Angling Arts

Book Review: Illuminated by Water

North American release:
Illuminated by Water: Fly Fishing and the Allure of the Natural World
by Malachy Tallack
Pegasus Books
352 pages

UK release:
Illuminated by Water: Nature, Memory and the Delights of a Fishing Life
by Malachy Tallack
272 pages

While anglers might want to debate Sir Izaak’s famous assertion that fishing is an art, most readers agree that the best writing about fly fishing is most certainly an art. Malachy Tallack’s Illuminated by Water justifies the latter claim. Subtitled Fly Fishing and the Allure of the Natural World, it’s one of the most appealing angling memoirs I have ever read—and I’ve enjoyed my share over the last half century.

Tallack has fished most of his life, first on secluded locks as a boy growing up on the remote Shetland archipelago, and later on streams and rivers after relocating to the Scottish midlands. However, it’s his gifts as an author—including two works of non-fiction and, most recently, a novel, The Valley at the Centre of the World—and a songwriter with four albums to his credit that shape his memoir. As an author he has learned how to tell an engaging story through plot, character and setting. And as a songwriter he has learned how to distill complex experiences, emotions and philosophical concerns to their essence.

Tallack’s literary background makes Illuminated by Water as much a creative response to books about fly angling as about the practice of fishing. In the process he initiates a series of conversations or dialogues with fellow authors who write compellingly and movingly, eloquently and memorably about fly angling. He demonstrates his insights and sympathies when he contends that Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It is not about fly fishing—as do most anglers—but a meditation on beauty. I agree with his assessment.

Tallack is a perceptive and judicious reader. As a result his memoir fits comfortably alongside the work of the literary angling writers he references including Jim Harrison, W.D. Wetherwell, Ted Leeson, Negley Farson and Harry Middleton, in addition to nature writers Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Annie Dillard and fellow Scot Nan Shepherd.

Malachy Tallack

Even when not mentioned directly, the whispers of writers evoked through the coordinates of time and place can be heard by attentive readers. For example, Tallack is obviously casting in the shadow of beloved poet Norman MacCaig and Andrew Greig (author of At the Loch of the Green Corrie and The Return of John Macnab), avid anglers both, when he fishes the sequestered locks of Assynt, in the northwestern Highlands.

In his introduction Tallack distinguishes between two types of angling books: those concerned with How and those concerned with Why. Like most angling books with literary aspirations, it’s clear where his memoir lands. ‘Why is the question that matters most to me, the one to which I keep returning, again and again,’ he writes.

He delineates his approach, which is more discursive than doctrinaire, by stating that his book is ‘an attempt to trace [rise rings], to follow them outwards and see where they go. It is an attempt to grasp some of that meaning and significance.’ As such, ‘it is about beauty, about hope, and about how freedom is sought and sometimes found.’ In other words, it’s neither instructional manual nor angling travelogue.

However fly fishing is regarded—whether sport, hobby, recreation, pastime, obsession or calling—Tallack insists it addresses ethical and aesthetic matters. This imbues Illuminated by Water with a quietly reflective quality in keeping with the meditative tradition represented in the West by such foundational works as A Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle and The Compleat Angler. Appropriately, his memoir’s structure embodies the graceful rhythm of forward and backward casts, as chapters alternate between contemplation and action (which Walton identified as the source of angling’s virtue).

The ‘action’ chapters chronicle fishing adventures, past and present, which he often shares with his brother Rory. Although he makes brief excursions to Canada and New Zealand, Tallack remains unfazed by the lure of exotic locales. Instead he finds solace fishing the ‘home waters’ of Shetland and Scotland.

His perspective is unique in a couple of ways. First, while Scotland is celebrated for its legendary salmon, which remain the domain of patrician wealth and privilege, he casts a plebeian line toward ‘brown trout more often than any other species.’ Second, while he has been fishing still freshwater locks since childhood, we accompany him through his apprenticeship on moving freshwater streams and rivers as an experienced angler in his thirties who gamely confronts the challenge of adapting to new techniques and methods.

The ‘contemplative’ chapters explore a range of topics including: the policy and practice of catch and release; the global distribution of brown and rainbow trout through resource management initiatives; the dangers of introducing stocked hatchery fish to wild native fisheries; the role size and quantity play in calibrating angling success; the influence of social class in the history of angling in Great Britain and how it differs from other places including North America; the reasons there are more female fly anglers in North America than in Great Britain and Europe.

Although I’m familiar with these topics, I learned new things from Tallack. Like all good storytellers or musical tale-spinners, he neither preaches nor proselytizes. He’s not interested in winning arguments or attracting converts. Rather his pleasingly conversational tone and pace are as warm as they are causal. Although Illuminated by Water can be read as an introduction to fly angling, it’s not limited to beginners—far from it. It should appeal to experienced anglers who want to dig deeper into the things that make fly fishing so intriguing and fulfilling.

For me, the best parts of his memoir are when Tallack puts on his ruminatingcap and speculates about the ineffable things that veer away from the practical and quantifiable toward the mystery and wonder that separate fly fishing and from such activities as tournament casting and competitive fishing in which bag limits determine success or failure.

With the exception of wading a familiar river and casting to finicky trout, nothing gives me more pleasure than sitting bank side and sharing a dram of malt whisky with my angling companions while wrestling with mysteries contained within our revolving planet. After reading his charming memoir I would like to extend an invitation to Malachy Tallack to join us whenever he can, for my companions and I concur wholeheartedly when he observes, ‘Angling can make the world feel bigger, richer and more complex.’

Scotland inhabits a special place in my heart and imagination. I have spent untold happy hours studying its history, art, music, literature, malt whisky, angling legacy and Celtic spiritual tradition. I have visited my ancestral home twice, travelling its length and breadth. However, I have never fished its burns, rivers or lochs. Because of the common complaints that stalk old age, I have little hope of casting fur and feather on its hallowed waters for the trout I cherish. This awareness had carried with it the sting of loss and regret, since soothed by the balm of Illuminated by Water.

Tallack was one of six finalists shortlisted for the prestigious £1,000 Richard Jefferies Award for the best nature-writing published and nominated in 2022.

This book review was written originally for Classic Angling, Great Britain’s premium fishing journal.

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