Topher Browne's "Atlantic Salmon Magic"

Atlantic salmon should by now be well-accustomed to having their praises sung.  They have been celebrated by human beings in paintings, carvings and songs for over fifteen thousand years, and no fish other than the trout has so large and fine a body of literature devoted to it.  In English alone, tens of thousands of short stories, articles and books have been written about the creature Izaak Walton crowned “King of Gamefish” in 1653. 

 Both as a long-time collector of Atlantic salmon books old and new and as co-editor of “Leaper”, an anthology of some of the best salmon writing from the last three centuries, I have had the happy occasion to read more than a little of that literature.  And although it is not usually my inclination to rank books about subjects that interest me, in the case of Topher Browne’s “Atlantic Salmon Magic” the urge to do so is irresistible:  I believeit is the best and most comprehensive book on Atlantic salmon ever written.  In fact, let me go a step further:  Along with Andy Mills’s recent tarpon tome (also published by the dauntlessly quality-driven Tom Pero at his Wild River Press), I believe“Atlantic Salmon Magic” is one of the two best and most comprehensive books ever written about any game fish.

 To quote my friend Tom Montgomery (whose many fine photographs in the book add to its superb visual presentation), “Atlantic Salmon Magic” is “at once a magnus opus and a vade mecum” - - though at over 450 pages and with heft enough to anchor a Sharps canoe, it might prove a bit cumbersome to carry about on a river.  What will make you regret that fact is that the book is bank-full of peerless advice on reading water, fly-selection, presentation, etc., all of it so intelligently considered and clearly written that if it were nothing more than a how-to on angling for salmon, “Atlantic Salmon Magic” would immediately take its place as the biggest fish in that crowded pool.  But what makes the book a truly monumental achievement is its knitting together of streamcraft with the clearest exposition I’ve ever read on the life-cycle of the Atlantic salmon; the newest science on how the fish navigates at sea, returns to its natal rivers, perceives a fly, responds to changes in light, water levels and temperatures; the historical provenance of various methods of fishing for them; and adroit little first-person angling narrations by Browne that enliven the writing and can transport you off the page and onto a river with a rod in your hand as deftly as John Swan’s paintings do.

 In any book as long and dense with information as “Atlantic Salmon Magic”, both good prose and good structure are crucial to its readability.  Browne writes clearly and vividly throughout his book - - even on subjects asrecherche as the pineal window in a salmon’s head - - and with a tone nicely balanced between professorial and colloquial .  The book’s structure is as successful as its prose.  It is divided into twelve chapters and an appendix.  The natural history of the Atlantic salmon, its life cycle, its navigational equipment and how it works, its life at sea and in rivers, etc., are issues treated at either end of the book, exactly where they belong to be.  In between are chapters devoted to the following subjects, given here in the same order in which they are presented in the book:  Reading water; flies that take Atlantic salmon and why they do; how and when to fish the dry fly, the riffling hitch, the wet fly and the sunk fly; tackling for salmon, including advice on the advantages and disadvantages of single-handed, switch, and double-handed rods, and a clarifying exegesis on the complex subject on modern fly-lines; casting and fish-playing techniques; a discussion on where to fish for Atlantic salmon; and finally a brief description (along with seasons, guide requirements, run and catch sizes and contact information) of forty-six rivers in six countries where you can best do that.

 I can’t imagine a more natural or satisfying way to organize the vast amount of material covered by “Atlantic Salmon Magic”.  Moreover, the chapters play into and feed off of each other as they accrue, making the overall experience of reading the book an assimilative one.  Nor can I imagine an author better suited for dealing expertly with that material than Topher Browne, who is, all at once, an assiduous, long-standing student of salmon, a seasoned and widely- travelled angler of them, a world-class fly-tyer, a casting instructor, and an ex-salmon fishing guide.  In short, Browne knows whereof he speaks in every chapter of his book, and every chapter echoes that authority and experience. 

 Finally, in addition to being immensely readable, functional and authoritative, “Atlantic Salmon Magic” is an absolute joy to look at and page through - - a sort of one-book refutation to the insolent pretensions of Kindle and similar devices.  Wild River Press had pulled not a single punch in its production (or in that of its lovely little companion volume, “100 Best Flies for Atlantic Salmon”):  The paper weight and gloss, the design, the illustrations and rivetingly beautiful photographic reproductions combine to confect a physical thing as lavishly gorgeous as a perfectly- tied featherwing. 

 “Atlantic Salmon Magic” is an instant classic that sets a new and very, very high bar for any books on Atlantic salmon that follow it.  My sincere advice to every reader of this review is this:  Distinguish your year and your library by ordering at least one copy of it today.

Charles Gaines

Author & Outdoorsman