Not long ago I was chatting with a friend about the state of our sport. Our conversation ranged
widely, from the good old days (which of course were always good) to the influence of the
internet, and why exactly middle-aged guys like us couldn’t become fly fishing social media
And we discussed angling literature, because publishers are releasing some great books lately. Jim
McLennan’s Trout Tracks: Essays on Fly Fishing (Rocky Mountain Books) is one of them.
I’ve been a fan of McLennan’s ever since I first read him in Fly Fisherman magazine in
the late 1980s. He produced standout work back then; today he’s even better.
Trout Tracks collects McLennan’s writing from 2010 to some of his most recent work in
2021. This is McLennan at the apex of his career.
Trout Tracks is organized into eight sections over 235 pages, each featuring wonderful
illustrations by Lynda McLennan, who also happens to be Jim’s life partner. In his Preface,
McLennan tells us these stories have “been gathered into sections based loosely (very loosely) on
topic or subject matter.” He notes that, “There is no overriding theme or message here . . . ” but
then goes on to tell us that actually, maybe there kinda might be just a little. More on this
One thing you might not know about McLennan is he’s an accomplished musician. If you’ve seen any
of his videos or fishing shows, you’ve probably heard some soulful finger- style guitar playing on
the soundtrack. That’s him. And this might explain why the careful reader may detect a certain
musicality to his work. Even the title hints at it. Trout Tracks is like a greatest hits
album. The tracks are shorter, magazine-length stories, all structured like musical compositions.
McLennan grabs us with an initial flourish, then settles into each piece, hitting notes of
interest and adding layers of detail, all designed to move us towards a memorable, satisfying
Consider “When Should I Change Flies?” from 2021. In this story you can clearly see the initial
flourish there in the first few lines, and watch in wonder as he moves you along towards the big
finish. That’s the musician in McLennan, and it’s fun to watch him work.
But there’s other stuff going on, too. Although they’re well hidden, you can see Goldilocks and
the Three Bears peeking out at us in the opening:
Regarding this question, fly fishers seem to fall into one of two categories—those who change
flies more often than they need to, and those who don’t change flies as often as they
The “this porridge is too hot; this one’s too cold” reference is a thin thread woven
through the story, as McLennan suggests multiple possibilities that might contribute to an
angler’s lack of success on the water beyond fly selection. Because like the bears’ porridge, the
fly, of course, isn’t really the problem, is it? This is classic McLennan.
As a reader I tend to bounce around in collected works, starting with things that might really
interest me, then following up with the rest. I don’t know if this is the preferred approach, but
that’s how I do it. So let’s check out one of McLennan’s earlier works, “Timing is Everything”
from 2010. In it we learn that in fly fishing, as in life, you gotta pick your moments. And
sometimes, your moments pick you:
A fishing trip itself is rife with ways in which timing—good or bad—can influence a day on the
water. Think about it. Have you ever returned home from a poor day only to talk to a friend who
was on the same water the same day and had great fishing? This could be a matter of skill (not
likely, of course) or dishonesty (some possibility), but more likely it’s just timing.
It shouldn’t be surprising that this story is also classic McLennan. In fact, most
everything in Trout Tracks is classic McLennan. But what exactly does that mean? Well,
McLennan is an expert trout fisher, so there’s that. But you’d never really know it, because he
has a way of writing that makes you feel like, moment-to-moment on the water, he’s experiencing
all of the same things you are: that initial confidence, quickly followed by creeping self-doubt,
and the growing final realization that you might not really know what the heck you’re doing after
all, and any successes are probably just a matter of luck. That’s one of the qualities of
McLennan’s work that initially drew me to it, and made me feel comfortable talking with him at the
Calgary fly shop Country Pleasures that he co-owned long ago. Back then I quickly discovered that
McLennan writes like he is, a humble Everyman who has gifts that he’s happy to share. That’s where
his humor comes from: McLennan is a regular guy who knows that this thing we call fly fishing is
serious enough not to be taken too seriously.
Let’s return to McLennan’s “theme or message” in Trout Tracks. Despite his claim that
there’s probably nothing thematically that holds this collection together, we can’t ignore his
There is no overriding theme or message here, except perhaps that fly fishing has a way of
grabbing people, making them think, making them enjoy, making them appreciate and helping them
learn. I hope that will suffice.
In Trout Tracks, McLennan offers us 49 (there’s something significant in that number,
too) little lessons on how to look at the world and conduct ourselves in it. He’s certainly not
the first to use fly fishing in this way, but he’s one of the best. From admitting that he’s not
exactly a stillwater expert in “Lakes,” to his fond remembrances of Leigh Perkins in “L.H.P:
Remembering a Mentor,” McLennan shows us how to be human in a world that often seems to expect so
much less of us.
In a recent review of Jim Harrison’s Complete Poems, Bill Castanier shares that
the poet once told him not to read a collection of poetry all at once. “Read a poem a day,” was
Harrison’s advice, “and then think about it.” I can think of no better approach to reading
Trout Tracks. If you love fly fishing, or one day want to write about it, get this book.
Imbued with a subtle lyricism, and that easy, self-deprecating style that sets McLennan apart from
his peers, Trout Tracks is a treasure.
Trout Tracks: Essays on Fly Fishing by Jim McLennan with illustrations by Lynda McLennan will
be published by Rocky Mountain Books on May 31, 2022