Book Recommendation: The Habit of Rivers by Ted Leeson

Every so often you stumble across a book by chance that strikes you as something you should have been seeking out. That’s how I feel about The Habit of Rivers by Ted Leeson. I had been looking through the online selection of my new local library. When I saw a fly fishing book, it seemed like the obvious choice. As it turns out, it was right up my alley. Shocker.

The Habit of Rivers isn’t about one thing in particular. Leeson is first and foremost a trout angler, so most of the thoughts, lessons, and anecdotes revolve around trout, although other species do make an appearance throughout the text. Topics discussed include salmon migrations, hatchery fish vs. their wild counterparts, and reading water, among many other things.

This book has a way of making you notice things that you didn’t realize you had already noticed about fly fishing. For example, Leeson mentions how he always stops on bridges over the streams he is about to fish. He looks at the stream below the bridge (often not the run he’s about to actually fish), and from that intel decides exactly where he’s going to go, what he’s going to throw, where the fish will be, and all sorts of other relevant information. Exactly 0% of it is based on anything he actually saw, but he still feels confident in his choices after gazing at the water for a bit.

I, and everyone I know who fishes, seem to do the same thing, though I never really noticed I was doing it. And the book is full of things like this. It feels like you are participating in his anecdotes. There are also other facets that ring true in a more humorous way:

“Though trout season closes in winter, taking whitefish is still permitted, and this technicality gives rise to a benign annual charade in which the serious fly fisherman breaks out his tackle and takes to the water. He’ll catch trout after trout for hours, pretending to astonishment and disappointment that they are not whitefish, while the Fish and Wildlife people pretend to believe him.”

As a child, I used to do the same thing to catch smallmouth bass, prepared with a speech about how I was fishing for the walleye in the river. Definitely and absolutely not the out-of-season bass.

My only personal complaint about the book is Leeson’s insistence that whitefish are the sub-par, undesirable, barely-a-fish, cousin of the trout. My deep-seated love for whitefish felt personally victimized every time he mentioned them as a trash fish, and though it didn’t bring down the quality of the book, I felt myself questioning whether he is to be trusted with other important matters, being so far off base with this topic. Just food for thought and a fair warning for other fierce defenders of the whitefish.

At the end of the day, I found the book to be a quick and enjoyable read that will be relatable to nearly all trout anglers, as well as most fly fishermen in general. If you like reading an author who makes you feel as though he’s been in your shoes a thousand times, this is a good choice.

Favorite Quotes from The Habit of Rivers

“…I think in the end there are but two kinds of anglers – those born to fishing and those not … A born fisherman has a soul that wiggles, and though he may be temporarily inclined to this species or that method, beneath it all is the simple, overriding compulsion to be connected to a fish.”

“In just the measure we invest in them, they show us to ourselves, and self-discovery is apt to be a brutally indiscriminate thing. I begin to suspect I am an asshole.”

“At some level, though, fishing becomes concerned with catching things other than fish. It assumes in the psyche the shape of longing, and perhaps in its own modest way, even the lineaments of a quest.”

“Fly fishing is a matter of faith, and like all faiths, it contains a central miracle: the rise of a trout to a dry fly.”

“The surface of the water is a hypothetical fulcrum, balancing the aquatic world with our own imperfect grasp of it. On this plane of our own invention, we cast our surmise, wonder, and hope bound up in so much feather and fur.”

“In the end, to fish well is to cultivate an arrangement of time and place, of circumstance and perspective. We arrange ourselves into the arrangement, and if the collusion is careful and lucky, we reap a kind of enclosure moment of some sharply felt beauty and significance.”

Don’t forget to check out other book recommendation posts!

The Tracker by Tom Brown, Jr.


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