If Fish Could Scream: An Angler's Search for the Future of Fly Fishing

If Fish Could Scream: An Angler's Search for the Future of Fly Fishing is historian and conservationist Paul Schullery's most penetrating book yet on the complications of angling culture. This is not an idle reflection on the historical curiosities of our sport, but an urgently relevant series of considerations of the most vital issues facing modern fly fishing, when the sport is beset by a variety of environmental, political, and ethical challenges.

"In If Fish Could Scream Paul Schullery displays his vast knowledge gained from many years of research and writing on angling history. Schullery's latest book could serve as a reference source on the meaning and ethics of angling with special reference to fly fishing. Philosophical differences between sport and games, catch-and-release vs. catch-and-eat, and many other enduring controversies are treated in detail in an objective, non-judgmental manner. The author's own viewpoints do not get in the way of an impartial review of both sides of an argument."—Robert Behnke, author of About Trout

"I've learned (painfully) that anglers should consult Paul Schullery before, not after, they pontificate on the history of their sport. What we all knew to be incontrovertible "fact," he is ever explaining with his trademark humor, is not. The only side he consistently takes is the fishes', by which strategy he keeps us thinking and flipping pages, never more so than in this rich volume."—Ted Williams, Conservation Editor, Fly Rod & Reel

"Paul Schullery, our premier fly fishing historian, has once again delivered a book that is both beautiful and thoughtful. He tells us where we are, how we got here, and clearly most important, where we need to go from here to keep our sport vibrant and alive, amid threats from those who are vocal, eloquent, and against fishing, especially catch and release. Read it. You'll learn a lot. You'll come away with a modified view of fly fishing and perhaps of yourself. And along the way you'll laugh a lot."—Dave Hughes, author of Trout Flies

Excerpt from If Fish Could Scream: An Angler's Search for the Future of Fly Fishing, from "Introduction: Stand Facing the River:"

Whenever I visit a trout stream, fly fishing empowers the process. The sport’s high technicians lean hard toward the sport’s empirical rewards, but I doubt that any of those admirable overachievers would be there in the first place if it wasn’t all so beautiful. Fly fishing positions us so superbly to feel and wonder⎯abstractly, reverently, analytically, poetically, whimsically, or in any other way within our capabilities⎯that it would be a tragic loss of intellectual and emotional opportunity if the sport had never arisen as a human pursuit.

When Roderick Haig-Brown made his famous remark that “Perhaps fishing is, for me, only an excuse to be near rivers,” he was right. But he knew, and meant, that the nearness of the river was only the start. Pick up your fly rod, stand facing the river, and the world opens out from there.

In fact many worlds open from there. Some days, it’s sufficient to think about where the fish might be, or why the flies aren’t hatching, or why even the best fly tiers on earth can’t seem to narrow down the appropriate imitation of the little western mayfly known as the Pale Morning Dun to one pattern. Perhaps nothing else has so fully occupied fly fishers over the centuries than our quixotic and joyously addictive attempts to get a fly pattern right.

Other days, my inquiry may be, in the spirit of Haig-Brown, more about the river itself⎯changes in a once-familiar gravel bar since the last high water, a long bark-peeled snag that has been slowly creeping downstream through a favorite bend and now seems to have jammed itself permanently into a jutting angle of cutbank, or just an odd tint to the water that makes me wonder what has been going on upstream.

Other days, especially those when I go foraging in the folklore and literature of angling and the greater literatures of natural and human history, I am again struck by the open-ended character of the whole enterprise of outdoor sport, most especially the blessed uncertainty of it all. Nothing that draws us as deeply into wild nature as does fly fishing when it is well practiced is for people who insist that things be simple, or well-defined, or predictable. The combination of human nature and wild nature is always bound to be exciting, challenging, and a little bewildering.

For all these reasons, on all these levels, fly fishing is, as the phrase goes, good to think with. Fly fishing invites us into so many kinds of wonder and wondering that even in our most idle moods it can surprise us with new insights and questions. And if we’re really paying attention, there is so much going on that we can hardly keep up.

There is more to think about all the time. Fly fishing has changed more in the past century than in the previous two millennia, and it seems to be changing faster all the time. I suspect that most anglers and all of fly-fishing’s commercial enterprises would call this accelerating rate of change “progress,” but it’s probably also worth wondering if change necessarily makes a sport better. Technology, commerce, and human values are all at play here, and they are all up for grabs. If Fish Could Scream is a series of meditations on this process of change.