The Works of Gary LaFontaine
Welcome to Volume 1 of “The Book Shelf”, a Big Sky Anglers original blog series dedicated to shining some new light on the works of the old masters. In the spirit of the modern era, these pieces may be quick vignettes, half baked and composed at the last minute. They may be poorly edited and rambling. But they will hopefully inspire some of you to visit a library, a used bookstore, or the basement shelves at Big Sky Anglers, pick up an old fly fishing book, and soak up a bit of old knowledge and be inspired by words and images once, but no longer, forgotten.
I knew that things were going to get off the rails here at some point, but I didn’t expect it to happen in Volume #1. This series was supposed to be made up of blog posts about individual books. When I sat in front of my own bookshelf to select the all-important first book, my eyes went straight to Challenge of the Trout (1976), Gary LaFontaine’s first book. The copy that I have used to be on my dad’s bookshelf, but I stole it, and it was my introduction to Gary when I was a kid. I liked the cover art, and the contents really spoke to me. When I reached for it, though, my eyes caught the lettering on another spine: CADDISFLIES (LaFontaine 1981). Few books have both changed the way that fly anglers approach their craft and simultaneously advanced the way that scientists viewed a taxonomic Order. It would be a great first book to review. But then my mind skipped ahead to The Dry Fly – New Angles (LaFontaine 1990), and Trout Flies – Proven Patterns (LaFontaine 1993). Two more texts that absolutely changed the way that I looked at fly fishing for trout. By then, the avalanche of ideas was already barreling down the mountainside, and without hesitation I picked up Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes: Summer of Discovery Series Volume 1 (LaFontaine 1998).
Sadly, that’s where the list ends. There is no Summer of Discovery Series Volume 2. Gary LaFontaine passed away on Jan 4, 2002, about 4 years after being diagnosed with ALS, a terminal illness also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, leaving behind so many friends and fans that were all somehow touched by his words and teachings.
If you are not familiar with Gary LaFontaine, or perhaps have heard of him only peripherally through his more well know fly patterns like the Emergent Sparkle Pupa, I hope that this little writeup inspires you to take a deep dive into his legacy. After all, that is the goal of this whole series!
If there is a fly fishing equivalent to blues guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughn, it may very well be Gary LaFontaine. Both took their passion, and the knowledge and influences of the past masters, and then went their own way, reestablishing the baseline to such a degree that it’s sometimes hard to comprehend a time before they existed. We also lost both far too soon, perhaps at the height of their abilities, leaving us all to wonder, “What if…?”
Fly fishing authors come from all sorts of backgrounds, but many, including Gary LaFontaine, are/were educated in the sciences. And while many have projected their background in the sciences onto their angling, NO ONE has ever done it to the degree that Gary LaFontaine and his merry band of regular angling partners did it. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Montana in Behavioral Psychology, where his thesis research was on the selective feeding behavior of trout.
Gary’s appreciation of the scientific method and his application of it in rigorously testing his fly fishing hypotheses on and off the water are unmatched in the history of angling literature. He is widely known for utilizing SCUBA gear to go subsurface and collect the first-hand observational data needed to prove or disprove theories about fish behavior, fly appearance, and the effectiveness of various angling tactics. His approach excited my young angling brain, years before I chased down a couple of degrees and a career in engineering and science.
Every single one of Gary LaFontaine’s books blew my mind as a young angler, and every time I reread one I pick up a new idea, trick, or observation that I somehow managed to miss in earlier studies. His fly patterns and tactics all have specific situations they were designed for, or problems they were intended to solve. While being a generalist carried through most of my early angling life, LaFontaine’s writing inspired and enabled me to dig deeper into the minutia, resulting in an exponential increase in the amount of tackle I owned, the number of flies I carried with me on the water, and the amount of fun I was having. I’m pretty sure I might also have definitely caught more fish, too.
Flyshops never stocked many of Gary’s patterns in their fly bins. Probably because they were misunderstood as too weird, or too specific? The Emergent and Deep Sparkle Pupa are the only two I ever saw regularly, and even those have lost favor to newer and flashier ties. The originals will still get it done nearly every time that caddis are moving. But if you start talking to the folks behind the shop counters, or to other anglers in parking lots at rivers and lakes across the west, you’ll meet more than a few characters that speak in hushed tones about flies like the Halo Emerger, Bristle Leech, Airhead, or Rollover Scud. The following is quiet and understated, but it lives on.
I never got to meet Gary LaFontaine, but I know many who did, including some who were his close friends. It is almost universally accepted that, despite his scientific approach to angling and entomology, he never seemed to take it all too seriously, and always had the most fun when he was fishing. In interviews towards the end of his time with us, he always expressed gratitude for what he was able to experience in his life and the joy that fishing, tying, and writing brought him. Perhaps that is his most meaningful lesson of all.
So, here goes. A completely incomplete review of the complete works of Gary LaFontaine.
Challenge of the Trout (1976)
LaFontaine establishes his writing style that carries on throughout his career, mixing well thought out and fully researched how-to advice with engaging stories from time on the water with valued companions. While doing some homework for this post, I read in an interview that Gary considered this book to be not his best effort, citing a wordiness that he very deliberately reduced in subsequent years of writing. That may be true, but I don’t feel that it makes the reading any less enjoyable. Perhaps there is a bit more gravel to sift through in search of gold, but the Montana winter is long, and we have the time.
Organized into three parts, The Water, The Technique, & The Natural Feed, this book starts to peel back the curtain that hides the secret door into the lab of the greatest mad scientist in fly fishing history. The book mercifully lacks the usual chapters on the usual how-to drivel of rods, reels, lines, knots, etc., with the author preferring to inject snippets of relevant tackle into his prose. The three sections each contain four or five unrelated essays, and each essay contains a smattering of related and unrelated stories, observations, and ideas born on bodies of water from Massachusetts and Connecticut to Montana and Oregon. To me, the magic of LaFontaine is that his prose makes you think about how to be a better and more successful angler without necessarily telling you exactly how to do it. Within each tale lies plenty of hints to uncovering the secrets that Gary may or may not even know himself. This book will make you want to go fishing, and to pay more attention when you are out there.
The Appendix of favorite fly patterns and “Random Notes” foreshadows LaFontaine’s book efforts, but is not a terribly significant addition to this book. Still, for the fly tying nerd, there is something here. Particularly, if you like Muddler patterns, there are twelve variations listed for you to experiment with.
With the release of Caddisflies over 40 years ago, Gary LaFontaine opened our angling eyes to an entire world of hatch matching beyond mayflies, and in places like Southwest Montana, where caddis hatches rival all others for importance, completely changed the hatch matching game on both moving and stillwater. The research and writing of Caddisflies took LaFontaine a decade. Over 200 hours of observation of emerging caddis pupae and trout while SCUBA diving led LaFontaine to literally re-write the description of how caddis emerge and which stages of the emergence are most relevant to anglers. The scientific research for this book was so thorough that it expanded the known ranges of many caddisfly species. The list of peer reviewers cited in the acknowledgements is not only a who’s who of fly anglers, but also of professional entomologist, college professors, and graduate students.
Of all LaFontaine’s books, this one contains the most technical information and the least amount of story telling and anecdotes. As a result, it is a dense tome. Not really a page turner. But for the angler who wants to truly understand caddisflies, how their life cycles vary among species, and how that and their behavior effects how, when, and where they are available to trout, this book is a must. Read it once, slowly, and soak in what you can. Maybe zone in on a few of the genus or species that you know are present in your home waters, and make some metal notes about what else might be hiding among the 300 plus pages. Then tuck it away on your own bookshelf where it will be ready the next time you are working on another hatch matching mystery.
If you are more casual angler or reader, perhaps mercifully, the book is separated into two parts. I: Tying and Fishing Caddisfly Imitations, and II: The Biology of Caddisflies. The casual angler is given no excuse with this format. EVERY person who enjoys flicking a fly into water that harbors caddisflies (hint: it’s basically all of them) should read the first half of this book at some point in their angling life. Your game will be elevated. Should you choose to continue on and study part two, immediate angling enlightenment will be achieved, with Caddisfly Nirvana reachable given enough repeated readings and time on the water.
A feature of this book that I’ve found particularly useful over the years is the General Listing of Imitations for each caddis genus, including colors and sizes for larva, deep and emergent pupa, adult dry fly, and adult wet fly imitations. That alone is worth the price of a signed first-edition. Not to be overlooked, the fantastic drawings by Harvey Eckert that bring life to the text while adding an artistic visual element to a very technical volume. Also, stillwater anglers take note. The chapter on Stillwater Caddisflies may be the most in depth and useful treatment of an important yet generally misunderstood food source for trout in lakes.
The Dry Fly – New Angles (1990)
This is the only book in this review that I reread from cover to cover before writing, and I’m both glad that I did, and upset at how I did it. You see, Dry Fly – New Angles is not just your everyday fishing book. There are so many complex and nuanced notions, theories, and assertions discussed in there that powering through it over a couple of long evenings will probably cause more general confusion and distrust in your own preferred tactics with the dry fly than anything else. Last week, this book blew my mind, just like it did the first time I read it.
I consider Dry Fly – New Angles a “must read, re-read, and then re-read several more times” book for the angler who much-more-than-causally enjoys fishing dry flies. This book contains a set of tips, tricks, patterns, techniques, and theories that is simply too vast to read, process, and put into practice in one go round. The premise of the book is fairly simple: it is a description of how LaFontaine goes about selecting a dry fly or emerger to use in any given situation encountered on moving water. But it takes a while to get there.
The book begins with chapters on Why Flies Fail (it’s not you, the fly sucks) and Why Anglers Fail (it’s not the fly, you suck) that are sure to build up and tear down the reader’s angling ego, though not in equal doses. The Ten Commandments of Stealth, the teachings of Gary LaFontaine’s mentor Harry Ramsay, should probably be turned into a poster, a sticker, and a t-shirt, to be displayed in all angling situations for the rest of time.
The third chapter, entitled A State of Mind, is a deep dive into the mind of both the angler and the trout backed by LaFontaine’s own background in behavioral psychology. In it, LaFontaine seeks to understand and explain the metal state of a trout when it decides to take a natural or artificial fly. He states outright:
“My belief is that traits in a fish are the evolutionary forerunners of emotions in human beings, and that for every complex set of feelings in us there is a simpler corollary in the basic brain.”
He goes on to discuss fear, anger, playfulness, curiosity, and voracity as motivators for trout to eat a fly (or at least put it in their mouth). This is pretty heady stuff, and whether you buy into it or not, for the angler who enjoys contemplation as much as casting, this stuff is solid gold.
Continuing along on the way towards dry fly enlightenment, we are both schooled and entertained by tales and descriptions of SCUBA observation, childhood poaching, the physics of light and color, the pros and cons of generalism, empiricism, and naturalism in fly fishing, and the right time and place to move beyond the dead drifted presentation.
The effort comes together into LaFontaine’s Theory of Imitation and Theory of Attraction – the specifics about how fly profile (how it sits on or in the water), size, shape, color, and brightness relate to the when, where, how, and why a dry fly will be taken by a trout. Like all angling theories, they are something to study, explore, and apply in the ways each angler sees fit. Are they the definitive solution to catching all the trout? Probably not. But they are supported by more observation, science, and passion than most!
The book concludes with the typical section on flies. It’s pretty average, honestly, with recipes and a few comments, and pictures of some of the patterns. It leaves the reader disappointed, looking for something more like what Lafontaine would produce in his next book…
Trout Flies – Proven Patterns (1993)
LaFontaine broke his own pattern of publishing a masterpiece every 10ish years with Trout Flies – Proven Patterns. No less impressive a book than those preceding it, I suspect this one came together more quickly because it pulls from so many of his previous publications, including magazine articles. The book is a compilation of 62 fly patterns. 60 of them are Gary LaFontaine originals, 1 was created by his daughter Heather, and the last is a classic of unknown origin. The entry for each pattern includes an introduction, which discusses the theory behind the pattern and the specific angling situation it was created for, a recipe that includes the usual list of material and tying steps, and a “Log Entry” pulled from the pages of the authors fishing journals recounting some type of memorable moment in which the fly featured prominently.
Only three of the patterns in this book have achieved much in the way of commercial popularity – the Emergent Sparkle Pupa, Deep Sparkle Pupa, and the Buzzball. Arguably, none of the patterns in the book have much in the way of “bin appeal” – the thing that catches wallet toting anglers when they visit their favorite fly shop. Some of the patterns are down right funky looking . What they all do have in common is that each one was created to solve a specific angling situation in a unique way, and each one catches fish when the correct presentation is applied during the specific situation the pattern was created for.
At a bare minimum, this book will certainly jog a few memories about times on the water when you just couldn’t quite figure out how to catch the fish. My oh my how things would be different if you had a time machine and a box of LaFontaine patterns. More likely than not you will find a pattern or two in these pages that addresses a need that you semi-regularly come across in your own angling. You will become a believer. If you are a certain kind of person, this book may send you down a wild path of exploration and discovery both on the water and at the tying vice. To catch a trout on each of the patterns in this book in the way that Gary intended would be quite a challenge, worthy of at least a few years effort.
Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes: Summer of Discovery Series Volume 1 (1998)
Mandatory reading for anyone who enjoys fishing lakes. And not just alpine lakes. The stories, methods, and fly patterns in this book apply across the range of stillwater scenarios, from fertile, mid elevation ponds to the highest, coldest, deepest cirque lakes.
The most important thing about this book for the stillwater anglers is how many completely new insights it contains that still, 25 years later, have not been given significant discussion in other sources. From his in depth coverage of ice-out strategies to the meteorology and topography that creates summer dry fly bonanzas, this book is one of a kind. They SCUBA dived at ice-out, and that’s all you really need to know about the level of this book. The combination of story telling with detailed how-to information is classic LaFontaine, and I would argue that this book represents the pinnacle of his artform. A fly-fishing page turner? Maybe!
At one point, LaFontaine mentions that he and his friends use “more than fifty distinct stillwater techniques, all of them effective, most of them relatively easy, and many of them visually thrilling.” Unfortunately, but understandably, he then whittles the list down to essentially four critical methods to treat in depth. Those four are absolute doozies, but I can’t help but wondering about the other 46 that remained unnamed.
This is, to my knowledge, the only one of LaFontaine’s book that includes a chapter on Equipment and Tackle. The reason he gives is that, unlike stream and river fishing, the equipment required for successful stillwater angling in a range of conditions is much more complex. A suite of specialized lines and leaders is critical to meeting the demands of stillwaters through the season. Note: There is no 9ft 5wt, but there is a Spey rod.
My only criticism of this book is LaFontaine’s treatment of the topic of angling for stillwater spawners. While brief, he maintains that it is indeed acceptable (not detrimental) to fish for actively spawning fish, or stocked fish attempting to spawn along the shorelines and other areas of lakes. He even notes specifically that these fish will not eat a standard fly and that specific and somewhat nefarious tactics are required. Personally, I prefer to find other angling targets, and I encourage you to do the same. I wonder if Gary would have changed his own angler were he still with us today.