September 20, 2021
Readers of Fly Fisherman will likely know the work of Nick Lyons. Author, English professor, editor, publisher, and founder of Lyons Press, he is also the most prolific writer ever to appear in the pages of this magazine. His first article, entitled “Trout in Fun City,” appeared in FFM’s second issue in the summer of 1969. And during Lyons’s long tenure as a book publisher—as executive editor at Crown Publishers, then Nick Lyons Books, then Lyons & Burford, and finally Lyons Press—he eventually produced the largest and most comprehensive selection of fly-fishing books in the United States.
Lyons wrote about a dozen feature articles for Fly Fisherman (including “Fly Fishing with Flick,” “Battenkill Nocturne,” “The Fine Art of Hudson River Fence Fishing,” and “Looking Ahead Toward Autumn”) between 1969 and 1976, when he penned his first Seasonable Angler essay. The literary column—which still begins on the last page of every issue of Fly Fisherman, though others now write the essays—was named for Lyons’s first angling book, The Seasonable Angler: Journeys Through a Fisherman’s Year, published by Funk & Wagnalls in 1970. Lyons wrote every Seasonable Angler essay from 1976 to 1998—more than 130 columns in all. Lyons has also written for many other magazines and newspapers, including (but not limited to) Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, National Geographic, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Big Sky Journal, Harper’s, and The Pennsylvania Gazette.
For many years, Lyons worked as a staff editor at Crown Publishing, where he acquired and republished many classic, older fly-fishing titles. Later, via his own companies he published (in many cases for the first time) books from countless fly-fishing celebrities, including Bernard “Lefty” Kreh, Lee Wulff, Joan Wulff, Dave Whitlock, Lou Tabory, Cathy Beck, Darrel Martin, Tom Meade, Ted Leeson, Tom Rosenbauer, Margot Page, Paul Schullery, Doug Swisher and Carl Richards (who co-authored their books), W.D. Wetherell, Macauley Lord, Dick Pobst, and many others.
Lyons is also the author of about two dozen books of his own, most (but not all) on the subject of fly fishing. His most recent volume is Fire in the Straw, a masterfully written, lyrical, insightful, and witty memoir, by turns heart-rendingly sad and laugh-out-loud funny, and everything in between. This is a book no fly fisher—or lover of angling literature—will want to miss.
Lyons was born in New York City in 1932, the son of Nathan and Rose Ress. (His birth name was Nathan Ress.) Tragically, he never knew his father, who died suddenly of pneumonia three months before he was born. His mother later married Arthur Lyons, who adopted the eight-year-old “Nicki.” The marriage was not a happy one, and ended in divorce after 19 years, and Lyons’s stepfather (whom he always disliked) married a woman 20 years his junior.
At age five, Lyons was sent to a boarding school in the countryside north of New York City, where he stayed for the next three years—except for summers at the Laurel House Hotel in the Catskills, owned by Lyons’s grandfather. On the Burt School property was Ice Pond, and it was here that Lyons taught himself to fish, catching sunfish, yellow perch, bullheads, and the occasional pickerel, using garden worms threaded on snelled hooks—bought with his 20-cents-a-week school allowance—tied to a length of cord on the tip of an ash branch from which he’d stripped the bark.
“I have never been able to explain to those who asked me why I love to fish—first with worms in that sump of a pond, then in the creek below South Lake at the Laurel House, where I went every summer. Eventually and for many years, I fished with long delicate rods and tiny flies. Mostly I have dodged the question, but if there is a reason for my passion it is to be found in those days on Ice Pond and in South Lake. There, my eyes and ears keyed to water, float, and sound, I felt fully alive.”
In the early 1950s, Lyons was in the U.S. Army, eventually stationed in western France at an American base whose purpose was unclear to him. (At that point, his own life’s purpose and direction seemed equally unclear.) Not long before shipping out to France, he discovered the work of Ernest Hemingway when he purchased an inexpensive secondhand copy of Viking Publishing’s Portable Hemingway at a rummage sale, partly because the book would fit easily into the breast pocket of his olive-drab Army field jacket.
“When I finished reading ‘Big Two-Hearted River,’ I winced. It was so close to my own days along rivers, and I promptly read it through again, fast, and then yet again, very slowly. I was Nick Lyons and I was Nick in the story. I had looked down from such bridges hundreds of times, I had understood such water and had caught such trout; and I had held the fragments of my life together, like the other Nick, by returning to that thing I loved so privately and passionately. I had not known that writing about trout fishing, about hooks and lines and grasshoppers and rivers—or any writing, on any subject whatsoever—could be so intimate, so visceral.”
Fire in the Straw includes many hilarious or tragicomic anecdotes from Lyons’s life. At Crown, he edited a fly-fishing book by Robert Traver (pen name of John D. Voelker), author of the best-selling novel Anatomy of a Murder. Voelker told him that Sunny Hemingway (sister of Ernest) had written a manuscript about her famous brother. Lyons’s boss asked him to fly out to Michigan and get the book. Lyons describes Sunny as a “deliciously awful” person.
She told him proudly that she had typed her brother’s manuscript for A Farewell to Arms, but never actually read it. When a motorboat ventured too close to her house on Walloon Lake, she angrily fired her shotgun at it. And the purported “manuscript” did not really exist—she had written at most four irrelevant pages. But she had all the family’s photo albums, so Lyons’s boss told him to get the photos, and Crown would make a book. To promote the book, Crown got Sunny an interview with Gene Shalit on the Today show. Cameras on her, Sunny approached the frightened Shalit menacingly with a large pair of scissors, insisting on snipping off a lock of his hair before she would speak.
Lyons writes that, while running Lyons Press, he was the only person at the company “who knew that Paraleptophlebia was not a foot fungus,” so he personally read every fly-fishing manuscript. Fire in the Straw is a wonderful, haunting, sad, and funny memoir from a master wordsmith, and will make a fine addition to any angling library.
Fire In The Straw: Notes On Inventing A Life By Nick Lyons. Arcade Publishing 2020, 240 Pages, $25 Hardcover, ISBN: 978-1951627195.