Mr Crabtree goes fishing by Bernard Venables.

At first sight this may seem like an easy question to answer.

The challenge of outwitting a fish.  A passion for eating fish. A love of the outdoors. A desire to get away from it all.

While those are the obvious reasons, I reckon there are some subliminal influences-the catalysts, if you like, that firm your resolve to get up in the cold grey pre-dawn light and exercise your arm for hours in pursuit of a very elusive quarry.

It’s not hard to recall the many influences that brought about my conversion from an everyday kid to a fisherman and later still, into a fly fisherman.

The odd success on Melbourne’s Station Pier with flathead. Chasing snapper off Mornington in a clinker built inboard motor boat or grass whiting and gurnard in Westernport Bay. Discovering the art of building rods-from Rangoon cane surf rods to split cane fly rods – under the tutelage of a master rod maker. And, reading what I have only recently discovered is the most popular fishing book the world has yet seen, under the bed covers in a cold greater London winter.

Bernard Venables wrote Mr. Crabtree Goes Fishing in the late 1940s. Adapted from a regular cartoon strip that Venables drew for the London Daily Mirror, the book went on to sell some 2 million copies, making it one of the most popular sports-related books ever published.

He combined simple descriptions of the rods, reels and rigs for chasing different freshwater fish across the waterways and seasons of the UK with the images of a paternal Mr. Crabtree and his son Peter – the former always in a collar and tie, the latter always in short pants.

Accurately reflecting both the era and his passion for fishing, Venables has a lot to answer for in my fishing life, including most recently finding an old Young Trudex fly reel and using the Internet to track down a repairer and restorer of centrepin reels in the UK.

But Venables wasn’t the first piece of fishing literature I picked up. That honour goes to a small volume, in physical dimensions and in the number of pages.  I was given Let’s Go Fly Fishing by L.E. Russell as a gift before I was old enough to understand what it was really saying-or maybe I was slow to learn the art of reading.

The one thing I do remember of this modest little tome is that L.E. hedged his bets and despite the title, he devoted a chapter to “clear water worm angling” or the sort of thing a disgruntled fly fisherman MAY get up to when every fly in the box, dry or wet, fails.

Then there was Monaro, NSW-born John Sautelle,  the pages of whose book took meFishing for the EducatedTrout and introduced me to the fact that fly fishing was a therapy not just for us mere mortals but for civic leaders-vice regals like former NSW governor Sir Roden Cutler and former PM Malcolm Fraser.

But like chasing elusive browns, finding rare and excellent books on fly fishing is as challenging as the pursuit itself.

For example, take the long since out of print The Seven Rivers.

In a prominent magazine I had discovered an excerpt from that book by poet, journalist and fly fisherman Douglas Stewart, on his travels to the Brindabella Valley some 60 kilometres west of Canberra and the Goodradigbee River which winds its way through the valley.

It was on the Goodradigbee that I cast my first fly as an adult, long after Uncle Rex tried to guide my arm, with fly rod clumsily grasped, over the waters of Lake Mackenzie in Tasmania’s high country.

I was keen to fish vicariously with Stewart who had cut his teeth on New Zealand’s famed trout streams before moving to Australia. How did Stewart see and rate the Goodradigbee as a trout stream, if ever his prose could be described as analytical.

But, after more than 40 years The Seven Rivers was well and truly out of print as my Internet searches and telephone calls quickly revealed.

Until… a short time after my fruitless search I found myself in a second hand book store heading to the small section at the back allocated to ‘sports’ where to my shock, I saw the spine of what seemed like an untouched paperback–The Seven Rivers. Such were the terms of business at this shop that I could purchase the book for a modest $12.10 and if choosing to return it, would be paid $4.55. Hearing my story of discovery, the bookstore owner, no doubt quickly concluded that Mr. Stewart’s book would leave her store to find a permanent place in my library.

Out in the street I opened the book to begin my voyage of discovery only to hear ‘great book isn’t it?’ I looked up at a man who, by his voice, was a Kiwi. A visitor from Christchurch and recent convert to fly fishing, he had only been able to read Stewart’s book by borrowing it from his local library.

I felt very lucky.

Then there are other books like Peter Leuver’s, Fur and Feathers, so elegantly photographed and clearly illustrated by its artist and graphic designer author, that it turns fly tying and flies into an arcane art form.

More recently Greg French has captured my imagination with his Frog Call, the short stories set amidst the backdrop of Tasmania’s wilderness regions and trophy trout waters. The introduction describes Greg as a gifted storyteller, a legendary angler and a literary thinker who writes with the uncommon grace and clarity that only the timeless and utterly consuming act of fly-fishing can instill.

“Trout,” he writes, “entwine me with the land – I suspect in much the same way that Plains Indians have a spiritual connection with bison – but they are more a symptom of my love of the bush than a cause.”

Hear, hear I say!


Marcus Saunders

Hello! I'm an art director who makes TV ads, designs things, builds websites, shoots pictures, writes copy and draws stuff.