Trout Tracks: Essays on Fly Fishing
256 pp; $25
By Dana Sturn

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 influencers.

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 later.

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 conclusion.

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 should.

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 “except perhaps”:

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

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn