Sometimes you read a book and never think about it again. It's not that you didn't enjoy it, or that it had no value, but for whatever reason it did not speak to you. I have shelves of books I have read and about the only thing I can recall about them is yes, I remember reading this book. Very little or nothing stuck with me. By the way, many of these unremarkable books, for lack of a better name, were academic history works. Sadly, it's one of the burdens of the trade.
Then there are those books that stay with you in tangible ways. Such was the impact of Chris Camuto's elegant A Fly Fisherman's Blue Ridge (University of Georgia Press, 1990--Reprint edition 2001), a wonderful love letter to those out-of-the-way backwoods creeks and streams that seem to never be far away. The book celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year.
I distinctly recall the exact moment I purchased this book in 1994 (it was a lucky day, as I bought it at the same time as Clive Gammons' wonderful I Know A Good Place--I should always be so lucky). Gammons transported me to places I'd never been, such as the Falkland Islands, and made them seem like home. Camuto, on the other hand, seemed to be writing about my own back yard. Both of these writers share the trait of being fine travel writers as well as angling scribes. As someone who wrote a 1326 page dissertation on the Victorian travel writer, I can say without hesitation I can differentiate good travel writing from bad, and Gammons and Camuto both are accomplished in the art of crafting a travel narrative.
Camuto's book sang to me as a budding young graduate student (as was Camuto when he wrote it). For those unfamiliar with it, it is part environmental study, part crackling good fishing yarn, and part literary excursion. It was in every sense of the term "pleasurable instruction," as it has something to say and to teach on nearly every page.
Part of why I loved this book--and recently fell in love again with the paperback reprint from the classy University of Georgia press--is because of the chapter titles. I know, it is a weird reason to love any book, but I've always spent an inordinate amount of time crafting titles to articles, chapters, and books, and recognize a great title when I see one. For Camuto, we are given "The Trout in the Mountains" and "Autumn Brown on the Rose." Who wouldn't want to dive into such literary waters?
Of course there is much else to love about the book. The vignettes of history, for example, interspersed as they are between wild trout rarely weigh down the discourse, as they are very capable of doing. But like an expensive restaurant with wonderful decor, ambiance, and a killer wine list, if the food is unpalatable it is nothing more than dreck--beautiful dreck, perhaps, served on oblong china, but pablum nonetheless. Fortunately for us Camuto is a fine writer. Take for example this descriptive passage:
Those brooks, in which wild trout still rise to mayflies in the spring, remain. If eastern buffalo and elk and cougar are gone along with the big trees, Salvelinus fontinalis still holds in cold currents near the crest of the Blue Ridge, an Ice Age relic, the shy shadow of one hundred million years. Like the spruce and fir that spread south during the long Pleistocene winter when the great ice advanced, the brook trout is a vivid boreal presence in the Blue Ridge, a gift of deep time.
I almost feel guilty excerpting passages like this as it robs you of the warm feeling you get when you discover it on your own. But trust me when I say there are enough pretty passages akin to this to keep you turning the pages, hungry for more.
A Fly Fisherman's Blue Ridge is the kind of book that isn't published nearly enough. It's the type of book where an author is not beholden to an assigned theme, but is given the freedom (and support) to follow the fish wherever it may lead. You'll join Camuto as he meets a bear, watches the wildness fade from a big brown as he carries it from the stream to the car, and greets and bids farewell to the year. You'll find him meandering through the Shenandoah Valley, on the North Fork of the Moormans, and on the campus of the University of Virginia. But wherever Camuto goes, both figuratively and literally, you'll want to join him for the whole journey.
For those who've read A Fly Fisherman's Blue Ridge, crack it open again and re-familiarize yourself with a modern classic. For those who haven't, I envy you as you get to experience it for the first time.
It's a book that will stay with you long after you've turned the final, satisfying page.
-- Dr. Todd