John Gubbins’ new novel The American Fly Fishing Experience: Theodore Gordon: His Lost Flies and Last Sentiments is an enlightening and up-close-and-personal look at its title character, one of the major figures of fly fishing history, but also one who was largely secretive about his private life. Consequently, some details are missing in Gordon’s life, but Gubbins valiantly fills in the gaps. He also tells the story from Gordon’s viewpoint, placing us directly into the man’s thoughts so we understand his motivations, anxieties, and even some of his deepest secrets.
Gordon, who lived from 1854-1915, is best known for fishing the Catskill region of New York, although he fished throughout the United States. Because of his numerous magazine articles, Gordon became known as the “father of the American school of dry fly fishing.” He adapted English fly-fishing tackle and flies for American creeks and rivers. He even had his own private mail-order business where he made flies for various fishers. Here is where his cantankerous side comes in. Gubbins depicts Gordon as making flies for his customers, believing in the idea that the customer is always right because he knows his customers would never want the flies he makes for himself; he is content to be paid for making flies the way the customer wants them, even though he knows the flies he makes for himself are superior.
Gordon’s interest in fly fishing resulted from being a sickly child. Fearing that others would see him as weak, he tried to act manly, always talking about fishing and hunting and pursuing those activities when his health permitted. In this way, he was much like his contemporary Theodore Roosevelt, but while Roosevelt grew to be robust, Gordon had consumption, which kept him frequently bedridden and always in fear of how others would treat him. As Gubbins illustrates, consumption (or tuberculosis as we call it today) was so feared at the turn of the last century that some railroads banned “lungers” from their passenger cars. In the town of Liberty, where Gordon often stayed, it was a crime to let a consumptive spend the night within the town limits. Consequently, Gordon became a criminal, always fearful that the local authorities would learn about his illness and throw him out of town.
Being a fly fisher, author of fly fishing articles, and entrepreneur who made and sold hand-tied flies was the perfect occupation for Gordon because he could not have held down a regular job due to his illness. Ultimately, we might say that fly fishing became the great love of his life, but this is overlooking the fact that he had a romance with a woman whose name we do not even know, even though photographs have survived of her and Gordon together. Gubbins produces a realistic character named Gail to play the love interest in Gordon’s life; he treats this outspoken woman who is interested in fishing in a realistic manner while plausibly explaining why the romance may have finally dwindled.
And so back to his fly fishing love Gordon went. He was a jealous lover of his passion. At one point in the novel, his friend Anson tells Gordon that people think he’s rude. He doesn’t wish to be rude, but as he admits:
“Prying anglers annoy me… (T)hey want to know where I fish, when I fish, the names of my favorite flies, and, worse, they want all this information for free. Prying anglers do not expect to consult lawyers or doctors for free, but because they believe fishing is a frivolous pursuit and unworthy of their full attention, they pester successful anglers like myself for direction instead of reading and experimenting themselves. If they were truly civilized, they would request my fee schedule before asking me any questions.”
However, Gordon unintentionally reveals that at times he might have pried a bit himself. He began a correspondence with noted British fly fishing author Frederic Halford, considering him a great mentor, but Halford eventually quit replying to his letters. Consequently, Gordon learned not to engage in discussions with any fly fishermen except those who bought his flies.
Despite any possible similarities between Gordon and Halford, in the end, Gordon is the bigger man, explaining to us, “Sometimes I explain my differences with Halford as being due to our natures. It was Halford’s mission to ensure that each day fishing would prove his rules… My mission is to discover the surprising and revel in the wonder of each day.” Gordon also refuses to engage in controversy, writing generally positive reviews of fly fishing books even when he doesn’t always agree with the author, feeling there has been enough controversy among English fly fishermen, so it is not needed among the Americans.
While Gordon may have been unwilling to reveal his secrets to others, here he does not hold back with the reader, resulting in a magical experience as we learn all the specifics of the numerous flies he tied, including the materials he used and how he tied them. We get right into the heart and soul of this pragmatical, yet passionate, fly fisher. He shares with us his best day in July 1901 which flowed like the plot of a stage play; he caught twenty-four fish that day and kept twenty. He shares with us how age affects him, sadly making him lower expectations. We delight in the night he sneaks out of his prying landlady’s boarding house to fish without anyone worrying about him. Gubbins even provides us with maps of the various rivers Gordon fished in so we can understand the fullness of his techniques.
There are no big fish tales in this book, but rather Gordon’s honest musings upon what worked when he fished and what did not. Gordon only allowed a few friends and family members to get close to him, including a couple of nephews who loved to hear his stories. In reading this book, I felt like one of those nephews, enjoying the company of a somewhat curmudgeonly uncle. I felt like I was standing beside Gordon, listening to his fly fishing wisdom, while a brook babbled in the background. Reading this book is as close as a person can get to meeting Gordon in person and spending considerable time with him. Few authors have penetrated so thoroughly into the mind of a historical person and fleshed him out so that we come to feel like we know him better than those who knew him in real life. Anyone who loves fly fishing or just a good, deeply introspective novel, will delight in The American Fly Fishing Experience.