There are 60 million fishermen in the U.S. but, some would say, only one Compleat Angler. Al McClane, 68, is silver-haired now, but in his polymath's knowledge of fishing he is for the ages. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of his McClane's Standard Fishing Encyclopedia and International Angling Guide, which is one of the alltime bestselling sports books and certainly angling's ultimate authority.
All the same, until he was reminded of that anniversary on a recent morning at Marsh Harbor on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, it had slipped McClane's mind. That so auspicious a milestone should go unremembered would not surprise those who know McClane, a man of innate modesty.
At the time, McClane had other priorities. He had waited since the start of the week for the wind to drop so that he could head out to Robinson's Bight. Finally, the weather had turned sweet, and less than an hour after tying on a feathery creation vaguely reminiscent of a shrimp, he was into a beauty of a bonefish. After 20 minutes of fight, it weighed in at 11¾ pounds, a trophy fish—especially when caught on the fly rod. This would be the bonefish of a lifetime for an ordinary angler. "Marvelous," McClane said. "Perfect!"
It turned out, though, that he was not rhapsodizing about mere size. The savant had taken over, the fish biologist. It was the eyes of the bonefish that fascinated McClane. "Look at that layer of adipose tissue covering them like goggles, keeping out the mud and the sand when the bonefish is foraging for crabs or shrimp," he said. McClane had caught innumerable bonefish, but it was as if he was seeing this anatomical feature for the very first time. In his soft voice, there was genuine enthusiasm, a kid's wonderment.
There was a time, of course, when McClane's encyclopedia did not exist, when nobody could say, "Let's look it up in McClane's." Indeed, research shows that this Dark Age lasted until the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1965, when, at the since-departed Abercrombie & Fitch store on Madison Avenue in New York City, the big book was launched at a publisher's party. "The manuscript," McClane recalls, "had been spread out all over my home in Palm Beach, Florida, for 10 years. I had to have a big wooden box made to ship the first 6,000 pages to the publisher.... The cabbie asked me if I had a body in it when I lugged it out of LaGuardia airport."
The completed 1,057-page first edition of the Standard Fishing Encyclopedia contained more than one million words—some commissioned and edited by McClane, but most his own. Back in 1965, the encyclopedia cost $19.95; the current, second edition—which is entitled McClane's New Standard...—has 1,156 pages and costs $75, the U.S. edition, that is. The Japanese version required twice as many pages in translation and sold out at $600 per copy.
The precise number of copies the book has sold in all its versions is hard to establish. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, the publisher, has changed hands four times since the encyclopedia was first published. But Frederic S. Cushing, a retired vice-president of corporate marketing for the publisher, reckons that sales of McClane's passed the million mark in hardback in 1985.
And while it begins less than dramatically with the entry Aawa (the Hawaiian name for the black-spot wrasse), and finishes up with a definition of Zooplankton, the overall effect of the book is comprehensively magisterial. Yet its genesis was almost accidental. McClane had been asked to produce a book to be entitled 100 Best Fishing Spots of the World. He soon realized that the way to research the book was to go fish them for himself. He has the type of mind in which every piece of information he acquires seems to raise a new question to be answered. Finding answers to those questions has taken him all over the world since his encyclopedia was first published, but McClane's fishing journeys—and the panache he brought to them—commenced much earlier....
It was 1931, back when the Long Island Rail Road trains from New York City switched from electric to steam locomotives just outside of the village of Babylon, N.Y., for the completion of their 125-mile run to Montauk, the town on the easternmost point of the island. There was an unscheduled stop on the bridge outside the Babylon station where the engines would be changed. But on this particular summer's day, bored commuters in one car were diverted by the sight of an eager nine-year-old boy who was hanging halfway out of a train window. He had with him a casting rod rigged and ready to start catching bass the minute he could jump off the train and run to the shore of nearby Argyle Lake.
The youngster realized something the rest of the passengers did not. The train had stopped right on the old wooden trestle bridge that spanned a stream feeding Argyle Lake. And cruising the pool right under the bridge was a three-pound smallmouth bass. "So I leaned out of the window," McClane recalls more than half a century later, "and I wiggled a bass bug at the fish and it hit. When I finally hauled it through the window, all the people in the car were cheering and clapping."
The smile of recollection is shadowed suddenly. "I went back there the other day," he says. "The Argyle stream is just a little trickle. There's a gas station above the bridge and what looks like a permanent oil spill under it. But it was a great fishing spot in the old days...."
The old days. Albert Jules McClane was born on Jan. 26, 1922, in Garden City, N.Y., barely over the New York City line in Nassau County. "I fished at Rockville Centre, Baldwin, Massapequa, Amityville, Babylon," he says, sounding like an LIRR stationmaster calling out stops on a commuter special. "For a nickel and a dime you could set on a bus or the LIRR and go anywhere. There was a wonderful pond at Baldwin—it's an endless housing project now—but then the yellow perch were gigantic. And pickerel!" But even such exotics as the comet-tailed Japanese goldfish that McClane remembers catching in the Bronx River downstream from the Botanic Gardens would not hold the young McClane for long.
When he was 15, McClane left home.
"Well, not exactly," McClane insists. "The truth is, I moved out independently. The 1930s were not great years for a family's finances." So McClane found himself in the little Catskill town of Margaretville, N.Y., earning his way by digging postholes for a power company. Margaretville was not too far from the East Branch of the Delaware River and he began writing free-lance articles about fishing the area. He sold the first one when he was 16. There was enough of a market for his outdoor stories to pay for a year at Cornell University. He left Cornell in 1942 for the army and that same year, he was invited by mail to become the fishing editor of Field & Stream. It took him a while to get round to responding; the letter finally caught up with him in a foxhole in Normandy, where he was serving as a sergeant with the 398th Automatic Weapons Battalion, having hit Omaha Beach a few days after D Day, June 6, 1944. McClane was eventually transferred to General George Patton's Third Army, and in the fall of 1944 he was wounded in the shoulder, leg and knee at Luneville, France, 60 miles short of the German border. The wounds, he says, "were not enough to get me sent home but just to qualify for a lot of aspirin." So it wasn't until 1947 that McClane, back in the States, finally called Field A Stream and said, "Hey, about that letter? Here I am." It still amazes him that nobody laughed.
McClane was installed as fishing editor—and was fired almost immediately, "because I walked across the street for a cup of coffee," he says. But Eltinge F. Warner, the magazine's publisher, rehired him later the same day, and for the next 30 years McClane's articles were a staple of the magazine.
"Oh, the fishing was crazy," he says. "There were the Jeep rides across the llanos in the dry season in Venezuela with my wife, Patti, as we headed to the Orinoco for peacock bass—living off the land, with quail and duck everywhere." And occasionally the McClanes ran into revolutions—in the Belgian Congo in 1959 and again, several months later, in Cuba—but McClane survived with èlan. He recalls, "I had the misfortune to arrive in Havana, in an old DC-3, just as Fidel Castro was taking over the place. There were half a dozen P-47s sitting on the runway, loaded for bear, 500-pounders under the wings. Lord, I thought, something is wrong. But I ended up at the Nacional Hotel, a guest of Castro."
Given such a stock of stories, one is tempted to pigeonhole McClane as little more than a macho adventurer. That would be a serious error. As McClane talks, you discover that he shared a New York apartment with Robert Frost and Parisian hangovers with Ernest Hemingway. And he was trained as a seafood chef by none other than the late Charles Ritz.
In the Bahamas, even before guide Maitland Lowe had completed tying up his shallow-draft skiff, McClane was asking, "Ever tried a bonefish butterflied out?" The visitor looked aghast, having spent a lifetime being told that the aptly named bonefish is about as tasty as a mouthful of steel screening. McClane was not to be deterred. "Marinated for a few hours in lime juice, then baked—we'll try it before the week's out."
America's Compleat Angler, of course, would do the cooking himself. Ritz, his culinary tutor and the owner of the Hotel Ritz in Paris, was the greatest French fly-fisherman of his generation. McClane first met him on the banks of the Risle, a trout river in Normandy. Hemingway frequently fished the same river and, as McClane recollects, one day Ritz said, "We have to start a club." And so, with Hemingway and McClane as founders, the Fario Club was born. The name comes from Salmo fario, the Victorian scientific appellation of the salmon trout (now known as Salmo trutta).
For the three decades the Fario Club was in existence (1947-77) it might have been the greatest blast in the history of fishing. At its zenith, it had 300 or so members, and they came from all over the world for an annual meeting at the Hotel Ritz, a three-day affair for which Ritz closed his hotel dining room to all but club members. "Oddly enough," McClane says, "Charlie didn't like living in hotels. He didn't even like staying at the Ritz Carlton in Manhattan. So I put him up in my apartment. I'd be out all day, and there Charlie would be in the kitchen, cooking something up. I really had no interest in cooking then. But Charlie said, 'The next time you come to Paris, I'm setting you to work in my kitchens at the Ritz.'
" 'Gee, Charlie, that's great.' I said, never expecting anything to come of it. But he did mean it. The next time I was in France I found I'd become an apprentice saucier, the lowest form of life in the kitchen. I spent most of the time wanting to throw up, smelling all those bones. Two-hundred pounds of bones had to be roasted and then boiled with vegetables every morning to make the demi-glace. The kitchen was blazing hot, and I usually had a cognac hangover. But that's how I got started."
Now in the Bahamas that long-ago apprenticeship paid a delicious dividend as the master turned the supposedly inedible bonefish into a treat for his visitor and his wife, Diane, whom he married in May 1989, after Patti's death in 1987.
In the comfortable aftermath of dinner at Marsh Harbor, it was, of course, to fishing that the conversation returned. In particular, to the sometimes absurd "purism" to which fly-fishing has been exposed over the last few years.
"Charlie Ritz had it right," McClane said. "Just get that fly on the trout fast, the minute he sticks his head up. Charlie didn't know one fly from another, but he caught a hell of a lot of fish. He got fascinated by the Light Cahill [a mayfly imitation, which rides high on the water with upright wings]. Whenever I went to France, I'd bring him dozens of Light Cahills. He just wanted a fly he could see."
The evening inevitably progressed to the name-your-favorite-gamefish stage. "Atlantic salmon, sea-run brown trout, bonefish," McClane said, after giving it some thought. Bonefish is his current obsession, and he hopes to build a house on Little Exuma Island, settle down and spend a lot of time with them.
But his visitor cut his angling teeth on sea-run browns in Wales. And by coincidence, the visitor mentioned, he still had access to some private water in Wales. Instantly, McClane's eyes flashed.
"Want to trade?" he said. "A week for me on your water in Wales gets you a week in Exuma."
Readers of McClane's New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia should anticipate a revised and enlarged entry regarding sea-run brown trout in future editions.