Catskill tyers, the keepers of the fly-fishing flame, raised their own roosters so they could create the best hackles. The correct dye for certain patterns was something taken to the grave. Eliminating the hackle sent shock waves through the fly-fishing canon. At the remove of 45 years, such an innovation might not seem like much. If so, consider this: You are casting to a nervous-finned brown in glassy water, and you know the correct size and color. Would you tie on a low-floating pattern or a high-floating pattern? Before Swisher and Richards, it would have been the latter.
Their observations led to other new approaches, though none so “revolutionary” as the elimination of hackle. When they did wind hackle, they tied it parachute style (resuscitating a forgotten pattern). They used spun fur on all their flies, nymphs in particular. They highlighted emergers, no-hackle stones, caddis, and terrestrials.
Insects were the stars of their book. Each description led with their common name—Hendricksons, for example, but beneath it was the Latin name, the implication being that knowledge and science could not be foregone. The book included charts with hatches and imitations, and (of course) tying instructions. Spare line drawings offered a fresh-from-the-stream authenticity. They bypassed only one subject: people. There is not a single image of either author—or any fishermen, for that matter—in the entire book. It was about the bugs.
Selective Trout’s progression from observation to evidence to conclusion said, “You can do this, too.” Today it is tempting to roll our eyes when someone calls a hatching fly by its Latin name, but Swisher and Richards thought differently, as in, “Many fishermen will not desire to learn the true names of the hatches that they fish, but usage of the correct names is the best way of passing on knowledge and new developments.” In other words, they meant to include not exclude, meant the nomenclature as a form of empowerment for all the other amateur naturalists interested in fishing and trout.
Enter Joe Brooks
It was Joe Brooks, at the time deep into working on his own major book on fly fishing for trout, who “broke” the story of the no-hackle flies in the August, 1970 edition of Outdoor Life magazine. Such magnanimity was apparently classic Brooks (Paul Schullery writes that he was “one of the few modern fishing writers about whom I have never heard anyone say anything bad.”). Today we might see this piece (a year ahead of the book) as a promotion. But back then it felt more like a happening. The late 60s and early 70s were times when “new” was the expected, be it Woodstock or moonwalks. Selective Trout caught this tailwind.
Whereas most books, then and now, started with the premise of this is the way trout are, Selective Trout started with the idea of this is the way they are now—because of an increase in fishing pressure and the growth of “no-kill” areas. Swisher and Richards (repeatedly) embraced the larger cultural moment; traditions were limiting rather than enabling.
Swisher and Richards end with a plea to release the catch, with a celebration of the challenge of imitation, and the joy of the environment and “our friend the trout.” They call for “a new breed of angler who is truly interested in the improvement of our sport” [and works] “to reverse present trends of stream pollution, dam building, liberal regulations, and uneducated anglers.”
We all whine about the fishing today, but there really was something to complain about 50 years ago. Selective Trout was one of the first steps in the right direction, along with the birth of Trout Unlimited, the spread of no-kill, and the Clean Water Act. Today those steps might seem naïve or unfulfilled, but it is worth considering where we would be without them. More to the point, sometimes fly fishing is more than just an ancillary activity acted upon by a larger culture; sometimes, it works in the opposite direction. When it does, everyone benefits.
Ironically, Joe Brooks’s magnum opus, Trout Fishing, appeared in 1972 (the same year of his death and the year after the publication of Selective Trout), and included a section of a chapter on Swisher and Richards and no-hackle flies. Next came a concluding chapter of pictures with Brooks and others holding huge dead trout. The picturing of dead fish was common practice—even the new “vertical” fly-fishing magazines of the day (the first, Fly Fisherman, appeared in 1969) pictured dead trout. In a sense, the ends of the two books—“A Barbless Hook” in Selective Trout and “A Gallery of Trophy Trout” in Trout Fishing was a meeting of the new and the old, though few probably realized it at the time. Brooks’ photos were the expected ending; Swisher and Richards’ musing on fishing’s future sounded like New Age speculation.
Today, it is Joe Brooks’ pictures that seem odd.
Fly fishing has always been about the future. Caucci and Nastasi, LaFontaine, and so many others (including Swisher and Richards in subsequent texts) followed with far more thorough works. Talking with Craig that day on the Farmington, we didn’t reminisce about the patterns that used to work; we spoke about the ones that did, and might. The exciting thing in fly fishing is to try imagine what next great thing will happen. In history, that means taking a moment to remember a time when it did.
Will Ryan teaches expository writing at Hampshire College and writes about the history of the outdoors. His most recent book Gray’s Sporting Journal’s Noble Birds and Wily Trout: Creating America’s Hunting and Fishing Traditions, was published by Lyons Press.