so help me, at times the fish swim away with an impossible but perceptible grin on their faces. Arnold has that passionate blood fire, typical of anglers, which no psychologist (nor wife who hears her husband stumbling out into an April blizzard at 4 a.m.) has satisfactorily explained.

One morning I was crossing the Swinging Bridge Pool and happened to look down; there stood Arnold in an icy torrent banging away with a little dry fly. Something was protruding from his mouth. I didn’t recall that Arnold smoked cigars.

“When did you start smoking cigars?” I called. He pulled the bulbous object from his mouth and examined it as though he didn’t know it was there.

“Oh. That’s my stream thermometer.”

“You’re what?”

“I’m sick. I have a fever.”

“Then what are you doing in the river?”

“Oh hell, it’s only 99.8. If I break 100, I’ll go to bed.”

Whenever somebody asks me why I enjoy fishing another thing that comes to mind is what it means in terms of friendships. General Charles Lindeman was always impeccably dressed, cologne lashed, and wearing his stiff upper lip as Counsel to the British Ambassador in Washington. During the years we fished together he had a running verbal duel with Charles Ritz for reasons which only an Englishman would feel about a Frenchman and vice-versa. There was no evil lurking beneath this play of wit; it had the woolly camaraderie of barracks talk. When Lindeman stepped into the river, Ritz would ask him, “Where is your gaff, old boy? All Englishman carry gaffs.” Although a stranger would think that the General meant to hang Ritz with his old school tie, they were really fond of each other.

This good-natured combativeness continued until we stopped to lunch on the bank of the Stamp River one noon. A sudden change came over the General. For a moment he became misty-eyed. He told us that he had sat in this very spot with his young wife a half-century before and made his life’s plans. Now she was buried in France, a geographical anomaly which he made no attempt to explain except to refer to a wartime plane crash. Later that day, while I was beaching a steelhead, I saw Ritz crawling along the bank picking wildflowers. Swearing me to silence he carefully packed a bouquet in his duffel bag. “I know the cemetery outside of Paris. I will take these to her. She would like that.”

Lindemann didn’t know what he had done, and despite my old friend’s deserved reputation as one of the world’s great anglers, I would embarrass him now by saying that Charles Ritz wears his robe because he is a truly kind and loving man. The General is gone, and it wasn’t until his death a few years ago that a certain irony became apparent in our secret when he learned that General Lindeman had been Chief of the British Secret Service.

The only psychologist I have ever met who knew anything about anglers was Dr. J.H. Cooper of Kansas City, Missouri. He made sense because he invented the marabou bonefish jig, which reveals him as a practical man. We met, as anglers so often do, through his giving me a duplicate of his lure at a time when I was having lousy fishing at Andros Island.

Have you ever noticed how often anglers tend to share their good fortune? I have seen this happen many times among perfect strangers who simply meet on the stream. I remember a man who, after landing a beautiful rainbow trout below the Fair Ground Bridge on the East Branch of the Delaware, turned to a bug-eyed kid holding a 98-cent telescopic fly rod, and snipping the March Brown pattern off his leader gave it to the boy. “See what you can do with it, son.” That’s all he said. I was that boy and I can’t tie a March Brown on my leader today without blessing my Good Samaritan.

Before you conclude that the author has broken loose from his moorings and is bobbing impotently on a sea of virtue, let me reassure you that the world is full of narrowly shrewd self-seeking people, blind to God and goodness, and for all I know, Dame Juliana Berners could have been some piscatorial Mary Poppins or a grosser wart on the face of society than Polly Alder. But I would be untrue to my craft if I did not add that although we live in a curiously touchy age when Mom’s apple pie, the flag, and the Boy Scout’s oath are losing currency, these still make a better frame of reference than Harvard’s pellet-fed rats or Pavlov’s dogs.

Psychologists tell us that one reason why we enjoy fishing is because it is an escape. This is meaningless. True, a man who works in the city wants to “escape” to the country, but the clinical implication is that (no matter where a man lives), he seeks to avoid reality. This is as obtuse as the philosophical doctrine which holds that no reality exists outside the mind.

Perhaps it’s the farm boy in me, but I would apply Aristotelian logic—the chicken came before the egg because it is real and the egg is only potential. By the same reasoning the fluid content of a stream is nothing but water when it erupts from a city faucet but given shores it becomes a river, and as a river it is perfectly capable of creating life, and therefore it is real. It is not a sewer, nor a conveyor of barges and lumber, although it can be pressed into these burdens and, indeed as a living thing it can also become lost in its responsibilities.

So if escapism is a reason for angling—then the escape is to reality. The sense of freedom that we enjoy in the outdoors is, after all, a normal reaction to a more rational environment.

Who but an angler knows that magic hour when the red lamp of summer drops behind blackening hemlocks and the mayflies emerge from the dull folds of their nymphal robes to dance in ritual as old as the river itself? Trout appear one by one and the angler begins his game and movements as stylized as Japanese poetry. Perhaps he will hook that wonder-spotted rogue, or maybe he will remain in silent pantomime long into the night with no visible reward.

And that, Professor, is why anglers really angle.

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