Over My Waders

The following article, Secrets of the Dusty Trail is widely regarded as a classic. It appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal in the spring of 1976. I was fortunate to learn from "Pal" in my youth. He was perennially the President of our Fly Fishing Club. This extract is in his memory.

Secrets of the Dusty Trail


by A.I. "Pal" Alexander

Collecting angling books is an addiction. It does not have the terminal aspect of the needle or alcohol nor the invocation to financial ruin associated with high-flying horseflesh and late night poker games - but make no mistake about it, it is an insidious addiction. Worse yet, the angling book collector usually doesn't even know that he is incurably hooked.

The test is simple; count your angling books. If you have no more than one or two to help straighten out your casting deficiencies, two or three on fly-tying patterns, and a half dozen to a dozen remaindered anthologies - which you still haven't read - that your family or relatives have given you over the years, then you're probably safe and have nothing to fear. If, on the other hand, you have a lot more books than you really need and you're still buying them faster than you can read them, watch out, you may be on the edge of a stream that has a very fast current.

In my case, I was a collector without being aware of it. Gene Anderegg, a well-known collector and founding president of the Federation of Fly Fishermen, was a dinner guest in my house some years ago, and, after scanning through my bookcase, he said, "I see you are an angling book collector."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, I see you are an angling book collector."
"Oh, I have a few fishing books but I'm not really a collector."
"You have at least 250 angling books on the shelves in your bookcase. You are a collector."
At that point my position was indefensible. I was a collector.

In the ensuing years, I have discovered that collecting angling books is much akin to the pursuit of angling itself. There are days of incredible success comparable to coming upon an endless hatch of Green Drakes floating into a pool of ravenous brown trout. And there are days of dark dejection reminiscent of watching muddy water on the Miramichi River rise a foot a day.

Just as fishing has captivated the fancy of both rich and poor, so has collecting. Izaac Walton, the patron saint of bait fishermen, was a collector of angling books when there were hardly any angling books to collect. The first American editor of Walton's Compleat Angler, the Reverend George W. Bethune, was a collector's collector, with an outstanding library containing many of the great rarities. His edition of The Compleat Angler is of importance to collectors not only for the Walton text and notes but the long bibliographical preface which records all the previously published angling literature of significance.

Other early collectors of note were John Bartlett, Daniel Fearing, one time mayor of Newport, Rhode Island, who donated his angling collection of 12,000 angling volumes, 3000 angling bookplates, and 5000 angling postcards to Harvard University, the largest collection ever assembled; Dean Sage, author of the extremely rare and expensive The Restigouche and its Salmon Fishing; and Henry Alden Sherwin, of the Sherwin-Williams Co. - "the paint that covers the world." Lesser known to the general public, perhaps, but no less ardent in their collecting activities were J.C. Lynn, Col. W.M.E. Dennison, John Gerard Heckscher, Arthur Howard Thompson, William Van Winkle, David Wagstaff, Otto von Kienbusch and Charles Eliot Goodspeed.

Great collections are built and then finally disassembled by auction or consignment to a book dealer. In some instances, as with Bartlett and the Fearing collections (Harvard), the Wagstaff (Yale) and the von Kienbusch (Princeton), great collections are permanently placed outside the grasp of other collectors when they are willed or given to one of the large universities or libraries where they rest unused and unread for the most part.

It is interesting to note that Sherwin deliberately consigned his books to auction "so that collectors might have the privilege of filling their wants that way."

Occasionally a collection is lost through fire, flood, or ignorance of its value. The Charles Eliot Goodspeed collection is a notable example. Goodspeed, the famous Boston bookseller, lost most of his large collection of angling books, especially strong in Waltons, to a fire in his house.

From what I have said, it might be thought that the only way to build an angling collection is through the auction houses and using a never balanced checkbook. Not so.

It is the very advanced collector and specialist who needs the auction houses. For the vast majority of collectors, the bookstores, priced mailing lists and catalogs, along with trades from other collectors, are sufficient to fill most wants. Furthermore, I think, there is more spirit of the chase in dealing with these outlets. The average collector does not need the auction houses any more than he needs to go to the Cascapedia to catch an Atlantic salmon.

The favorite place of all to look for angling books is in a bookstore that deals with all kinds of books. Anyone can buy an angling book worth $10.00 by paying $10.00 or more for it. The problem is to buy the angling book worth $10.00 for $5.00 or less. In a bookstore dealing with all types of books, this is easy. A book dealer running a bookstore with thousands of books on all subjects has to know a little bit about everything and rarely has a thorough knowledge of angling literature. The angling book collector, on the other hand, specializing in a narrow area of the book world, can have a vastly superior knowledge even with only a modest amount of homework.

Another thing you'll find, too, is that most general book dealers pay little or no attention to inscriptions, bookplates, notes, or autographs in something as insignificant as an angling book. Frequently, you'll find yourself not only with a much sought-after book but it will be distinguished by a bookplate or an author's signature. A specialized dealer rarely misses these items but a general dealer almost always does. Once a dealer realizes the importance of a bookplate, inscription, or whatever, the ballgame is over and the price rises dramatically.

Many of the books in my library, bought from general book dealers, bear inked-in names such as Nettle, Orvis, Southard, Norris, Phillips, Stevens, Dawson, Penn, Cholmondeley Pennell, Hamilton and Burrard. Not your everyday household names to be sure. Do you recognize them? None of the book dealers I bought them from did. These names, of course, are significant because they belong to angling authors and they are in low priced trade editions, not fancy or limited editions where the author signs every copy in the edition.

A similar situation exists with bookplates. Bookplates of famous people, including angling authors, can greatly enhance the interest and value of a particular book. It is highly unlikely that Daniel Webster's bookplate (found in some angling books) would go unnoticed, but Frank Buckland's or Henry Alden Sherwin's bookplate will pass through a bookstore without wrinkling an eyebrow and to a collector, they make a book that much more interesting.

One cardinal rule I try to follow on entering a bookstore is to really look at the books. I am not being facetious. Even advanced collectors make the error of skimming titles without bothering to open up any books because they think they know what they are looking at. This can be a serious error and cause many a pearl to be left unfound.

One day in Goodspeed's Bookstore, on Boston's Milk Street, I was rather haphazardly going through a collection of angling books put on the shelves some weeks earlier when I had been away fishing. I perused the books methodically but with no great expectations since I knew that at least a dozen collectors had been through before me and, presumably, had taken out the desirable material. For no reason that I can recall, I picked up a copy of Walbran's Grayling and How to Catch Them. Now, Walbran's book if you are not familiar with it, is English and nice enough, but it is a perennial on every book list and is found in every bookstore selling from $2.00 to $4.00. It is such a common book that I am sure that none of the collectors before me even bothered to open it up. When I did, however, I found that this copy once belonged to Dr. J. A. Henshall, of black bass fame, and not only had his name and address inscribed on the title page but contained some of his notes on the text as well. With great difficulty I counted out the $3.50 for the book and I could see the Green Drakes coming down in endless succession.

Inscriptions and autographs in angling books are fairly common but there are other things of interest, too.

Once, in a copy of W.C. Prime's I Go-Afishing, I found a 5" x 7" full portrait photograph of W.C. Prime himself. It is the only photograph of him that I have ever seen except for the tiny stereoscopic photograph of him in Goodspeed's Angling in America. Another time, in a copy of Men I Have Fished With, by Fred Mather, I found a letter written by Dr. J.A. Henshall to John Holman, editor of Forest & Stream, complaining about the photographs of him that the magazine was using.

Not always, of course, is a letter, drawing, or note from the known or famous angler; more often, they are from anglers who left no distinguishing marks. In my office hangs a small pencil drawing entitled "The Lonesome Fisherman" and it is signed "B.R. '80." I doubt that "B.R." was famous. His drawing is somewhat unskilled, too, but it has the spirit of a true angler and I like it well enough to give it wall space after it fell out of a recently purchased angling book.

Drawings and notes on fly patterns are common in angling books but the actual flies are not, excluding those deliberately set in sunken mounts in special editions. I do have one paperback titled A Naturalist's Guide to Grand Teton National Park that does have flies in it. The owner must have been a "collector" as there are many wild flowers pressed within its pages. Of more interest to me, though, are the five wet flies of the period on page 5. The bookstore price on the outside of this little paperback says $10.

Most of the little odds and ends that I have found are of a trivial nature. I guess, and, although they are of interest to the collector, they are not of interest to the angling fraternity as a whole. Once, though, I did find something really significant.

Scouting through a bookstore in Rhode Island, I came across a rebound copy of Thaddeus Norris' The American Angler's Book. The name Norris was mislettered on the spine so it spelled Morris. Inside was page after page of handwritten notes on fishing and fabulous catches of fish along with newspaper clippings corroborating the angling successes of the book's former owner, Col. Francis Wayland Miner, a famous Rhode Island politician and courier to President Lincoln during the Civil War. Several of the newspaper clippings reported the Colonel as having caught an 86 pound Striped bass off Southeast Point of Block Island. As you probably know, the world record striped bass caught by Charles B. Church at Vineyard Sound, Massachusetts, in 1913, weighed only 73 pounds! In subsequent research, I found much of Col. Miner's fishing equipment and personal effects, including pictures of the big fish, but, unfortunately, I never found the reported affidavit which would have enshrined Col. Miner in the saltwater fishing record books forever.

The collecting pursuit is not all vintage wine, rare steaks and cherries with cream. Although I try to sublimate some of them, I have occasional flashbacks of memory to the time when I did not buy Milnor's Schuylkill Fishing Company for $10.00 because the cover was loose; it now sells for around $300.00. I also remember almost having an asthmatic convulsion when I heard the quotation of Dean Sage's The Restigouche and its Salmon Fishing at $650.00; now a reprint sells for $500.00 and the original well over $1500.00!

A few years back, I was ecstatic with a newly acquired copy of An Ode to Lake Bass by George J. Seabury, a deluxe, privately printed book on silk paper which Charles Wetzel called "Rare" in his famous Catalog of American Fishing Books. This was a real treasure!

As it happened that early spring morning, I was scheduled to do a little trout fishing with a friend who was not a book collector but was an enthusiastic bass fisherman. When he arrived at my house, I showed him the book with great pride.

"I have one of those, only mine is in better shape," he told me.
"Roger, you couldn't have this book. It is very rare."
"I not only have it but I know where there are at least twenty more just like it."

As soon as I had seen Roger's copy, verifying that he did indeed have a copy "only better" we were off in hot pursuit. It was a cold trail, however, because Roger had seen the books months earlier. It seemed forever before we finally arrived at the weekend antique shop in southern New Hampshire and the best we could salvage out of the proprietor's hazy memory was that someone bought the entire cache of books for $.75 each! I could almost hear the roily waters of the Miramichi rising up over the banks.

Usually when I go into a bookstore, I inquire as to the location of "sporting" books rather than just angling books. Frequently the angling books are mixed up with the hunting and, in many cases, there is a classification choice with many books that have material on both hunting and fishing. Even if I am told there are no sporting books, no hunting or fishing books in the store, I like to look anyway. In Maine, I bought a pristine copy of Schaldach's Currents and Eddies, in the limited edition, for $7.00, after a kindly old Mainer thoroughly assured me he had no sporting literature. This was one he "forgot."

In an old Massachusetts barn bookstore, one winter, I learned a profitable lesson in the art of looking for books. Most bookshelves are made to handle only normal size books, and oversized volumes are either laid flat on the shelves or put elsewhere in the store. Asking about the oversized part of the barn where I immediately spotted a neat stack of bound copies of Forest $ Stream, covered with dust, and unseen by the many collectors who must have visited this well-known barn, I bought the lot of bound volumes, including Volume 1, No.1, for a dollar each.

By asking about oversize volumes, I have picked up many copies of the excellent N.Y. State Forest, Fish & Game Commission Annual Reports. Many fine angling books such as Schaldach's Fish, Phair's Atlantic Salmon Fishing and various editions of Walton are in the big book category and always are worth asking about.

In all but the most neat and trim bookstores, I look on top of the stacks of bookshelves for a straggler that didn't find a home on the shelf. Another favorite spot that has yielded some great finds is down behind the books on the shelves. Often a small book gets pushed behind the books on the shelves and will stay there for a very long time unseen and unnoticed. I have found enough exceptional books looking here to make me suspicious that occasionally someone deliberately hides a book for a friend or until they find sufficient funds to pay for it. Regardless of the reason, it is a good place to look.

Some bookstores, the neat ones, divide their books up into special categories such as Great Rivers, Maine, Humor, etcetera. Books by Edmund Ware Smith and Thomas Sedgwick Steele have a habit of ending up in the section on Maine. Zern may be found in the humor section and some of the classics dealing with stream insects come to rest in the biology section. Many a good angling book is not in the angling section at all.

Not all book collectors seek out magazines and tackle catalogs as I do but some of the most interesting literature is in this area. Magazines are very elusive and fragile, they begin to deteriorate almost as soon as they are published. When I know of a magazine issue I want, I write it down on a 3 x 5 card that I carry in my wallet. This simplifies the problem of remembering dates on magazines and when some are located, it is easy enough to check them out without looking through each and every one in hopes of finding something.

For years, I carried on my magazine card two dates of Fortune magazine. One, June 1948, which has the article "Atlantic Salmon", by John McDonald, with a double-page, color spread of salmon flies, painted by John Atherton and the other, May 1946, which has "Fly Fishing and Trout Flies", also by McDonald and a double-page spread on trout flies, painted by John Atherton. Both of these issues are beautiful and highly desirable to add to an angling book collection or for the framing of the colorful fly plates. Over the years, I had found a few copies of each of these issues but only after the fly plates had been removed. Then, in Rhode Island, I found a bookstore which had a considerable stockpile of old Fortune magazines and I found both of them together in the midst of at least a hundred others. My pulse quickened at seeing the May 1946 issue but almost stopped altogether when the June 1948 was underneath it. I was sure that someone had culled out the story or the plates.

Luck prevailed for me, however, that day and both magazines were complete. I was delighted. As I was leaving the store and paying for my two prizes, I spied a very small stack of old Esquire magazines. The very top one on the pile was July 1956. The date rang a bell in my head and I checked my magazine card to read - "There is a Royal Coachman" by Preston Jennings, Esquire, July 1956. After a few years of zeros, I scored on three choice items in half an hour.

All collectors rely heavily on their reference sources. Unfortunately, some of the best reference materials are collectors' items themselves and are difficult to find and are often very expensive.

When I first began to collect books seriously, I was advised that the bibliography in Major Hills' A History of Fly Fishing for Trout was a good one to follow. It was good advice, I think, although, as might be expected, the bibliography is almost exclusively English. Major Hills was an unparalleled writer on English angling books, but the giant, in the way of bibliography, is the Bibliotheca Piscatoria, by T. Westwood and T. Satchell. This is a very comprehensive bibliography, including not only the angling books but parliamentary papers, fisheries' and fish culture references as well which are of little or no interest to the angling book collector.

Other English references of value to the collector are Notable Angling Literature, by James Robb, with its fine bibliography and Ancient Angling Authors, by W.J. Turrell, which treats the early angling books in a scholarly and highly readable manner. Others of lesser interest to the English angling book collector and Angling Literature in England, by Osmund Lambert, Walton and the Earlier Fishing Writers, by R. B. Marston, Fishing, by Arthur Ransome and Modern Angling Bibliography, by John Fitzgerald Hampton.

American angling book collectors depend largely upon Charles M. Wetzel's magnificent work, American Fishing Books. To the chagrin of the collecting fraternity, though, there were only 200 copies of this excellent checklist printed and a copy is rarely found in the market place. Recently, a new and updated bibliography, Angling Books of the Americas, by Henry P. Bruns, has rectified this situation immensely. Additional American reference works of importance are Early American Sporting Books, by Ernest R. Gee, Early American Sport, by Robert W. Henderson and Angling in America, by Charles Eliot Goodspeed.

For the collector who specializes exclusively in Waltons, there are two reference books dedicated entirely to The Compleat Angler: Peter Oliver's A New Chronicle of the Compleat Angler 1653-1967, by Bernard S. Horne.

Sales or auction catalogs of great angling collections issued by Sotheby & Co., in London, or the Parke-Bernet Galleries, in New York, are always excellent and informative reference material when they can be found.

The best source of information, particularly with regard to current prices, are the mail-order dealers who deal in angling books and send out price lists. In England, E. Chalmers Hallam, Earlswood, Egmont Drive, Avon Castle, Ringwood, Hampshire, England puts out a large price list of angling books, mostly English, that is a delight to read. His descriptions and prices are fair as are those on the list sent out by John and Judith Head, the Barn Book Supply, 88 Crane Street, Salisbury, Wilts, England. Other dealers who put out lists, from time to time, are R. E. and G.B. Way, Brettons, Burrough Green, Newmarket, Suffolk, CB8 9NA, England and Thomas Thorpe, 27 Albemarle Street, London, W1, England. Remember, however, with the mail situation as it is, it is difficult to compete across the waters although there are occasional bargains, particularly on American books. English collectors have a decided advantage by getting the lists first and being able to telephone inexpensively or being able to drive on over to the bookstore.

In the United States there are several book dealers who cater to the angling book collectors; Morris Heller, R.F.D. 1, Swan Lake, New Hork 12783, Sporting Book Service, Box 181, Rancocas, New Jersey 08073, and Anglers' & Shooters' Bookshelf, Goshen, Connecticut 06756. The last mentioned firm, operated by Col. Henry Siegel, distributes a catalog for $2.00 that is a collector's item itself and lists over 4,000 priced items. It is required reading for every American collector.

With the vast array of angling books available, the collector finds many choices along the way. Should he collect only American, only English, just fly fishing, limited editions, salmon fishing, or a little of everything? Time, interest, and financial circumstances will dictate much of the angling interest but remember, there is no Angling Book Collectors' Anonymous, no Half-Way Houses, and once you find yourself off the bank and into the current, it is a long, long, but pleasurable, ride.


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All content copyright Reed Curry © 2006.
Cartoon by Walter Young © 1961, used by permission.