Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thursday Review: Hart Stillwell's The Glory of the Silver King

Thursday Review: Hart Stillwell's The Glory of the Silver King

Hart Stillwell is a name a lot of you may not know. But anyone interested in the history of fishing--especially saltwater fishing--needs to become familiar with him. Fortunately, thanks to Brandon D. Shuler and the excellent Texas A&M Press, a new generation can be introduced to a man who did much to popularize Tarpon fishing in America.

Stillwell was a popular outdoor writer for magazines like Field & Stream and Sports Afield in the 1920s through the 1950s. He had nearly completed a manuscript on tarpon fishing when he passed away, and fortunately Shuler, an excellent writer in his own right, came across the manuscript by luck and shepherded it into print.

The manuscript itself can best be described as a love letter to Tarpon and Texas. In particular, it concentrates on noted fishing sites like one of my favorite subjects--Aransas Pass, the legendary tarpon fishery. From Vera Cruz up the coast to Galveston, we are transported in time by Stilwell's writing to a different era.

Stillwell was an excellent writer with a sharp wit. Take for example his description of his friend Hurt Batsell, his fishing companion:

Eric Hoffer hadn't turned out that pile of pseudophilosophy at the time Hurt and I went back to the Rio Grande, in 1942, but I can say this for Hurt--he is the kind of man who will quit being a 'True Believer,' Eric Hoffer style, and face reality even when it doesn't fit into his preconceptions.

(NOTE: Hoffer was the author of the book The True Believer)

This book serves as both a historical chronicle of tackle, techniques, and individuals involved in Gulf coast tarpon fishing from the 1930s to the 1950s, but it is equally a book about conservation and proper fishing techniques. That's the beauty of classic outdoor writers like Stillwell. They don't hit you over the head with the "how-to" part, but slowly, over pages, you catch on to the techniques and style of fishing that is still very effective today.

One of the remarkable things about the book is Stillwell's early advocacy for the tarpon. At a time when few had the foresight to recognize the havoc humans were causing on the Gulf coast ecology, Stillwell only half-jokingly noted that he should call the book The Decline and Fall of the Silver King. It's worth remembering men like Stillwell, who saw that corrective action needed to take place. It is sad indeed the book was not released in his lifetime as it might have spurred others to greater action earlier and forestalled some of the problems that have emerged along the Gulf Coast in the past few decades.

If it is a bit sad the book never saw the light of day during Stillwell's life, it would have been a great tragedy indeed if this book had not been published at all. Thankfully, we have a beautiful hardcover to read and re-read and pass on to future generations who ask what fishing for tarpon in Texas was like in the first half of the 20th century.

I can't recommend this book more highly. It is a must for anyone who loves classic outdoor writing, the silver king, or the great state of Texas. Kudos to Shuler and Texas A&M for their hard work in bringing this to print. The book is an attractive hardcover with black-and-white photos and is available from, among many other outlets.

-- Dr. Todd

NOTE: NFLCC member and esteemed outdoor journalist Colby Sorrells, author of the excellent Flyfisher's Guide to the Texas Gulf Coast, writes to say "I'll have an article in an upcoming issue of Gulf Coast Fisherman and The NFLCC Gazette on the lures Stilwell used in his pursuits of Tarpon." Looking forward to it, Colby!

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