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Book Review: If Fish Could Scream (by Schullery)
If Fish Could Scream
Stackpole, 2003. 196pp
Paul Schullery has long been a favorite of mine. As one of the leading writers and commentators on Yellowstone and fly fishing (FFing), he takes a refreshing approach to his topics that focuses more on the philosophical and historical and less on the much overanalyzed how-to approach that has resulted in such a glut of FFing books (Do we really need another book about nymph fishing techniques?). If Fish Could Scream, an Angler’s Search for the Future of Fly Fishing is a good example of such a historical and philosophical work. While we all want to catch fish, if you’re not an introspective type and are mainly interested in how to catch the biggest trout in the next pool, you’ll likely find this book to be burdensome naval gazing and a tough slog. On the other hand, if you’re prone from time to time to wonder about the evolution of the sport, how we got to where we are today, as well as some of the contradictions (and borderline hypocrisy) involved in the sport we love, Scream will keep you turning the pages. In the Introduction, the author writes,
I realize that most casual anglers don’t care much about these questions, but I know from my own travels in the world of fly fishing that many of us do take the sport’s bigger issue seriously. Perhaps this book is for those who are already interested in such matters, but I can dream that others will also pick it up and begin to think harder about what we do out there on the water.
If you’ve ever wondered, what would Roderick Haig-Brown or Izaak Walton think of something, this book is for you. For those of us who stubbornly cling to the perhaps quaint notion that, in order to prepare for the future, one ought to have a good understanding of the past, books like this are particularly enjoyable.
Schullery starts with a look at what he calls “uncles and other heroes” and gives a good overview of the historical works of angling authors from the 1600s to 1800s and up to more familiar 2oth Century names like Joe Brooks. In the next chapters he takes a look at the role railroads played in the evolution of the sport as well as some of the issues involved in the traditional view (held by too many FFers in my view) that spin fishing is in some way incompatible with – or a downright inferior sport to - FFing. Schullery marvels at the design and effectiveness of the old Mitchell 300 spinning reel, which brings back pleasant memories for many of us who took the traditional angling path whereby one begins with spin gear, invariably a Mitchell product for those of us who started fishing in the 1970s, and then moves “up” to FFing. This dichotomy between trout fishermen who fish spin or fly gear has contributed to the split between Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers and the author takes a look at how this played out.
Chapter Four, I’d imagine, would be particularly interesting (or antagonizing) to many contemporary FFers because it looks at the issues surrounding competitive FFing and the tournament scene. Schullery finesses this topic. Clearly, he doesn’t like the tournament scene but admits to the harmlessness of friendly competitive fishing. The next chapters cover the complicated issues of dams and management of Yellowstone. Of course, much of the greatest FFing these days is in tailraces and Schullery looks at our perhaps not so enlightened mentality towards the fish other than trout as well as the many sensitive ecosystems literally drowned out by dams. If this book has any defining characteristic, it’s Schullery’s willingness to suggest there’s some hypocrisy in the hearts and minds of FFers. We rail at dams….and then go fishing below them.
The final section of the book, and the topic from which the title is drawn, covers the moral question of cruelty in sport fishing. Schullery demonstrates that, in fact, this question has been around for centuries rather than, as many of us tend to think today, just a couple decades. Do fish feel pain, and, if so, how much? Is fishing cruel, especially using live bait? And what of the “fight” a hooked fish puts up? As one who loves fishing as much as we do, Schullery takes a nuanced and sincere approach to the topic of cruelty while admitting his love for the sport. The author doesn’t take firm stands on this or many of the issues discussed but rather throws them out as food for thought.
While some of these topics may make some FFers uncomfortable, they’re worth some consideration if we hope to see the sport evolve with the ever changing values and scientific knowledge that we’ll face in the future. This is a great little history book and a needed meditation on the true nature of our favorite sport... warts and all. If, while you’re out fishing, you’re inclined occasionally to think, “hey, I hadn’t considered this point of view,” then this is a book I think you’d enjoy. On the other hand, if you’re sure "we" are right and “they” are simply wrong… then read something else.
Posted on: 2011/12/11 15:16
Edited by Fishidiot on 2011/12/11 21:44:14
Edited by Fishidiot on 2011/12/11 21:46:33
Re: Book Review: If Fish Could Scream (by Schullery)
A fine, honest review. I agree with Fishidiot that this is a provocative book. I also believe that Schullery is one of the very best fly-fishing writers of our time. As Fishidiot suggested, if your mind tends to wander while on the water, you'll probably enjoy reading this book without agreeing with everything in it.
Posted on: 2011/12/11 20:27
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