Ode to Rod and Reel

FLY fishing is the metaphor that has lured the best writing from a diverse group of 20th-century authors.

Roderick Haig-Brown, who has spent most of his life on Vancouver Island, told in "Fisherman's Summer" (1989) of Indians and pioneers who fished in Canada. Robert Traver, pen name of Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, collected 21 stories about his lifetime of fishing in the Upper Peninsula in "Trout Madness: Being a Dissertation on the Symptoms and Pathology of This Incurable Disease by One of Its Victims" (1989). Norman Maclean, a former University of Chicago English professor, wrote "A Riv er Runs Through It" (1989), a portrait of his relationship with his brother both on and off the trout rivers of the American Rocky Mountains.

And then there was Lee Wulff.

A longtime advocate of fisheries conservation and the environment, Wulff became about a half-century ago the first major proponent of catch-and-release fishing. Through his writings, he helped persuade countless anglers around the world that releasing a game fish was more pleasurable - and environmentally responsible - than killing it. In addition, hundreds of would-be fishermen attended the fishing schools run by him and his fly-fishing wife, Joan.

Wulff had finished his manuscript of his eighth book, "Salmon on a Fly," two weeks before he died in a plane crash in April 1991. As with his earlier books, his final work is not a "how to" text. Instead, it is a celebration of life and the outdoors and as such would be appealing to fishermen and nonfishermen alike.

"Salmon on a Fly" is a compilation of Wulff's finest essays - 30 in all - gleaned from his 60 years of experience and wisdom on fly-fishing for salmon. He gives narrative accounts of his trips to salmon rivers in Europe and North America, discusses fishing technique and equipment, and gives an impassioned plea for politicians to designate the wild Atlantic salmon a game fish, a fish for which there would be no commercial catch or sale.

As might be expected in a collection of essays, some points and episodes are repeated throughout the book. Also, it is unfortunate that Wulff and editor John Merwin did not include more about the author's catch-and-release philosophy - a philosophy that has become a valuable conservation tool.

While the fly-fishing craze of the 1980s has likely peaked at more than 7 million participants in the United States, interest in the sport is expected to surge with the October release of Robert Redford's film version of Maclean's "A River Runs Through It." Publication of "Salmon on a Fly" seems timed to entice and educate a new school of fishermen.

Even the United States Postal Service is hooked on fly fishing with its recent fly-fishing commemorative stamps. The first in this five-stamp set is an artist's rendering of the Royal Wulff, one of a number of flies Wulff created.

The author, who had a civil-engineering degree from Stanford University and studied art in Paris, clearly tells the reader how to fish this dry fly. But when he discusses technique, it is always from the standpoint that fishermen should catch fish because they understand ichthyology and entomology, not because they use heavy equipment that gives them an unsporting advantage. Wulff pioneered fishing with light equipment, and he discusses his favorite salmon rod, a 6-foot, 1-3/4-ounce split cane. Typical s almon rods are usually more than twice this long and much heavier.

Fly fishing is a technique-intensive sport, as Wulff demonstrates. But he conveys a love for the sport even as he describes the arcane technique of fishing for a 30-pound salmon with a 1/8-inch artificial fly.

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