The Best Fly Fishing Books of All Time

Written by: John Baltes
Last Updated:
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For those of us that love the water the way a dog loves its favorite spot on a couch, there’s no dragging us away from fishing. And whether we choose to return to the same spot, year after year, or hunt for new honey holes, it’s to the water that we always return.

But when you can’t creep up to a stream, loft a fly to a waiting redfish, or keep your line tight as the current drags a nymph along the bottom, reading a good book about fly fishing can still scratch that itch.

Many books have been written about fly fishing. Some are worth your time.

Here’s a list of titles that earn the minutes and hours you could have spent elsewhere.

Related:

Instructional

The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide, Revised

Tom Rosenbauer, 2017 (paperback)

The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide, Revised

Amazon 

New fly fishermen can’t do better than Rosenbauer’s revised fly-fishing guide.

Its clear instructions, useful tips, and hard-won advice are just the thing novice anglers need to unravel the mysteries of flies and streams, unlocking the patient joys of fishing with whip-thin rods and delicate imitations of insects.

Rosenbauer surveys the basics with careful attention to questions folks new to fly fishing will inevitably ask, and his inclusion of lists of further reading on each topic gives readers the opportunity to explore far more deeply, should they wish.

If you’re looking for a complete guide for new fly anglers, The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide is the place to start.

Reading Trout Water

Dave Hughes, 2010 (paperback)

Reading Trout Water

Amazon 

Hughes’s book is sufficiently well-regarded that it’s in its second printing, having been originally published in 1988 under the title Reading the Water. Its enduring popularity is the result of clean writing, practical advice, and Hughes’s decades of searching gin-clear streams for trout.

He has a real gift for getting inside the minds of fish, stripping you of any illusions, and teaching you lessons that will make you a better fly fisherman immediately. For instance, Hughes reminds his readers that trout have predictable needs that only certain spots can offer, alerting savvy anglers to which 10 percent of the stream holds 90 percent of the fish.

As useful for experienced anglers as it is for novices, Reading Trout Water offers truly timeless insights into where trout live and feed.

The Trout and the Stream

Charles E. Brooks, 1984 (paperback)

The Trout and the Stream by Charles E. Brooks (1984-08-03)

Amazon 

You probably won’t find Brooks’s The Trout and the Stream on many lists like this one, and more’s the pity for that. A classic in the best sense of the word, Brooks covers topics that bedevil novices like fly selection, as well as advanced techniques like nymphing that experienced anglers will find useful.

But the real gold is in his discussion of stream conservation. If you’re as invested in fly fishing as we are, you already know that the future of the sport depends on our actions to preserve habitat and improve trout streams. Brooks bares down on the best methods to conserve these scarce resources, and this book deserves a place on your shelf.

Non-fiction

Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World Record Tarpon

Monte Burke, 2021 (paperback)

Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World Record Tarpon

Amazon 

Written in uncomplicated prose, this book chronicles the hunt for record-breaking tarpon in Florida in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The cast of characters includes names you know (Lefty Kreh) as well as some you don’t, and each of them is brought to life with astonishing talent by Burke.

Sometimes vulgar, always funny, these stories are about more than the small fishing town of Homosassa; they capture a moment in history never to be repeated - as well as the long-term consequences of the commercialism still shaping fishing today.

The Unreasonable Virtue of Fly Fishing

Mark Kurlansky, 2022 (paperback)

Unreasonable Virtue of Fly Fishing

Amazon 

Kurlansky hooked me from the get go with his reflections on angling, nature, and the unreasonableness of chasing fish for hours only to release them immediately afterwards. Startlingly well written, you’ll learn things about yourself, about who you are and why you are who you are as a fly fisherman.

Ruminating on why we choose flies when conventional tackle is so much easier to master, you'll come to appreciate fly fishing from a deeper perspective.

The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing

Thomas McGuane, 2019 (paperback)

The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing

Amazon 

There is no more celebrated writer in the fishing world than McGuane. His prose is vivid, flowing freely like whisky into an ice-filled glass, and in that spirit, smooth and flavorful and bracing. His adventures with a fly rod will remind you of your own, and all the splendid details really tell.

McGuane blurs the line separating sport and art, implicitly arguing for a nearly metaphysical connection between anglers and the fish they love to catch. “Deep fishing,” the quasi-religious feeling that the water inspires in all true fishermen, is the real subject of The Longest Silence, and his meditations on angling awaken something mystical in his readers.

This is quite possibly the closest thing to fishing that can be done when away from the water.

The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life

David Coggins, 2022 (paperback)

The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life

Amazon 

With no shortage of talented writers choosing fly fishing as a topic, Coggins ranks high nevertheless. The Optimist is, above all, amazingly well written. A lifetime on the water is distilled by him into a lesson on the value of fishing that’s as priceless as anything you'll find in the Louvre.

As much a philosophical investigation as it is a book about fly fishing, each chapter details a skill that veteran anglers have honed to exquisite perfection. For instance, casting flies to striped bass in New York taught him to develop and trust his intuition; Maine’s brook trout schooled him on the importance of persistence.

A book not to be missed by fly anglers, The Optimist is essential reading at its finest.

Fiction

A River Runs through It and Other Stories

Norman Maclean, 2017 (paperback)

A River Runs through It and Other Stories

Amazon 

Maclean’s inclusion on this list comes as no surprise, and his powers of description, his ability to tell a tale, and the fundamental truths that he teases from fly fishing have made his work rightly famous.

In this collection, starting with “A River Runs through It,” you’ll be treated to some of his best work in novella form. Truly a masterpiece, if you haven’t read Maclean’s musings on life and loss, you’ve done yourself a disservice that’s easily rectified.

Hemingway on Fishing

Earnest Hemingway, 2002 (paperback)

Hemingway on Fishing

Amazon 

Hemingway demands no introduction. If you love fishing, as he did, you’ll find much to enjoy in this collection of his fiction and reporting on the sport he prized above all else - except perhaps bullfighting.

From “Big Two-Hearted River” to excerpts from The Green Hills of Africa, the editor has selected the best Hemingway has to offer, including his star reporting from France, Spain, Morocco, and other exotic fishing spots.

The River Why

David James Duncan, 2016 (paperback)

The River Why

Amazon 

Told from the perspective of Gus Orviston, the son of an eccentric - and famous - fly-fishing father, Duncan tells a coming-of-age comedy that will wring laughter from you page after page. 

Look deeper than the laughs, and you’ll find musings on nature, fishing, and our place in the great scheme of things that are nothing short of transformative.

As Oriston discovers, even the best streams and biggest fish lack meaning in the absence of those we cherish, and it’s these human connections that give our pursuits the capacity to create happiness.

Duncan is among America’s most talented writers, and this is his magnum opus

Don’t miss it.

Final Thoughts

Whether you prefer hardback, paperback, or Kindle, each of these titles is well worth your time and money.

I’ve enjoyed them all, and I know you will, too.

If you can think of another book that deserves a place on our list, don't hesitate to leave a comment below. And if you’ve read one or more of them, share what you've learned!

About The Author
John Baltes
Chief Editor & Contributor
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.
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