Steelhead & Bird Dogs – spring reading!

Norman Maclean’s famous novella, A River Runs Through It, and the subsequent movie, spurred growth in fly-fishing, back in the 1990s. Most people agree that if you think the story is about fly-fishing, you’d better read it again. It’s the story of a family and fly-fishing was one of the things that glued the family together.

I was reminded of that in reading a new book this winter, Steelhead Lies – My Life in Rivers, (Wild River Press) by John E. Nordstrand. My son, Kevin, recommended the book and, in fact, gave me a copy for Christmas. 

As it happens, Kevin and John Nordstrand were college classmates at St. Olaf College in Minnesota back in the early 1980s, and have maintained a long-distance friendship through the years. Kevin occasionally mentions John and wonders if I have ever run into him at outdoor writer gatherings, and, sadly, I haven’t.

John lives in California and his outdoors passion is fly-fishing for steelhead, those ocean-run rainbow trout that return to west coast rivers to entertain, tantalize and, in the end, frustrate anglers who haunt those rivers in search of fish and, perhaps, the meaning of life. If this seems to have a resemblance to the late Russell Chatham, John does, in fact, write of one of the northern California rivers that Chatham haunted in his younger years.

Steelhead Lies is a collection of essays and photographs on steelhead fishing, first published in a variety of publications that primarily focus on steelhead and salmon. 

While steelhead fishing ties the stories together, it’s a book about family, John telling of fishing, as a boy, with his father, a Congregationalist minister, to later years when his father suffered from mental illness. Along the way John becomes a father, teaching his son to fish. His marriage falls apart, and his father dies, after years in a mental hospital. 

While reading the book I occasionally had to pause and think to myself, “My gosh, this guy can really write!” The photos are spectacular and the writing is stunning.

I’ll also mention that in a final chapter John tells of finding healing on a river, after struggling to cope with his father’s death. It’s a moving story.

If steelhead fishing is mostly foreign territory to me, pheasants and dogs have long been part of my life. Pheasant Dogs is also the title of a book by Keith R. Crowley, a Wisconsin-based writer and photographer, who I have met at outdoor writer gatherings. 

Pheasant Dogs (also by Wild River Press) is a coffee table size collection of interviews and photos of bird dogs and their owners, all about the passion these people and dogs share for upland bird and waterfowl hunting, especially for pheasants.

Crowley lives in Hudson, Wisconsin, virtually a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and made contacts for interviews through his proximity to the headquarters of Pheasants Forever, where, he notes, “Every day is bring your dog to work day.” In fact, some of his interview subjects work for Pheasants Forever.

Through the chapters, we learn about a lot of the various sporting dog breeds that are used for pheasants. Not surprisingly, Labrador retrievers dominate the field, but there are also a wide variety of dog breeds included, such as English cocker spaniels, Brittanies, French Brittanies (yes, there’s a difference), Bracque Francais, setters, pointers, pudelpointers, etc. If you were shopping for a bird dog, this could be really helpful.

The dog owners are also an eclectic mix of men and women, including breeders and trainers, such as Tom Dokken, or journalists, such as Ron Schara, a longtime outdoor writer and TV personality. Some of the women, such as Julia Shrenker, came into pheasant hunting because they found themselves owning a bird dog and someone telling her, “It would be a crime to not train her to hunt.”

A question Crowley asked everybody was whether they’d continue hunting if they didn’t have a dog. Invariably, for various reasons, they agreed that if they couldn’t hunt with a dog, there’d be no point to hunting. 

I know all too well what they mean.

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