Voices from the Past: The Best Fishing Articles from the Pages of Sports Illustrated
Today, we delve into one of the often-forgotten fishing publications: Sports Illustrated. What's that? You didn't know Sports Illustrated was a fishing magazine? Well, there was a time when the magazine--better known, of course, for its swimsuit issue--published some of the finest writers in the sports world's fishing pieces. Most of these articles date from the 1950s-1980s.
I've divided the list (which comes in no particular order) into four sections. The first sections profiles seven outstanding general angling articles.
1) John Underwood, "Going Fishing With The Kid" (August 21, 1967). Underwood--a friend of Ted Williams and eventually a co-author and biographer of the Red Sox outfielder--delves into Ted's passion for angling in a detailed, well-written article. It remains one of the best written on Ted and fishing.
2) Walter Edmonds, "A Birthday To Remember" (January 31, 1983). Edmonds was another frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated and this is a very personal, and memorable, fishing account. Having received a fly rod for his birthday in 1915, he spent almost seven decades fishing.
3) Ed Zern, "20 Million Fishermen Vs. 30 Billion Fish" (April 23, 1956). Ed Zern was one of the funniest writers in any genre of the twentieth century. His specialty, of course, was fishing and hunting humor, and he was famous for being the "last page" columnist for a number of major outdoor journals. What is forgotten was that he was a regular columnist for Sports Illustrated in the 1950s. This is one of my favorite Zern pieces.
4) William Oscar Johnson, "That Muskie Madness" (May 12, 1980). W.O. Johnson, in addition to being a fellow University of Minnesota alumnus, was one of my favorite sports writers of all-time. Best remembered for such works as his history of the Olympics, Johnson became a senior editor at Sports Illustrated not long after this article on musky fishing came out. It is my personal favorite fishing article ever published in the pages of SI, and not just because I grew up in the area that he writes about in the article--Hayward, Wisconsin. I wore out my copy of the magazine because I re-read this so many times. As an aside, the muskellunge caught by Art Lawton--which so many Hayward residents were so suspicious about--turned out to be fraudulent after all and was wiped clean from the record books.
5) Larry Green, "At Home Away From Home" (May 13, 1974). In this article, Green detailed the spectacular growth of Florida-strain Largemouth bass in places such as California's Lake Casitas. Many believed it was just a matter of time before the world record of George Perry would fall. It didn't, but it was close.
6) Bill Schwicker, "Big Talk, Antique Reels And A Sea Adventure" (December 11, 1989). Schwicker's piece is one of the latest of the fishing writings, and although it is a short one, it is memorable.
7) Clive Gammon, "In Quest Of The Mahseer" (December 09, 1985). The British writer Clive Gammon is one of the finest angling authors of modern times but, for whatever reason, rarely gets mentioned on this side of the pond. His book I Know A Good Place was a seminal work for me when I was an undergraduate, and I believe it contains this classic piece about India's mighty Mahseer--the fish of maharajahs and princes alike. Simply put, fishing writing at its best.
Next we look at seven more representative pieces from the pages of Sports Illustrated, this time on the theme of fly fishing--a subject the magazine covered in detail in its first two decades of existence.
8) Lionel Atwill, "A Vermont Fly-fishing Shop Casts Back To The Joys Of The Bamboo Rod" (11 May 1981). At the very cusp of the bamboo revival, this work profiles Orvis (of course) in the Leigh Perkins era and discovers it to be undergoing many changes.
9) Michael Baughman, "Old And Unimproved As They May Be, Split-cane Fly Rods Can't Be Beat" (May 05, 1980). Preceding Atwill's article by almost a year, Baughman gives us an early look at the burgeoning world of the split cane fly rod just as it was first starting to take off.
10) Duncan Barnes, "The Fortunes Of A Man And A Rod: Fishing tackle is big business in a Vermont village, but the boss gives it an angler's touch" (April 24, 1961). Barnes, a gifted writer, profiled the Orvis Company a full two decades before Atwill got around to updating the story. At the center of this article is Ducky Corkran, but behind Corkran (as always) was the genius of rodmaker Wes Jordan, who saved the firm and who helped mold it into the titan that it became. A classic article and one of SI's best pieces on fishing.
11) Sparse Grey Hackle, "Father Of The Fly Rod" (June 04, 1956). Alfred Miller--aka Sparse Grey Hackle--needs no introduction to the fly fishing world. As one of the most famous and beloved figures in American fishing letters, Miller penned a seminal piece in the history of fly fishing when he profiled the great Hiram Leonard. Surely one of the most important articles ever written on the subject of fly fishing. His working notes for this article were donated by the great Hoagy Carmichael, Jr. to the Catskill Museum of Fly Fishing.
12) J.A. Maxtone Graham, "The Hardy Trout Fly Rod Is Honored By Fishermen Among The English Gentry" "The Hardy Trout Fly Rod Is Honored By Fishermen Among The English Gentry" (March 28, 1966). Britain's esteemed Jamie Maxtone-Graham helped introduce the legendary firm of Hardy Bros. to millions of American sporting fans who might not have known a Hardy Perfect from the Hardy Boys. At a time when Hardy's was changing mightily, such press from across the Atlantic certainly did not hurt the fortunes of this classic firm.
13) Duncan Barnes, "Fly-fishermen Gather Every Day At The Angler's Cove, Which Keeps The Air Of A Country Store In A Big-city Setting" (May 29, 1961). The Angler's Cove--not to be confused with Jim Deren's The Angler's Roost store--was another legendary fly shop and it got the royal treatment at the hands of Barnes. With such legendary fly tiers as Lew Oatman working for them, the Angler's Cove became a must-see for anglers visiting the big city. Positive press in the pages of SI didn't hurt.
14) John McDonald, "Dame Juliana's Legacy" (June 03, 1957). McDonald--not to be confused with the mystery writer John D. McDonald--was rapidly becoming one of the most important chroniclers of fly fishing history when he published this great piece on the legendary (and perhaps mythical) Dame Juliana Berners, authoress (perhaps) of the first important fishing book in English history.
The next six articles may as well be called the Best of Boyle. Robert H. Boyle was an angler (and author of a great book on the Hudson River), and perhaps for this reason he dipped into the fisherman's world on numerous occasions during his long tenure at Sports Illustrated. Here are six of his finest writings on fishing from the pages of SI.
15) Robert H. Boyle, "To Vince Cummings, A Fishing Rod Is More Than A Pole, A Cork And A Hank Of Thread" (July 17, 1972). In this profile of rodmaker Vince Cummings, Boyle establishes exactly what makes him one of my favorite sports writers in general, and a damn fine angling writer specifically. Boyle has the innate ability to choose interesting subjects of which the general reader is blissfully unaware. Think that's an easy task? Try it sometime.
16) Robert H. Boyle, "A Tier Who Binds In The Angling World" (January 14, 1991). In this article, Boyle profiles Pennsylvania fly tier S.A. Neff, who combined fly tying with book binding. The kind of unique article that Boyle became famous for.
17) Robert H. Boyle, "Gotcha! Hook, Line And Lingerie: Nothing's sacred when John Betts scouts synthetics to use in his revolutionary flies" (May 04, 1981). Here Boyle writes about one of the most interesting fly tiers in modern history--John Betts--and his search for the latest synthetic materials to use for tying flies.
18) Robert H. Boyle, "A Big Bass Bash In Arkansas: Ray Scott rides herd on the watery range of bass fishermen" (October 20, 1969). In 1969, the Bass Angler's Sportsman's Society (B.A.S.S.) was just getting started. Boyle was there to chronicle Ray Scott, the man behind it, who became one of the most important men in the history of fishing. Read this article and tell me whether any sane man in 1969 would bet against Scott making it big.
19) Robert H. Boyle, "The Man's Hooked On Plugs: Whether they pop, dive, float or wobble, the old artificials have made a sucker of Seth Rosenbaum" (July 14, 1975). The same year that the National Fishing Lure Collector's Club was founded, noted tackle collector (and Boyle's friend) Seth Rosenbaum was profiled in the pages of Sports Illustrated. What effect this had on the hobby of collecting is difficult to measure, but it is certainly one of the highest profile places that tackle collecting has ever been written about. Rosenbaum was one of the important early collectors; how important? Well, it was a call from Rosenbaum that brought Dick Streater into the NFLCC. Rosenbaum would later write a tackle collecting column in Sporting Classics magazine.
20) Robert H. Boyle, "The Sports Pages Began With Him" (June 05, 1989). In this article, Boyle acknowledged the great early angling writer Henry William Herbert, known as Frank Forrester, as the founder of sports writing in America.
In this, the final section of our look at the best fishing writing in the history of Sports Illustrated, we profile five writers who I couldn't fit into the other sections of this overview.
21) J. D. Reed, "A Museum So Heavy With Americana It Will Hook The Passionate Angler" (October 31, 1977). In this article, J.D. Reed profiles the newly minted Museum of American Fly Fishing. Over three decades later, the Museum is still chugging along quite nicely and is a must stop for anyone visiting Vermont.
22) Thomas McGuane, "Seasons Slipping Through An Angler's Net" (July 23, 1973). Thomas McGuane, the author of ten novels and innumerable shorter pieces of fiction, is a wonderful writer, and this thoughtful piece is a classic work of angling literature.
23) Steve Raymond, "A Fly-fisherman Is Dazzled By The Variety, And Cost, Of Today's Reels" (February 10, 1986). In this article, Raymond looks at the expense of high-end fly tackle and is shocked that it costs a small fortune to find a high-quality hand-made reel. Oh for the days when you could buy a hand-made Hardy Perfect for $30!
24) Dan Levin, 24) "One Million Frogs Later" (November 13, 1978). In this detailed feature, Levin profiles the life and times of Bill Plummer, bass fisherman extraordinaire and inventor of the Super Frog, one of the most important bass fishing lures in history. Plummer, who died just a few years ago, was truly an American original. This article helped propel him to greater heights.
25) Robert F. Jones, "Last Battle In A Most Foreboding Land" (July 02, 1973). Our list concludes with a classic "fighting fish" story by Robert F. Jones, a frequent contributor to SI, about the return of the salmon to British Columbia.
Well, that's it! 25 articles that should set you up for a couple weeks of reading at least. All courtesy of Sports Illustrated's archives. I'm waiting for other writers to delve into the archives and do a similar thing for the other sports.
Isn't the internet a wonderful thing?
-- Dr. Todd