Angling Arts

Fly Fishing Mysteries

I wrote a chapter in Casting into Mystery, ‘Books for a Winter’s Night,’ that surveys contemporary fly fishing mystery writing. What follows is an updated and expanded examination of what continues as a vibrant sub-genre of a popular form of fiction. Almost immediately upon release of Casting I either found or was introduced by other mystery buffs to writers who deal with ‘outdoor’ themes including fly angling. This remains a highly personal survey rather than a comprehensive discussion of fly fishing mysteries I have read and enjoyed.

Literature is a great river, as long and broad as it is deep. If mystery fiction is a tributary, then fly angling mysteries comprise a cold clear feeder stream.

I use the phrase ‘fly angling mystery’ because I am as enthusiastic about the contemplative recreation (to paraphrase Izaak Walton) as I am literature. My use of the phrase spans a range of ‘outdoor’ mystery fiction set in rural locations, including wilderness. Inveterate sleuths work as game wardens; forest, park or river rangers; conservation or fish and wildlife officers; small-town police officers or private investigators who moonlight as avid anglers. Some might not even be in law enforcement, but rather earn their living as fly shop and fishing lodge owners or professional fishing guides. Although fly angling mysteries feature the formal and thematic conventions that define the genre, they often incorporate issues that arise directly out of setting, especially ecological and natural resource issues.

Fly angling mysteries have been around for a while. In 1925 Scottish novelist, historian and politician John Buchan— who served as Canada’s Governor General from 1935 to 1940 as Lord Tweedsmuir—published John Macnab, an entertaining blend of mystery, poaching adventure and Highland period piece. Scottish writer Andrew Greig, a literary fly angler, reimagined Buchan’s novel in 1996 in The Return of John Macnab.

Such classic mystery writers as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Caroline Graham fished the pools of piscatorial murder and mayhem long before contemporary crime writers cast their lines. The first contemporary fly angling mysteries I read were David Leitz’s Max Addams novels including Casting in Dead Water, Dying to Fly Fish and Fly Fishing Can Be Fatal. Max, a fishing lodge owner in seeing New England, never goes looking for murder; murder always finds him.

Like an angler in unfamiliar water, I began prospecting for fly angling mysteries in bookstores, both new and used, as well as angling websites and online book retailers. I assembled a collection of mysteries to complement my fly fishing library encompassing novels, story collections, poetry, essays and memoirs, in addition to vintage instructional non-fiction.

As a writer William G. Tapply was a double-haul caster. A fine crime novelist (his Brady Coyne series takes place in Boston and throughout New England), he also was an excellent outdoor writer of both memoirs and instructional books. Although fly angling recurs in the Coyne mysteries, it beats at the heart of his last three novels featuring Stoney Calhoun, a fishing guide with a mysterious past who lives in Maine (Bitch Creek, Gray Ghost, Dark Tiger).

John Larison is a river steward, guide and teacher in Oregon who has written a couple of mystery novels set in the Northwest including Northwest of Normal and Holding Lies. Another Oregon writer, Warren Easley, has written a pair of mysteries (Matters of Doubt and Dead Float) featuring Cal Claxton, a former L.A. prosecutor who practices law so he can fish more.

Wisconsin’s John Galligan is a college writing teacher who developed a series (The Nail Knot, The Blood Knot, The Clinch Knot, The Wind Knot) featuring a peripatetic fly fisherman named Dog who goes in search of fish and finds murder. Wyoming’s David Riley Bertsch’s Jake Trent series includes Death Canyon and River of No Return. California-based short-fiction, outdoor writer Jim Tenuto’s Blood Atonement features Montana fly fishing guide Dahlgren Wallace.

Michigan’s Joseph Heywood has written a dozen novels in the Woods Cop series, including Ice Hunter, Blue Wolf in Green Fire, Chasing a Blond Moon, Running Dark, Dark Roe and Strike Dog in addition to the intriguing fly fishing fantasy novel The Snowfly. Ronald Weber, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, has written a trio of mysteries set in Northern Michigan and featuring a male newspaperman and female natural resources officer: Aluminum Hatch, Catch and Keep and Riverwatcher.

Fly angling mystery writers are not limited to men.

Nevada Barr is undoubtedly the best-known female outdoor mystery writer. After graduating with a master’s degree in theatre, Barr worked in theatre, television and film before following her husband’s commitment to the environmental cause. She switched careers and worked as a park ranger prior to resigning to write full time when her books gained commercial success. Barr’s fictional sleuth, Anna Pigeon, is a law enforcement ranger with the United States National Parks Service who travels from park to park across America, solving murders which are often related to environmental issues. After releasing close to 20 titles she has yet to devote a mystery to fly fishing. She is overdue.

Wisconsin’s Victoria Houston is a prolific female mystery writer who gives fishing—with live-bait and hard-lure as well as with fur and feather—a prominent role in her fiction. Her Loon Lake series features retired dentist/fly angler Paul Osborne who is routinely deputized by police chief/fly angler Lewellyn Ferris.

Mary Alice Monroe is a popular writer who explores ‘women’ themes rather than a mystery writer. Although Time is a River is not a conventional mystery, it contains elements of the ‘supernatural.’ Recovering from two kinds of trauma, breast cancer and her husband’s infidelity, Mia Landan flees her Charleston home for the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she takes refuge in a neglected cabin inherited by her fly fishing instructor. Memory and fly angling help Mia find forgiveness and achieve redemption.

If you are a reader who subscribes to the notion that fly anglers are ethically purer than other kinds of anglers prepare yourself for a reality check from Beth Groundwater. Wicked Eddies, the second instalment in her Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventure series, paints a portrait of a fly fisherman who is not only a cheat and a liar, but as despicable a human being as a reader can imagine.

There are many more fly fishing mystery novels. These are simply the ones I’ve collected, read and enjoyed. For anglers eager to dip the toes of wading boots into fly fishing mystery I suggest Hook, Line & Sinister. The collection of short fiction is edited by T. Jefferson Parker and features stories by such prominent mystery writers as Michael Connelly, C.J. Box, Houston and Tapply.

Although not primarily a fly fishing mystery writer, James Lee Burke is one of America’s most accomplished crime novelists. He is also a fly angler who writes brilliantly about the recreational sport. I devour any novel that has the slightest taste of fly angling, whether it involves Louisiana sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux or former Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland.

I enjoy authors who are not specifically fly fishing mystery writers but set their crime novels in wilderness areas, featuring protagonists who are forest rangers, conservation officers or game wardens. Box’s Joe Pickett series is set in Wyoming and offers an occasional fly fishing cameo. Box, a fly angler, has written about fly fishing elsewhere including a story in his story collection Shots Fired. I would like to see more of it in his books, maybe even a mystery that revolves around the sport.

Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch series, which is set in Maine, is equally accomplished. Given that he is a Registered Maine Guide specializing in fly fishing and lives on a trout stream I am surprised the sport has not found its way into any of his close to a dozen mysteries. I’d say it’s about bloody time, Paul.

Ernest Hemingway was not the first, nor will he be the last, newspaperman to write exemplary fiction about fishing generally and fly fishing specifically.

Carl Hiaasen was born, raised and educated in Florida, where he has lived all his life. A longtime newspaperman at the Miami Herald, where he is a columnist, he started writing novels in the early 1980s. His 1987 mystery Double Whammy is a weird and wonderful criminal romp covering sex, murder and corruption on the professional competitive bass-fishing tour.

John Sanford is one of America’s most popular and most prolific mystery writers, with no fewer than three longstanding interconnected series on the go. He was known by his birth name, John Roswell Camp, when he was a newspaperman who started at the Miami Herald before being nominated and eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize.

My favourite series features Virgil Flowers (known not aways affectionately as ‘that fucking Flowers’). Flowers might not be a fly fisherman but I know of no more obsessive a fisherman in mystery fiction. Seldom does the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator go on a case somewhere in rural Minnesota without hauling a boat behind his pickup, just so he can grab a few hours fishing for bass, muskie or some other northern gamefish. In Rough Country, the third novel in the series, Virgil is dragged away from a muskie tournament to solve a murder at a remote lodge that caters to women attracted to other women.

Bartholomew Gill was the pen name of the late Mark C. McGarrity, an Irish-American mystery novelist and newspaper feature writer and columnist reporting on nature and outdoor recreation for New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. He wrote sixteen Peter McGarr mysteries. In Death on a Cold, Wild River the chief superintendent of the Irish Police’s elite Murder Squad investigates the suspicious death of a famous fly angling writer, guide and fly shop owner (who happens to be an old flame). The action unfolds in what has become known as Yeats’ Country on Ireland’s myth-haunted West Coast. Death on a Cold, Wild River is a fly angler’s feast with a buffet of salmon fishing and fly tying served with a dram of ancient Celtic mythology. Deeelicious!

William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series features an ex-sheriff of Tamarack County, nestled in the Boundary Waters of the Quetico-Superior Wilderness with its two-million acres of dense forest, whitewater rapids and uncharted islands on the Canadian-American border. I don’t know whether Krueger is a fisherman or fly angler but I would like to see more of the sport in his mysteries, given how important it is to the area in which his stories are set.

I would like to mention a trio of novels by literary authors that weave fly fishing into mystery narratives. The Trout, by Irish novelist Peter Cunningham, is a story about the dark stain the Roman Catholic Church casts across Ireland. The novel–which begins in Ontario’s Muskoka before shifting to Ireland, with a detour to Michigan–is punctuated with lovely passages, set pieces really, about fly fishing for trout.

Peter Heller’s The Painter is an accomplished novel built on a foundation of the mystery genre featuring Jim Stegner (perhaps a nod to Wallace Stegner?), a man who cannot avoid trouble. It is also a meditation on love and loss, authenticity and celebrity, obsession and inspiration, passion and violence, not to mention the redemptive power of art and fly fishing.

Jim is not inherently bad. After all, he is a successful, self-taught artist—the darling of critics because of the blue-collar, outsider status. He is also a determined fly angler. Fly fishing for wild trout runs through The Painter like a Montana spring creek, where much of the action takes place.

Jim is big and burly, with a thick, grey beard. The locals call him Hemingway because he looks so much like the famous writer. He is popular with sexy women; he is comfortable with kids. He is a good friend to good men. However, he can be violent when pushed, capable of shooting a sexual predator point-blank or killing in cold blood two brothers who happen to be irredeemable poachers.

A reformed alcoholic and gambler, and two-time loser at marriage, Jim controls his incendiary temper through painting and fishing. He is attuned to the melody of trout rivers, through which he communes with his dead daughter.

Equally seductive is Heller’s subsequent mystery The River, a canoeing misadventure set on a legendary river with a sinister history that feeds into Hudson Bay in the Northwest Ontario. Two college pals, one from Vermont and one from Colorado (both fly fishing meccas), learn a great deal about themselves, and one another, when they paddle into whitewater murder fuelled by wildfire–literally.

Raymond Carver remains a giant among American short story writers. He was also an avid fly fisherman who wrote excellent poems about rivers and angling. He has fun playing the angling mystery genre in his story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’.

The satirical tale tells of a group of buddies who go fishing for a few days, discover the corpse of a murdered woman and decide not to report the grisly finding to police until the conclusion of their wilderness trip. (I suspect only a fly angler would find this convincing or credible behaviour.) Their tardiness causes all kinds of grief for the narrator who falls under the crosshairs of his astonished and disbelieving wife.

I suspect Richard Dokey, a philosophy professor and longtime fly angler based in California, had a Carver in mind when he wrote some of the collected in his ‘Hemingwayesuqe’ Fly Fishing the River Styx.

J. Michael Stewart returns to the place where he was born and raised for Smoke on the Mountain. Atlanta attorney Cody McAlister seeks refuge from the creeping alcoholism that accompanies a job that no longer satisfies and an ugly divorce by escaping into the Smokey Mountains on a backcountry fly fishing trip. The mystery is not what brings him to the edge of death—a bear on a bloody rampage—but whether he will be found, rescued and saved in time.

Stewart’s tale of wilderness survival hinges on the primeval fear aroused by nature’s most menacing, vicious and bloodthirsty creatures. Gossip, prejudice and ignorance, not to mention legend, folklore and myth, conspire as much as animal psychology, wilderness behaviour and sensational media accounts to create stories that raise hair on the back of necks, palpitate hearts and interrupt sleep.

Angling Arts

Our Man in Montana

I have never met Keith McCafferty; however, I gained a sense of the writer through his eight acclaimed Sean Stranahan mystery novels. I subsequently read a small sample of his outdoor journalism with deep pleasure. When Casting into Mystery was released in the winter of 2020 I sent Keith a copy because he was the focus of a chapter on fly fishing mysteries. Keith’s enthusiastic support of my angling memoir has been deeply gratifying. He graciously introduced me to a number of literary fly anglers, including poet Keith Shein and angling Renaissance man Henry Hughes, who have been supportive of Casting. Keith and I have exchanged emails and talked on the phone. He is a natural raconteur of wide outdoor experience. This is an expanded and updated version of my observations on Keith’s mystery writing. I also offer snapshots of his excellent outdoor journalism.

The Bangtail Ghost is the most recent novel by my favourite fly fishing mystery writer, Keith McCafferty.

Montana’s Gravelly Range is put on high alert when paw prints and a single incriminating whisker are found at the scene of grisly violence which suggests that a woman has been mercilessly attacked and carried away. Tracks lead to a pile of gnawed bones and scattered remains. Yikes!

However much strife, conflict and violence occur in nature—what Tennyson memorably called ’red in tooth and claw’—man proves infinitely more ferocious, malevolent and dangerous in Keith’s eighth novel.

Keith—our Man in Montana—lives in Bozeman and he knows the state like the back of his hand not only by writing about it but by fishing and hunting it extensively. He began his writing career as a crime reporter for the Bakersfield Californian, where he met his wife, the award-winning journalist Gail Schontzler. Before turning his pen to mystery fiction he was an accomplished outdoor writer and outdoor skills editor for Field & Stream. He is a recipient of the prestigious Traver Award for angling literature and was a National Magazine Award finalist.

The outdoor journalism I have read of Keith’s compels me to place him squarely in the tradition of the best American outdoor sports journalism. To my mind, he is a link in the chain of legends beginning with the Pulitzer-winning Walter Wellesley ‘Red’ Smith and Cecil Whittaker ‘Ted’ Trueblood (who served as editor of Field & Stream from 1941 to 1982) and continuing through Ted Williams (not the Boston Red Sox legend but the outdoor and conservation journalist), James Babb and John Gierach. Likewise, he is a model for the most promising outdoor writers of a new generation including Noah Davis. In my estimation, it is time that a collection of Keith’s outdoor journalism be published. Admittedly I build my case on a small sample size but it is sufficient to confirm and verify the quality of his magazine writing.

The Philosopher’s Stone

is an account of one of three trips Keith made to British Columbia’s Thompson River, reputedly ‘the world’s most dangerous steelhead river’. Readers who take comfort in the stereotype of the fly angler as a briar pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed dandy on a pastoral English chalkstream had better prepare for a rude awakening. Keith presents steelheading not only as an obsession but as an addiction that threatens livelihood, family and health. It is serious stuff, even deadly.

Throughout the article, a blend of memory and celebration, Keith finds new and fresh ways of expressing the commonplace. A fly fisherman wades ‘into a pool where the river caught its breath before roaring away in a series of stunning rapids.’ (Italics mine). He conveys a powerful sense of steelheading on the Thompson as perilous as mountaineering or whitewater kayaking that touches ‘a measure of wildness missing for our lives.’ Always the conservationist, he mourns the tragic decline of the North American West Coast steelhead fishery caused by persistent manifestations of human hubris, ignorance and wilful stupidity.

Keith puts readers in the waders of steelhead fly anglers through direct and immediate sensory descriptions of a specific place. We are in the river alongside him as he casts repeatedly, until his arm and back ache, on the cusp of oblivion—his ‘heart . . . riding with the fly.’

’Fishing here is like an agnostic’s prayer,’ he writes, ‘like hoping there is a reason to hope.’ I know of no better description of the heroic futility of steeheading. After hundreds of casts during extreme weather, he confesses, ‘having done no more than shake the Thompson’s muscular hand.’

I will leave it to readers to discover whether Keith leaves the river for the last time victorious, ’turning lead skies and gunmetal water into Thompson gold.’

The End of the Road

is an account of permit fishing on the flats off Key West. When my thoughts turn to the southern-most tip of Florida, I think of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not; Tom McGuane’s exuberant psychedelic satires Ninety-two in the Shade and Panama; and Guy de la Valdene’s auteur cult classic Tarpon, featuring Richard Brautigan, Jim Harrison and McGuane in addition to painter/writer Russell Chatham—a Wild Bunch of literary fly anglers if ever there was one. I also think of Keith’s fin-de-siècle essay about catching wily permit.

Key West has undergone a facelift in recent years, but Keith recalls it as ‘the end of the road in the way that the darkest bar is the end of the day . . . a place where shattered lives exhaust their final hours, where fortune tellers manufacture hope for the hopeless for a ten dollar bill, where men who can’t recall when it all went wrong lean in 2 a.m. shadows among six-toed cats that are scarcely more than shadows themselves.’

Keith with a permit

Turns out, fly fishing the flats for permit is not a whole lot better:

‘Key West marks the end of the road for the young in spirit and the heaviest of heart, it also is the last stop for the intrepid angler who can’t rest until he has taken all the world’s great gamefish. Long after most fishermen have boated their first tarpon, after the bonefish has made its last run and the Atlantic salmon is hand-tailed in the gloaming of the castle ruins, the permit dangles just out of reach, flashing its mirrored sides like a tropical jewel.’

Why are permit so difficult to catch? Because, ‘what they don’t spot as a phoney, they sense as counterfeit.’ In other words, good luck, chump. First we accompany Keith and a his oldest angling companion Mo as they warm up on tarpon, described as ’the most masochistic experience I’ve had holding a rod, not because tarpon are difficult to catch but because after the first few jumps it’s just your muscles against theirs, and then after a half hour or so it’s your heart against theirs . . . .’ Keith recognizes that, at bottom, fly fishing is about heart and nothing but heart.

Dead Man’s Fancy and the Kispiox Kiss

is an account of a steelheading trip Keith makes alone. ‘Everywhere you looked, the land was burnt,’ he writes, recalling “A Big Two-Hearted River’. He misses his son who could not accompany his father because his wife is due with their first baby. Memory is as smooth as the peppermint Schnapps and hot chocolate he sips—a tradition he shared with his father many years previously on Michigan trout streams—after setting up camp along an abandoned railroad line. A sense of time passing and loss are everywhere present.

His thoughts turn to Nick Adams, who ‘also had crossed through a burned-over country to get to a river . . . True, he was shell-shocked from the war and looking to nature for the restoration of his soul, while all I suffered from were the overloaded circuits of the era and a father’s loss as children leave home to start adult lives. But it was the same feeling of solitude and holding tight to yourself that makes brothers of all men who sleep alone in wild places, and with the coming of night I felt the absence of my son all the more.’

Keith loses some fish and he catches some fish. However, it is the aching closeness he feels for his father and his son—angling companions always and forever—that marks the trip as a success. ‘When I broke camp the next afternoon I was feeling considerably better about life.’

Three Elk Nights

is an account of backcountry elk hunt with his brother Kevin in the high country of the Crazy Mountains. Keith tells us a great deal about elk hunting, some of which challenges conventional wisdom. It is also a poignant story about brothers that reads like a short story rather than a hunting tale for the hook and bullet press. While readers might assume that elk hunting is about ‘caliber and high power glass,’ Keith argues it is actually about ‘climbing through snow wondering if you’re old enough to worry about heart attack, fourteen-hour nights, fingers too cold to do what you tell them to do and feet that freeze in the sleeping bag.’

After locating elk beds in the bowl of a distant basin, Keith feels ‘the old blood, that hunter’s pulse as strong under the pallor of modern skin as it was when the Paleo-Indians crossed from Asia to the Americas during the last ice age.’

He fires and the elk drops, eventually. Readers who have never hunted might find it difficult to accept that killing a wild animal possesses elements of ceremony and ritual because of the deep spirituality attached to it. ‘I squatted beside it and kissed it on the top of its head before Kevin walked up,’ Keith writes. ‘It is no small thing to take a life and I felt the regret I always do. The measure of it grows bigger each year I hunt and I know it is emotional, and not rational, for the elk lived wild and was killed cleanly and would feed many people.’

All ethical hunters are philosophers. Through hunting, Keith becomes an integral part of ‘the bloodstream of the mountain.’ What a lovely phrase.

‘I long ago concluded that the purpose of life was to grab as much of it as you could and pass it on to the next generation,’ Keith writes, ‘that living life meant giving life. But life is also present in death, which is something hunting makes you aware of. Jays and crows were already stripping the meat from the skeleton of the elk I’d shot. Porcupines would grind the bones. When the ground thawed, decomposition would return nutrients that spread from the elk to other living things and back into the soil. The tender sedges that formed the basis of the mountain’s food chain would unfurl, and the cycle would be complete. It wasn’t a justification for killing–for that I needed also to eat the meat–but taking part in nature’s chain of life had connected me with my hunting ancestors and brought me closer to the heartbeat of the earth.’

Since the publication of The Royal Wulff Murders in 2012, Keith has hooked the lip of my imagination. Cold Hearted River, his sixth Sean Stranahan mystery in as many years, is in my opinion his best.

The novel is a fictional murder mystery wrapped around a real-life literary mystery. Its title will tip off most readers because it is a pun on ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’ Yes, the literary mystery involves none other than Ernest Hemingway, the writer who transformed fishing into a literary art form.

Keith shares some commonalities with the author known as ‘Papa’ which, at least for me, increase the novel’s interest quotient. Both writers are connected to Northern Michigan. Hemingway spent the summers of his youth there. The region provides the setting for some Nick Adams stories, including the masterful ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, as well as his first novel, the sophomoric satire Torrents of Spring.

Keith also spent the summers of his youth there, vacationing from Ohio with his family. Like Hemingway, it is where he learned to fly fish. He recalls one memorable summer in a Field & Stream article, ‘Wishing Tree: Fly Fishing Michigan’s Au Sable River,’ a reminiscence of the state’s Holy Water. Some of his personal story, which took place when he was twenty and worked on stream restoration, is given fictional shape in Cold Hearted River.

The connection between Keith and Hemingway, however, runs deeper. Keith knew the famous writer’s oldest son Jack Hemingway (a better angler than his father) for more than three decades when they were both contributing editors for Field & Stream. In his preface to Cold Hearted River, Keith recalls a ‘blustery November day’ when the two were steelheading on a section of the Thompson River known as the Graveyard. His colleague recounted the story of his famous father’s steamer trunk being lost or stolen in 1940, en route from Key West, Florida, to Ketchum, Idaho.

The trunk reputedly contained all of the author’s fly fishing gear, including bamboo rods and reels from England’s House of Hardy—and maybe, just maybe—an unpublished manuscript. (Hemingway’s only surviving fly rod, a Hardy ‘Fairy’ model, is on permanent display at the American Museum of Fly Fishing.) Of course, it is well known that in 1921 Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, lost a bag containing the manuscript and all the carbon copies of his first novel on a Parisian train.

Hemingway never fly fished after his fly gear was stolen. I believe it is possible to trace the beginning of Hemingway’s creative decline to when he gave up fly fishing and, instead, pursued celebrity through salt-water antics.

Keith confides that he had no intention of doing anything creatively with the tale of the missing trunk until Gail persuaded him to set a novel in northwestern Wyoming, where Hemingway spent five summers and autumns late in his life fishing, hunting and writing. This backstory sets up a compelling mystery. Keith builds a fictional mystery on the foundation of a literary mystery. A reader can never be sure where fact ends and fiction begins.

Keith’s assessment of Hemingway, which he expresses through a character in the novel—a retired English professor who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to ‘Papa’—is perspicacious. I agree with his observations:

Hemingway the person is among the most misunderstood, vilified, and yet the most celebrated Americans of his generation, and I would venture among the most iconic figures of the twentieth century.

Keith shrewdly puts his finger on the paradox that was very much the man. (Interestingly, his evaluation applies equally to another giant in twentieth century literature who, like Hemingway, was an obsessive angler. I am talking about Ted Hughes, the English poet who was married to Sylvia Plath when she, infamously, committed suicide.)

Keith acknowledges the dichotomy at the heart of Hemingway’s public persona. He sketches a portrait of a complicated man who was a complex artist—these character traits are not the same, nor are they interchangeable—who became a grotesque poster boy for American machismo:

He defined the American male, was labeled a misogynist, yet his relationships were with strong women and he championed their accomplishments. He could be shy behind his glasses, or generous and instructive. A bully and a bore, but by and large his friends forgave him his transgressions, because most of the time he was simply the best company you would ever find. His intelligence and enthusiasm were piercing lights to which people couldn’t help but gravitate.

I agree with Keith that Hemingway was a pathologically shy man who hide behind a braggadiocio facade. He questions the simplistic explanation of Hemingway’s mood swings as bipolar disorder. He suggests–rightly, I believe–that the paranoia and delusions of grandeur that dogged the writer to the grave were symptoms of schizophrenia, and that the brain trauma he suffered in an airplane crash in Africa caused psychological damage that led to diminished creativity.

Keith has transformed his home in Montana into a major character in his mysteries, along with the recreational sport itself. In The Royal Wulff Murders we learn Sean is an ex-private eye who moved to Montana from New England to purchase a new lease on life. He unwittingly becomes involved in murder after a good ol’ boy fishing guide reels in the corpse on the Madison, a legendary trout river. As events unfold Sean crosses paths with Velvet LaFayette, a Southern belle who pays the bills as a nightclub singer, and Martha Ettinger who emits a slow, amorous burn beneath her sheriff’s badge.

Keith proved himself an accomplished fiction writer right out of the gate. The setting for his mysteries was well-defined and his characters were not only fleshed out, they demonstrated potential for growth, like a good investment portfolio. Sean had sufficient emotional depth and intellectual breadth to carry a series. The Royal Wulff Murders brims with enough suspense and fly fishing lore to lure anglers and mystery fans alike—which is maintained throughout the series.

By his sophomore release, The Gray Ghost Murders, Keith had become my go-to fly fishing mystery writer—the literary equivalent of a pheasant-tail nymph or Woolly Bugger. The novel is held together by a pair of mystery threads as artfully tied as a Victorian salmon fly.

Keith is not one to back away from controversy, which should be of interest to fly anglers specifically and to outdoor enthusiasts generally. In The Royal Wulff Murders he introduces readers to the urgent danger of invasive species to trout streams throughout the West—which, by the way, extends to game fisheries across North America. In Dead Man’s Fancy he examines the politics of reintroducing wolves in the West. He sets A Death in Paradise, his seventh instalment in the series, in Montana’s Smith River Canyon. Referred to as ‘America’s Sistine Chapel’ because of its grandeur and beauty, environmental groups have listed it as the country’s fourth most endangered watershed due to threats from copper mining in its headwaters.

Admittedly, the extent to which Keith devotes himself to fly fishing varies from novel to novel. As a literary fly angler I prefer the novels in which the recreational sport is most prominent. I realize he–not to mention his publisher–wants to reach as wide an audience as possible, including female mystery aficionados who don’t give a cul de canard about the arcane intricacies of fur and feather. However, I note that female fly anglers constitute the fastest growing fly angling demographic in America, which bodes well for maintaining a certain level of fly angling in the Sean Stranahan series. Two things remain certain: no mystery writer knows more about fly fishing, or writes more eloquently about the sport, than Keith McCafferty.

I would love to travel to Montana to meet Keith, share stories over a dram of malt whisky or a glass of luscious Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Even better, I would love to spend a few hours with him on one of his favourite trout streams. But, alas, it is unlikely we will meet, especially as the world stumbles under the heavy burden of a deadly pandemic. Still I have his mysteries and sincerely hope that someday I will have a collection of his outdoor journalism so that I might keep in touch with Our Man in Montana.

Angling Arts

Sweetgrass Arts & Crafts

After Casting into Mystery was release in the winter of 2020 Jerry Kustich, cofounder of Sweetgrass Rods, asked me to write an essay for the bamboo rod-building company’s monthly newsletter. The following is adapted from a chapter of the same title in the fly angling memoir.

Retirement is a significant signpost along the road of life. In the spring of 2015, I marked half a century in the workforce. I thought a Sweetgrass bamboo fly rod would provide the ideal way of celebrating the milestone.

A Sweetgrass rod appealed because I believed the shop carried forward the aesthetic and philosophy that defined Arts & Crafts artisans whom I had long admired, both in England where the movement originated through the writings of William Morris and John Ruskin, and in America, where it flourished among New England craftsmen. It surprises me that angling historians have not made the connection between such Arts & Crafts practitioners as furniture maker Gustav Stickley and pioneer bamboo rod maker Hiram Leonard.

I have never visited the Sweetgrass shop in Twin Bridges, MT. However, Jerry Kustich paints an affectionate portrait of his fellow Booboys in his quartet of angling memoirs. His portrait, coupled with the philosophy and pledge of social responsibility espoused on the shop’s website corroborate my intuitive impression.

The Arts & Crafts movement prospered between 1880 and 1920, which coincided with the golden age of fly fishing in America. I have always interpreted this not as historical happenstance, but as creative synchronicity.

I view the Sweetgrass shop as a guild of artisans who share common values through mutual beliefs and communal, co-operative labour that are not only principles of vocation but avocation. Work is not separate from life, but integral to life. As such, the cycle of manual labour includes periods of rest and play–especially fishing

The belief in hand craftsmanship as practiced by the Glenn Brackett and the Booboys stresses the inherent beauty of materials (including Tonkin bamboo) and the importance of work as a meaningful and purposeful process of inherent value. They celebrate the joy of work through work.

The importance of nature that underlies and informs every aspect of the making of a Sweetgrass rod cannot be overstressed. Nature is not only a design principle, but a principle of living which is more essential than a lifestyle choice. A Sweetgrass rod reciprocates its debt and obligation to nature through the ethos of simplicity and integrity, utility and beauty.

Acquiring a Sweetgrass rod would be an extravagance beyond what I had ever spent on any single item, with the exception of cars, houses and orthodontics for my sons. But I knew the rod would be worth every penny—and more. It would be something to cherish, an heirloom.

When my dream of owning a Sweetgrass first took shape, I had no immediate prospects of retirement. I was expecting to work for at least three years beyond ‘normal’ retirement at age sixty-five.

But fate had other plans. A couple of months after giving voice to my dream, the newspaper for which I worked for three decades offered a buyout too good to refuse. As well, my sons Dylan and Robertson had just graduated from university and college.

Sweetgrass Logo

Unbeknownst to me, the stars drifted into alignment when I visited a fly shop located on the tailwater of the Grand River, in southwestern Ontario. I wanted some Cortland 444 double-taper fly line for my Orvis CFO reel to use with my worse-for-wear Granger and Montague bamboo rods.

Before loading the reel, shop owner Ken Collins went into an adjacent room, saying he had something he wanted to show me. I recognized the Sweetgrass insignia on the cap of the cream-coloured tube before he opened it. My mouth opened in surprise. ‘So you know Sweetgrass?’ he asked with a grin. I nodded— idiotically I’m sure.

He released the rod from the sleeve, revealing a blonde, seven-foot, nine-inch, three-piece, five-weight. He assembled it and passed it over. I was gobsmacked. Imagine, I was holding a sweetly singing Sweetgrass. Light, yet supple, it was like an extension of my right arm.

Before leaving I confessed that I could not ignore the synchronicity of the rod finding its way into my hands. Although Ken had been given the rod to sell on his website, he handed me a business card and told me to talk to its owner.

I called a few days later. A devoted outdoorsman, he knew a lot about Sweetgrass. He met Jerry at a Grand River bamboo rod builders’ gathering. He even visited the Sweetgrass shop. He confirmed that Glenn had built the blank—a signature, hollow-fluted, hexagonal classic from a modern master.

I refused to haggle. He quoted an amount, I accepted, recognizing a fair price for a priceless objet d’art. He said he was pleased the rod was going to someone who would appreciate it as ‘a superb fishing instrument’. The agreement was struck ten days after my sixty-fourth birthday and a month after I had waded into the serene waters of retirement. I put a cheque in the mail; however, he insisted I pick up the rod as soon as I was able, confirming there are still agreements between gentlemen within the fellowship of fly anglers.

To see the actual essay check out the April 2020 Sweetgrass Newsletter.